“Add a little sugar to the saffron,” Farzane said as she worked the combination in her mortar and pestle. “It makes it easier to grind.”
Farzane, a 20-year old refugee from Afghanistan who’d come to Berlin with her family in the last year, was deep in the process of teaching us how to prepare several Afghan dishes she’d grown up cooking in her home town of Herat. In the heart of Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood, she guided us through the creation of dishes like zereshk polo (burberry rice pilaf) and khorecht lawang (lamb in a fermented yogurt sauce), among others.
As she taught our group how to make schole sard, an Afghan-Persian dessert that served as the finishing touch to our feast, she gathered us around for a final stroke of decoration. Taking one of the bowls of sunny, saffron-infused rice pudding, she dashed atop it an elaborate design of ground cinnamon, almonds and pistachios.
Farzane made it look so easy, so elegant. Then it was our turn. As we struggled with our own designs – powder lines of cinnamon and sprinkles of pistachio flecked almond flair — Farzane’s shyness yielded. She smiled, maybe even laughed. And we laughed at ourselves, the circle of vulnerability complete.
Cooking Across Borders: Deep Travel in Berlin
Why were we learning how to cook Afghan food in Berlin?
Last year we partnered with Context Travel as Deep Travel Ambassadors to help develop a new tour in Berlin. The goal: a shared experience focused on connection between travelers and a local community organization. After considering the various social and geopolitical issues that impact Berlin and the world, Context Travel, together with our help, set its sights on contributing to refugees and their integration in Berlin, while providing travelers a human lens through which to view a complex and often misunderstood issue.
That’s the inspiration and direction of the new Context Travel Cooking Across Borders tour and Deep Travel project in Berlin. The project is in partnership with the Berlin-based NGO Über den Tellerrand, a recent innovator in refugee support and integration projects in the city.
Über den Tellerand means “about the plate” so it’s not surprising that a large number of their projects feature food and face-to-face encounters between people with different cultural backgrounds. They organize pop-up restaurants with refugee chefs, cooking groups for refugee women, and other initiatives that bring people together through shared interests such as cuisine, gardening, and beekeeping. The common thread — just as it is with Cooking Across Borders — is an activity which bring us together, allowing us to meet one another where we are at.
A Cooking Across Borders experience begins with a brief seminar from an historian or migration expert about the history of immigration in Berlin, including the latest wave of refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. This isn’t the first time persecution and wars have intersected with the arc of Berlin. The city’s past has produced its own share of refugees, many of whom found themselves emigrating permanently elsewhere around the world.
The city has also at times served as a haven for those fleeing persecution. For example, the prominent French Cathedral on central Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt stands testament to how the city offered asylum to 17th century Protestant Huguenots fleeing France. The flow and lasting imprint of diverse cultures has helped shape the energy of the city we know today.
Cooking Across Borders participants then embark on a cooking workshop led by a female refugee in Berlin. This experience pairing allows travelers the opporunity to understand the recent refugee crisis first more generally, then through a personal story, one that peeks behind the statistics and broad strokes of the news cycle. Along the way, travelers also learn how to prepare select dishes from the instructor’s home country. The questions, answers and anecdotes that unfold in conversation along the way help provide an understanding of each element of the meal and its cultural relevance.
Farzane: One Young Woman, Representative of Many
Farzane’s story, while personal and the story of one, is illustrative of many. Her previous home was Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan, considered the gateway to Iran. She left with her parents and three other siblings about one year ago. Her family's decision, motivated by safety concerns, politics and violence, prompted a quick departure. She still has other family and friends back in Heart and remains in contact with them via Whatsapp, aided by the free wifi signal at the metro station near her home in Berlin.
In one of my recent meetings with her, I showed her an article about the Herat Friday Mosque and a few local artists working to renovate it. As Farzane scrolled through the images in the article, a smile appeared and widened on her face. “It's beautiful,” she said, but how much more beautiful it was in real life.
In Herat, cooking was nothing remarkable for Farzane; it's something every young woman in Afghanistan does. Farzane began helping her mother in the kitchen at 14 years old. Here in Berlin, the food she grew up with developed into something special, something to be shared, a vehicle to connect with others in a new land. Her interactions with Über den Tellerrand also provided an outlet for her to be with other women and use the German language, which she learned in nine months — a remarkable feat considering it often takes others several years. (I speak from personal experience.)
I discovered during the evening of our meal together, that Farzane had an interview with German authorities regarding her refugee status earlier that day. Her circumstances were being examined closely because she is over 18 years old, technically an adult. Where she goes from here in terms of process is uncertain. Her life this last year, it occurred to me, has been one of chronic uncertainty.
Cooking Across Borders: Levels of Impact
Food, cooking, creation – these forces bring us together. Food is fun, it teaches us, it levels. After all, we all need to eat. Whether one is focused on chopping pistachios or transforming saffron threads into a fine powder, a sense of our similarities tends to outweigh whatever our differences might be.
The impact does not end with a culinary lesson and experience for the traveler, however. A portion of tour fees provides the instructor with another source of income and professional development. An additional annual contribution from the Context Foundation helps fund a bi-weekly women’s cooking group which brings together refugees and members of the community.
Many of these women, especially those coming from refugee shelters, don’t have access to a kitchen. They’re unable to cook at home, a concept many of the rest of us take for granted. For the women, the Über den Tellerrand kitchen serves as a therapeutic outlet, a reprieve from the day-to-day challenges as a refugee, a place where one can have some semblance of order or comfort, even if only for a short while.
These “cooking afternoons” also fulfill the role of group support. With other refugees, women can discuss family, challenges and opportunities away from the shadow of their husbands and the immediacy of their children’s needs. The connection with German women from the community facilitates further support, cultural exchange, and language acquisition.
Cooking Across Borders: The Why
An experience like Cooking Across Borders conveys, in ways large and small, not only that we are interdependent but also that the fluidity of history is integral to the connections we share. If Berlin’s story of destruction and rebirth teaches us anything, it is that nothing is permanent — except, perhaps, the importance of our shared humanity.
Sometimes it takes grinding some saffron and pistachios to understand how it all, this life, really works. Sometimes it takes an experience that encourages us to care. And the more we care, the more we engage. The more we engage and align our decisions with our values, the more likely we’ll give to the forces that bring us together, rather than giving into those forces that seek to divide us.