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A NYC Food Bank Invites the Community Into the Kitchen for Ramadan Meal Prep

EVLovesNYC welcomes refugees to cook a traditional iftar, the meal observed after sunset.

<p>Linda Hayes / EV LovesNYC</p>

Linda Hayes / EV LovesNYC

Our first step in planning an iftar menu — cooked with some Guinean asylum seekers behind the stove — was requesting a list of ingredients from them. Among foods we’re all familiar with, like tomatoes, onions, and chicken, the list included garden eggs. At first, I pictured a pastel-dyed Easter egg tucked beneath a leaf, but Google revealed that it’s another term for eggplant. And, honestly, not so different from the word egg-plant, right?

The mutual aid food bank where I volunteer, EVLovesNYC, was joining forces with these homesick and hopeful new arrivals to New York City to make a traditional West African iftar to share with people at a local warming center and a mosque. An iftar is the meal eaten after the sun sets during Ramadan and is often shared with friends and strangers.

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EVLovesNYC was initially formed in response to the COVID pandemic and the one-two punch of lockdown: Many food banks shut down right when people lost their jobs and desperately needed food. Our intention was to make meals and mobilize during the pandemic and then, job done, dissolve when everything got back to normal. Deep sigh.

Unfortunately, food insecurity hasn’t gone away, and the growing number of asylum seekers arriving in NYC has only made the situation more acute. So EVLovesNYC is still “in business,” gathering volunteers every Sunday to prepare and transfer 2,000 hot meals to our distribution partners around the city. But the influx of migrants has impacted our usual B2B process of supplying food but not serving the end user ourselves: Now we are handing out meals at our front door, too.

The lion’s share of the 1,000 or so meals we serve in front of our kitchen goes to asylum seekers whom the city directs to us for a hot meal. And most of those asylum seekers are West Africans, fleeing military takeovers that have resulted in economic hardship and serious lethal threats in their former French colonies.

Before Ramadan started on March 10, some of our regular clients, a group of young asylum seekers from Guinea, volunteered to cook a traditional West African iftar with us to serve their fellow Muslims in the shelters.

<p>Linda Hayes / EV LovesNYC</p>

Linda Hayes / EV LovesNYC

On a Tuesday night, our new team of chefs donned their EVLovesNYC t-shirts and started giving us volunteers orders. We had all chosen to make a chicken stew with peanut sauce or Mali Tigua (also called Maafe or Tiga Dege Na). No garden eggs, alas. We would serve the stew over rice with a millet-rice pudding for dessert. (Usually allergens like peanuts and peanut butter are a big no-no in our kitchen, but groundnuts play a big part in West African cuisine.)

Related: How a Banker Turned Podcaster Is Telling the Stories of Africa’s Cuisines

Since we hadn’t received any recipes from the Guineans, we found a few online. One of our Mali Tigua recipes called for chopped cabbage, so a volunteer began chopping purple cabbage. The chefs, as one, rejected the idea of cabbage so it was abandoned, wrapped, and refrigerated for a future meal. We’d also peeled and chopped sweet potatoes into chunks deemed too small. To demonstrate the right way, Diamy (34) and Alpha (20) cut one of the huge tubers into four big hunks. The smaller chunks were saved for future recipes.

Ismaila (27) and Asmiou (33) emerged as the kitchen leads. With only a little English on their side and admittedly elementary French on ours, communication between the groups was often clumsy and humorous. Ismaila, a charming 27-year-old, became a bit imperious and temperamental, as though he were impersonating a TV chef. He scoldingly dismissed the ground millet we’d supplied for the pudding as all wrong — and, of course, he would know — absolutely scorning the poor volunteer who’d been stirring the pot of heavy gruel. “Cette farine est pour le pain!” (This flour is for bread!)

The arrival of Maria, a volunteer whose French was formidable, was a game changer. She stood at the stove with Asmiou and good-natured Amadou (28), translating, cajoling, soothing our chefs Ary and Jamie, who were worried about how long it would take for those big sweet potato chunks to soften. The chicken had not thawed entirely, so they were browning it on a grill before adding to the increasingly fragrant stew for further cooking. Chile peppers, ginger, garlic, and turmeric boosted the mellow peanut butter base to provide a delicious delivery system for heat and miles-deep flavor.

Related: 16 Recipes to Break the Fast During Ramadan

It got to be 7 p.m. and the chefs were still adding partially frozen chicken to the stew pots. It was time to start dishing the meals to deliver to Earth Chxrch, an East Village church that had been serving as a warming center and hub for the migrants all winter, and at Madina Masjid, a busy mosque in the same neighborhood. But the Guinean chefs were not ready to give up cooking. The stew hadn’t simmered long enough, and they said through Maria, “When we start something we finish it.”

Finally around 7:30 p.m., they relented and allowed us to begin ladling the stew into containers and packing them into boxes for transport. While we rushed packing and Ousmane washed the dishes, Asmiou took advantage of the suddenly quiet stove and leftover ingredients to pull together a pan of chicken yassa that proved to be the spicy hit of the night for the kitchen crew.

With the kitchen rush done and the day’s fasting over, the chefs began to relax. Their pride needed no translation. They left to help transport the food and share it with their friends.

We have the funding to make four more iftar dinners this Ramadan and our newest chefs will be there to guide us through new West African recipes. More of our volunteers are clamoring to help, having heard about the chaotic fun of the night as well as the raves about the mali tigua and chicken yassa.

The message is clear that food brings us all together. That sharing — both the labor and the fruits of the labor — brings us all pleasure and a deeper understanding of what we have in common and what we can learn from each other. It’s a message that all cooks and food bank volunteers understand, and we welcome reminders. Ramadan Mubarak, you all!

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