I had no idea that a Refugee Food Festival existed, let alone that it had started in Paris and expanded into restaurant kitchens across 15 cities the world over. It's an impressive endeavor, designed to change perceptions about refugees and find common ground - all through sharing food at the table.
Food has a power all its own. A meal made with love and talent can bring people together in a way that nothing else can. Think Babette's Feast. But, this wasn't about Blinis Demidoff or Cailles en Sarcophage. The setting may have been very French - Gramercy's Le Coq Rico - but the dinner was pure Persia. This past Saturday night, Chef Nasrin (who only goes by her first name to protect family still in Iran), served up a mesmerizing menu filled with saffron, mint, and pomegranate - food that excited the senses and satisfied the soul.
Starters, pictured above, featured a baked rice cake called Tahchin, with a crackling, crisp rice crust encasing moist delicate saffron-infused grains and bits of chicken, sprinkled with dried barberries and nuts. It was accompanied by yogurt-cucumber-mint dip called Mast Khiar, and a Persian roasted eggplant and walnut dip topped with frizzled onions, called Kashke Bademjan. Then came the main course...
...a pomegranate and chicken stew called Fesenjoon, served atop sour cherry rice. Sweet and sour, rich and bright, it was unlike anything else I've ever eaten. A couple Iranian falafel also graced the plate with a vivid green chutney, just in case you needed the combo of crunch and cilantro to serve as a palate cleanser.
When the chef emerged from the kitchen, I couldn't congratulate her enough. I wasn't alone in doing so. Diners flocked to her side to compliment the meal and recognize her gifts.
While I know proceeds from the dinner are going to help causes that fight for refugee rights in this country, I can't help but think that one weekend of festival events is not nearly enough. Refugees fill restaurant kitchens in New York and all over the U.S., feeding us all year round. They need to know that they are home. We need to find a way to welcome them, their cultures, their cuisines, their families, their hopes and dreams.
The American melting pot will be all the better for it.