Chef Manal Kahi: Our goal is to tell a positive story, where refugees are the heroes
Co-founder of New York catering company Eat Offbeat Manal Kahi tells Katie Wright how the outfit that employs refugee chefs has adapted to the pandemic
IT ALL started with hummus. When Manal Kahi moved from Lebanon to New York to start a degree at Columbia University, she loved exploring the myriad cuisines on offer in the sprawling metropolis, but couldn't find a decent pot of the classic chickpea and garlic dip for love nor money.
After she started whipping up batches of hummus using a recipe handed down by her Syrian grandmother – batches that were eagerly devoured by friends – Kahi thought she might have spotted a gap in the market.
This was in 2013, says Kahi, in “the midst of the refugee crisis back home in Lebanon, [which] was starting to reach the shores of Europe. So when we started thinking of who could bring better hummus to New York, it kind of made sense to think of Syrian refugees being resettled here.”
Teaming up with older brother Wissam, who had moved to the US previously, the siblings started hatching a plan.
“We thought, ‘Why not make it more global?' Have recipes from all over the world, have refugees from all over the world bring recipes that are just like hummus – so much better when they're made with love, made from family recipes versus mass production.”
That's how Eat Offbeat was born. The catering company was founded in 2015 with an initial investment of $25,000 (around £17,700), secured after entering a competition run by Columbia Business School.
Via a partnership with the International Rescue Committee, the firm hires refugees who have been resettled in New York, mostly amateur chefs (some had restaurants in their home countries), and is currently staffed with a team hailing from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela.
Kahi is keen to point out that they don't focus on why their chefs were forced to flee their home country and seek refuge in America: “When someone wants to chat about the past then obviously we're all ears, but we don't really go into detail on the traumatic events of why you left or how you left – it's really secondary.
“Part of our goal, ultimately, is about changing the narrative around refugees by showcasing a different story, a more positive story, where refugees are the chefs, they are the heroes.”
They've now launched their first cookbook, which brings together recipes from Eat Offbeat chefs past and present (including granny's much-loved hummus), and dedicates a page to each chef, talking about their foodie memories from home and how they found their way into the Eat Offbeat kitchen.
“I really hope it does bring across our point of highlighting the chefs for all the value they're adding to the New York economy, rather than, you know, portraying refugees as people who are relying on charity,” Kahi says. “That's not necessarily the case. Most of them are entrepreneurs. They're starting businesses, they're creating value.”
What are some of the co-founder's favourite recipes from the book?
“Chef Rachana from Nepal was one of our very first chefs – now she's moved on, she has her own catering company – she makes an incredible Manchurian cauliflower dish. It's deep fried and crunchy.
“Another one is chef Shanthi, she's from Sri Lanka and makes an incredible eggplant curry, called Katarica Curry. It's fried eggplant and that's one of my favourite things.”
Previously, companies in New York could order a menu of these and other dishes to cater events, but when the pandemic hit, Eat Offbeat was forced to rapidly rethink its business model.
“Back in March 2020, [because of] Covid, we lost practically 100 per cent of our revenue within a week – we had practically a week to reinvent our business,” Kahi explains.
“So what we did is, we took our bestsellers from catering, we put them in a box and we started delivering those boxes directly to our customers at home, instead of delivering to their office.”
Closing the kitchen was not an option for this team of determined chefs, she says: “I remember at the time, our chefs were [saying], ‘If we're not here to cook for New York, how are people going to eat?'
“They kind of felt that they had a mission. We like to say we felt like we needed to return the favour to New York for hosting us – with flavour.”
It's been a turbulent time, but Kahi is feeling optimistic about the future, particularly after the arrival of President Biden.
“[President Trump] had even stopped the programme of welcoming refugees – now we're back on track with the new administration,” says Kahi. “It's definitely a hopeful climate.”
:: The Kitchen Without Borders: Recipes And Stories From Refugee And Immigrant Chefs by The Eat Offbeat Chefs, photography by Penny De Los Santos, is published by Workman, priced £18.99. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
(serves 4 – 6)
2tbsp canola oil
150g wheat vermicelli noodles
150g fresh or frozen peas
1 medium carrot, diced
1 medium russet potato, peeled and diced
50g black or golden raisins (or a combination)
200g basmati rice
1 cinnamon stick
1/4tsp ground turmeric
2tsp kosher salt
1tbsp seven spices or biryani spices
1/2tsp ground cardamom
1tsp ground cinnamon
Heat one tablespoon of the oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the vermicelli and toast until the noodles are golden, about two minutes. Carefully add half a cup (around 473ml) of water to the pot, cover it, and bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the noodles are tender and the water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and set it aside.
Heat the remaining one tablespoon of oil in a large non-stick skillet over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the peas, carrot, and potato and pan-fry until they are tender and starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in the raisins and cook until they plump and begin to brown, about two minutes more. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.
Bring one and a half cups (around 355ml) of water and the rice, cinnamon stick, turmeric, and salt to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Once the water is boiling, cover the pot, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the rice is cooked, 10 to 15 minutes.
Whisk together the seven spices, cardamom, and ground cinnamon in a small bowl.
Add the vermicelli to the rice, then gently stir in the spices, making sure to evenly incorporate them and coat the grains. Stir in the vegetables and raisins. Serve immediately.
(makes 4 – 6)
128g finely ground semolina flour
1tsp kosher salt
1tsp garam masala
1tsp ground cumin
240ml plain yogurt
3tsp olive oil
1 carrot, diced
1 green bell pepper, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 yellow bell pepper, diced
150g diced plum tomatoes or halved cherry tomatoes
80ml Maggi Hot & Sweet Tomato Chilli Sauce
1tsp dried oregano
1tsp dried basil
1tsp baking soda
2tbsp unsalted butter
100g grated Parmesan cheese
150g shredded mozzarella cheese
1tbsp chopped spring onion, for garnish
Stir together the semolina, salt, sugar, garam masala, and cumin in a medium mixing bowl. Mix in the yogurt and one cup (about 240ml) of water. Allow the batter to rest, at least 20 minutes but no more than one hour.
Heat one teaspoon of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the carrot and green, red, and yellow bell peppers and sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Lower the heat to medium, add the tomatoes, and cook until tender, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Mix the Maggi sauce with the oregano and basil in a small bowl and set aside.
When the batter is finished resting, stir in the baking soda.
Preheat the oven to 400F. Line two sheet pans with parchment paper.
Heat the remaining two teaspoons of olive oil and half-teaspoon of the butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, pour a third to half a cup (about 80-120ml) of the batter into the pan and spread it as thinly as possible into a five to six-inch circle. Once the sides are cooked and the bottom has started to brown, flip the flatbread using a spatula. Cook for two to three minutes on each side, then set the flatbread aside on a prepared sheet pan. Repeat with all the batter, melting half a teaspoon of butter between each batch.
Once all the flatbreads are made, begin assembling the pizzas on the sheet pans. Spread a scant tablespoon of the Maggi sauce mixture over the top of each flatbread. Next, sprinkle the Parmesan cheese evenly over the sauce. Finally, top each flatbread with the vegetable mixture and mozzarella cheese.
Place the sheet pans in the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and golden, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle with the chopped scallions and serve immediately.