Young girls wearing pink and purple headscarves—some with matching sunglasses—ran circles around their mothers in a City Heights industrial kitchen. The moms, who shuffled oversized bowls of hot rice and chicken, didn’t miss a beat. Soon, the smell of spicy Somali rice and coffee spiked with ginger and coriander would bring the boys in. Things would settle down.
Indeed, plates filled to the brim with basmati rice, Ethiopian chicken and greens weighted the young East African girls to their chairs. It was the unfamiliar taste of goat cheese that finally hushed them.
Twice a month, refugee women and their children congregate at the City Heights Wellness Center for a cooking class. It started as a way for the moms to share traditional recipes with their teenage daughters, but the American-raised girls wanted to throw U.S. favorites like pizza and stir-fry into the mix. This month, they tried an Italian dish with tuna, spinach and goat cheese.
Most had never tasted the tangy cheese before. Many said they didn’t like it. But experiencing new flavors is what this class is all about.
Mothers, who fled war-torn countries as adults, step out of their cooking comfort zones to connect with daughters who grew up listening to hip-hop and eating fast food with friends. The daughters, in turn, learn to cook family recipes and find Halal ingredients, foods allowed by their Islamic faith.
“We learn from them. They learn from us. We learn from each other,” said Farhya Ahmen, 18, who came to the United States from a Nairobi refugee camp when she was 3 years old.
Finding ingredients for the class at their local Albertson’s is the first step in bridging cultural gaps. The group’s grocery list has to be flexible because finding Halal ingredients is challenging. Anything containing alcohol or pork products like gelatin won’t work. Meats have to be slaughtered a particular way.
“We take the recipe and change it. We make it our own,” said Khadija Mussa about adapting different cuisines so they are Halal.
This month, the group had to go to one of City Heights’ many Halal stores to finish the shopping. There, the women circled around a display of colorful headscarves and imported lotions and soaps. It got them talking about their homelands.
The conversation continued into the kitchen, where the moms and daughters prepared a meal for more than 60 people.
Ahmen and Ayan Ali, 16, said the conversation is the best part of the experience.
“What surprises me is how much fun they had,” said Ali, who recounted stories about her parents swimming beneath waterfalls and going to the beach.
“They tell us stories about when they were younger, how they would go out and milk the cow,” Ahmen said. “It makes me feel like I want to go there and milk a cow, like I’m missing out on something.”
The pair said they used to avoid talking about their heritage around friends and would only speak English. The cooking class has sparked a new interest in their culture, they said.
The moms said adapting their food traditions is a welcome compromise.
“I’m feeling good, because I’m learning a different way,” said Fadumo Aidid, who helped start the class with funding from the California Endowment. “Before, I only knew one way.”
Both the moms and daughters said they hope the class continues to grow. Younger generations of East African girls—the ones running around the kitchen in their Barbie-pink clothes—are growing up further removed from their homelands than their older sisters were. They’ll need to learn family traditions, too.
“We don’t want to lose our kids and our religion and our culture,” Aidid said. “We have to keep our kids.”