On camera, the guests hold up the contents of their pots and pans to be checked by Noura while children and pets flit by in the background.
One of the silver linings to come out of Covid’s many dark clouds is the way people adapt to the restrictions caused by the disease. When our usual activities are curtailed, we find new opportunities. New ways of doing things.
The Virtual Community Kitchen (VCK) is one of the ways. Cyrenians are adapting their social enterprise activities to the current reality. Since the beginning of this year, the not-for-profit organisation has been running a series of online master classes where guests in their own homes can cook along with chefs as they prepare dishes as diverse as Yazidi cupcakes and Chinese dumplings. Recently, Sceptical Scot went along to their Leith-based Flavour and Haver commercial kitchen and cook school to see what was on the menu.
Syrian Supper Club
The online project is motivated by the same ideals as the in-person cookery master classes and sell-out Syrian Supper Club events which the cook school ran before Covid made its unwelcome appearance. It is all about sharing food, cultures and experiences while increasing awareness of Cyrenians and their work in tackling the causes and consequences of homelessness.
As well as being a trained pastry chef, Sue O’Neill-Berest is the Food Education Manager for Cyrenians. She explains that pre-Covid the Flavour and Haver kitchen was getting into the swing of providing in-person cookery classes as well as running the Syrian Supper Club nights. These events were themselves a way of engaging with people who would not normally come into contact with or perhaps even be aware of Cyrenians.
‘Unless you have a reason – homelessness or the risk of homelessness – to engage with a third sector organisation like ourselves then you might not know who we are,’ says Sue. ‘Even if people do know who we are, they don’t associate us with food. They associate us with helping people into homes. Of course, that is a very large part of what we do but we also do a lot with using food to bring people together and creating community through the medium of food. The VCK is a way of continuing to engage with people who would previously have come to the Supper Clubs or classes.’
By going online, the VCK has expanded its reach way beyond the geographical location of its physical base in Edinburgh. One of the participants at the Saturday morning class we attended was Zooming in from Bucharest.
All the guests were there to cook along with Noura Selibi as she demonstrated how to make smoky rice – always a big hit at the Syrian Supper Clubs – as well as a tahini-infused beetroot salad and hlawat aljeben, a semolina-based pastry filled with mascarpone cheese and drizzled with a rosewater and lemon syrup. Prior to lockdown, Noura was running her own catering company as well as cooking for the Syrian Suppers. Profits from the VCK help give Noura and other cooks an income while also helping to fund other Cyrenian projects.
No puffed up presenters
When the VCK started, they tried to produce a slick event that was like a TV show. ‘That’s not what people are signing in for,’ smiles Sue. ‘Our customers have not signed up to be on a reality TV show. They quite like to see us fumbling around and things maybe not going quite right. Since that first one, we have been more relaxed about it.’
It is ironic that glossy cookery shows take up a hefty chunk of television schedules but are almost useless in terms of teaching people any useful cooking skills. By contrast, the VCK events are refreshingly homely and rather more rewarding than reality TV cook offs. There are no puffed-up presenters, moonlighting Michelin tyrants or arbitrary time limits designed to create a sense of pointless jeopardy.
Instead, Noura calmly demonstrates her recipes and adds occasional vignettes about where they fit into her family life. Off camera, Sue adds the occasional clarification about ingredients or method. On camera, the guests hold up the contents of their pots and pans to be checked by Noura while children and pets flit by in the background. Questions are fielded and progress is encouraged. It is all warmly interactive. Other than a little difficulty in igniting charcoal for the smoky rice, jeopardy is noticeable by its absence.
Iranian haggis hybrid
Another VCK cook, Solmaz Eradat is a Scots Iranian who draws upon her culinary heritage to keep alive memories of growing up in Iran. A couple of years ago, she attended a Palestinian cookery master class at the kitchen. She got chatting to the then organiser and has since presented both live and virtual classes at Flavour and Haver. Her most recent was based around Burns Night and, among other dishes, featured kookoo, a plant-based, Iranian haggis hybrid. ‘I like to mix influences from the two cultures I belong to,’ she explains.
Almost twenty years ago, Solmaz left Iran with her family. She was sixteen at the time and, despite enjoying the food her gran and aunt cooked for the family, had not paid much attention to how they prepared it. This was something she was determined to rectify on subsequent visits back to Iran.
‘I cook a lot of Iranian food. First of all so I don’t forget it. It is comfort food that reminds me of when I was growing up in Iran. Food sits at the heart of most Iranian celebrations and other social occasions. I have so many memories of people cooking dishes to bring people together. My gran and aunt were known for being really good cooks. It was part of their identity.’
Solmaz explains that a large proportion of Iranian dishes require patience and a fair degree of work. Even cooking rice in Iran is ‘an art form in itself’ that could involve a multi-stage process that starts the day before the rice is to be served. Obviously, any recipe that complex would not be suitable for the Virtual Community Kitchen. Instead, Solmaz aims to ‘present, say, two dishes that taste really good but which are not time-consuming and can be done in two and a bit hours’.
Long before her involvement with the VCK, Solmaz and a group of friends would take turns to cook for each other on Friday nights.
A wholesome legacy
‘Food helps people understand different cultures,’ she says. She found the informal nature of the Flavour and Haver kitchen events promoted a similar ambience to her get-togethers with chums. She also discovered that introducing others to her food culture was its own reward.
‘The atmosphere was always very friendly with everyone coming together to learn a bit about everyone’s country and culture. By the end, you could see that guests were completing the recipes and it felt as though I had carried people along with me. I like sharing different things with people and showing that we can all cook. You just need to try it. It’s not difficult.’
While most people will be delighted should we ever get to the stage where we can forget about Covid, the VCK may prove to be one of its better and more lasting legacies. The virus has left many people isolated and Sue thinks that a significant proportion of them will need time before they feel confident about re-emerging into post-lockdown society.
‘I think there will still be space for offering events online,’ she reckons. ‘Blended or hybrid events with three or four people in the kitchen plus an online audience may well be part of the post-Covid future for us.’
The next Virtual Community Kitchen is on Saturday 17th April 11am-1pm. Shuxin Fu will demonstrate how to make Chinese dumplings.
The Virtual Community Kitchen can also run corporate and group events.
See more: Cyrenians, Virtual Community Kitchen, VCK Facebook page, and Noura’s Kitchen
This is part of the Sceptical Scot food series, exploring innovative response to crisis with Cyrenians. See also the Students Food Pantry: How Covid inspired a can-do response to an old problem and How to end food poverty
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