“You’ve Got to Meet Hammoud”

Three Newcomer Kitchen Stories

Text & Images: KRISTY CHOI

“In a country known for efficiency, the experience at the State Office for Health and Social Affairs [in Berlin], known by its German acronym, Lageso, can be startling. Many migrants risked their lives to get here, only to find themselves waiting behind metal barriers in a dirt courtyard just to pull a number for the next line. The scene has ranged from chaotic to downright dangerous. On a recent morning, two hours before the center opened, an ambulance wound its way through dozens of migrants huddled under blankets. A man had collapsed — it was unclear whether it was from the cold or from exhaustion.” – The New York Times, 26.11.2015

  • A rough estimate of over one million asylum-seekers have arrived in Germany in the past year. Most come from Syria but also countries such as Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, and Albania.
  • In December 2013, around 15.3% of Berlin’s residents were of foreign nationality. There are more than 25 immigrant communities in Berlin today that have a population of at least 10,000 people: Turkish, Chinese, Ghanaian, Bosnian, Egyptian, and many more.
  • In 2015, more than 62,000 people have arrived to seek asylum in Berlin alone, a city of 3.5 million.

Who are these people—Germany’s newcomers? [1]

I went to the LaGeSo in November 2015 to find some answers. Since then, I’ve found myself sharing stories and breaking bread in three different newcomer kitchens all over Berlin. The following is only the beginning of an anthology of stories on food and migration in the quickly changing landscape of Berlin. I left these kitchens full in every sense of the word.

Hammoud and Alaa, Moabit

Bildschirmfoto 2016-02-10 um 02.21.48Hammoud preparing tabbouleh in his kitchen (Kristy Choi)

Every group of friends has its token chef. When I meet Alaa before a demonstration at the LaGeSo, I start to ask about Syrian food and he tells me, “You’ve got to meet Hammoud.”

Together, Alaa and Hammoud live in a WG flat just around the corner of the LaGeSo, the health and social services office that has been desperately failing to process incoming asylum-seekers in a timely, safe, and humane manner. Alaa regularly helps translate, distribute tea and food, and organize donations with the many other volunteer workers who work tirelessly to keep logistics afloat during this unprecedented administrative crisis.

In preparation for the demonstration, Alaa shows me how to make tea for the many refugees who sit and wait for papers in the cold: namely, with copious amounts of sugar. “Throw the whole box in!” he nudges me, chuckling at my hesitation, “Arabic tea must be sweet and believe me, the people always ask for it to be even sweeter than this.”

Weeks later, Hammoud invites me over for dinner. He is so excited to share stories from his home Aleppo, Syria that twice he forgets to fetch the boiling water for tea. When I jokingly point this out, he is mortified: it is important for him to be a good host. And he undoubtedly is. Hammoud prepares a fresh parsley and tomato salad called Tabbouleh, hand-rolled and fried bulgur croquettes called Kibbeh, and a rice and lentil dish with crispy onions called Mujaddara—all foods he would eat on a daily basis in Aleppo.

Hammoud picked up cooking as a hobby from years of watching family members in the kitchen. I can tell cooking relaxes him and inspires good memories. “Every Friday,” he tells me, “every family in Aleppo buys chickpeas from the market then spends the whole day making hummus together.” When I ask Hammoud and Alaa about Syrian desserts, Hammoud immediately whips out his phone to show me photos on the Internet. He loves a specific dessert called Kabab Bil Karaz, known for its unique combination of lamb (or beef) and cherries.

“Meat and cherries together? Really?” both Alaa and I ask, unconvinced. Alaa is from Southern Syria and he does not immediately recognize the dessert. Aleppo is in the North and is known to be a kind of food-town in the country.

“Oh yes, it’s the most delicious thing,” Hammoud says eyes closed with a grin, “I miss it so much…how amazing it would be to eat it now.”

“Can you not find it here?” I ask.

“I don’t think so,” Hammoud answers wistfully, “I suppose I’d have to make it myself.”

Bildschirmfoto 2016-02-10 um 02.22.51Friends enjoying Hammoud’s feast; in foreground are both raw and fried kibbeh (Kristy Choi)

Hammoud arrived in Berlin five months ago after two long years of struggling to get a student visa. It took nine months to receive his visa from the embassy after passing all the necessary exams and completing all the paperwork. He speaks often about the pressure he feels as the oldest of his parents’ children to succeed. His younger brother arrived in Berlin a couple months after him with hopes of studying or working; the rest of their family is in Aleppo.

At one point, Hammoud tells me to wait a second and runs to his room. I sip my cardamom and mint tea. He returns with his passport, opens it to the page with his visa, and hands it to me. “All of that! Just for this little thing! Can you believe it? For this piece of paper!” Hammoud exclaims.

I look at the photo of Hammoud in his passport then at the Hammoud in front of me. Both have warm, bright eyes locked in a steady, serious stare.

Annika – Café Varadinek & Flüchtlingsbäckerei Bantabaa, Kreuzberg

Bildschirmfoto 2016-02-10 um 02.23.12The storefront of Café Varadinek; just next door is the Bantabaa bakery (Kristy Choi)

People often tell me that life is situational, dependent on serendipitous circumstances. Annika Varadinek tells me that too, although in her case, “situational” can be defined very literally: so much of Annika can be found on a little corner of Falckensteinstrasse directly at a northern entrance of Görlitzer Park.

Annika had been living with her mother on Falckensteinstrasse for a while when she began to interact more and more with the many West African men who sell drugs and hang out in Görlitzer.

She listened to these men talk about their struggles as immigrants trying to make money in Germany. Selling drugs was often their only option, and sometimes, the very reason why they would come to Berlin.

Eventually, Annika and her mother gave a room in their flat to one Gambian man they had met in the park. The rest of the story progressed so naturally, with a sense of inevitability. Annika tells me, “It all just sort of happened.”

Soon the Varadineks opened a small, informal school where they helped immigrants learn German and navigate the labyrinth of Berlin bureaucracy. When the café space next door to their flat happened to open up, they moved quickly to secure it. By the end of 2014, Annika and her mother were officially managing both Bantabaa bakery and Café Varadinek with one goal in mind: giving asylum-seekers work experience, a safe community space, and a way to engage with Berliners outside of their bubble.

Today, five Gambian men work as interns for the bakery and café. They learn to make typical café fare like quiches and cakes but also prepare family recipes from West Africa like Domoda, a rich peanut stew and the national dish of Gambia.

I ask Annika if she has any big dreams for the café and bakery and she says simply, “A bigger kitchen.” Such a pragmatic answer makes sense for Annika, whom I can tell is very busy with how quickly Bantabaa and Vardinek are growing.

She moves purposefully in the café and is undoubtedly its captain. When two young men come into the café from Bantabaa next door, Annika introduces us. Their hands are dusty and dirty from work, they say, so they apologize that they cannot shake my hand. Annika retorts in a jokingly stern tone that they better wash up before they start anything in the kitchen. The boys laugh.

One of the boys, named Morro, is 16 years old. Annika tells me he has arrived very recently from Gambia and, she says proudly, they have been able to place him into a German class.

Morro asks me excitedly, “Where do you live in Berlin?”

I tell him, “Neukölln”.

“Oh yeah?! How do you like it there?”

Outside the café, many people walk by, most of them heading in or out of the park. Several Gambian men pass by and pause for some moments to banter with those sitting on the benches outside.

Bantabaa means “meeting place” in Mandinka.

Mallake – Sharehaus Refugio, Neukölln

MallakeMallake serving Harra Esbao’o (Kristy Choi)

There is a near-blizzard outside and Mallake is a little annoyed because the onions her husband Mohammed brought from the market are somewhat frozen. They are difficult to peel and cut finely. Mallake is preparing Harra Esbao’o and this traditional Syrian dish of lentils and bowtie pasta, she tells me, requires many onions. Apart from a slightly furrowed brow, she shows no sign of real stress. I am not at all surprised when Mallake tells me that she hosted her own cooking show in Jordan for a network called Orient TV. Poised and gifted with Pollyanna charisma, Mallake is a professional chef trained by the very best: the women in her family.

We are sitting in a shared kitchen at Refugio, a communal living and working space for asylum-seekers and German citizens both. Two men at the table are enjoying a quick lunch of bread, chickpeas, and pickled radishes. Another woman at the side of the kitchen is making meat pastries; she spreads the paper-thin dough over a linen cloth then rolls the cloth to guide the dough into perfectly thin coils. At one point her children come into the kitchen in wet snow gear to check on the status of lunch. As Mallake chops the onions, Mohammed uses scissors to cut Arabic flatbread into small bite-size squares. Later, Mallake deep fries these squares in olive oil and uses them as crispy chip-like garnishes for the Harra Esbao’o. They are addictive and unforgettable.

Tomorrow is Mohammed’s birthday; this will be Mallake and Mohammed’s first time celebrating a birthday in Berlin—away from Damascus, Mallake’s home, and Jordan, where Mallake and Mohammed met. About 15 months ago, after struggling with no passport or possibilities for work, Mohammad made the dangerous journey from Jordan to Turkey to Greece to France to Germany. Mallake was able to join Mohammed in Berlin about four months ago. They left everything behind.

Mallake hopes to open a catering business or restaurant in Berlin to share treasured recipes and stories from Damascus. When I ask her about life here, she talks excitedly about learning how to ride a bike; soon she will start a German language course. When I tell her that I am American and that my parents live in the United States, she says I must miss them and tells me she very badly wants to visit her mother back in Jordan.

Harra Esbao’oHarra Esbao’o: a sour and savory dish of lentils, pasta, and spinach (Kristy Choi)

The Harra Esbao’o is unbelievably delicious, richly layered with tamarind, cumin, and garlic. Mallake separates the dish into many platters: several to save for her husband’s birthday party tomorrow, one for the two men already having lunch, and one just for me.

When I fumble in serving myself, Mallake gently takes the spoon from my hand and smoothly doles out a perfect portion onto my plate. I notice she has a specific technique in serving, a way of precisely scraping all the food from corner to corner of the platter so that even the last drops of sauce are not missed. Mallake explains this to me, “In my culture, we do not waste anything; how can we, when we know so many are starving around us?”

[1] During her keynote speech at the Chaos Communications Conference in Hamburg in December 2015, Somalian-born refugee activist Fatuma Musa Afrah argued that people should use the word “newcomer” instead of the negatively-stigmatized word “refugee”. Newcomer, Afrah insists, is more dignified.


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