“I am so happy because I see everyone in my class from different countries, different cultures – American people, German people, British people. I can learn from them. It’s really exciting.” She pauses. “In the beginning I cannot speak English, but it’s getting better.”
Nawida Saidhosin arrived in the United States in May 2010, brought to Decatur, Georgia by the International Rescue Committee, a broad-based refugee resettlement agency. Born in Afghanistan, Nawida had also spent four years in Pakistan and six years Russia before the IRC re-settled her and her young son here in the U.S. With extremely limited English, however, she was unable to find work in Decatur, and soon grew disillusioned.
A friend who’d settled in New York invited her for a two week visit, and Nawida was soon smitten with the big city. The IRC re-settled her and her child once more, this time to Queens.
Soon after they arrived, Lisa Gross, founder of a new immersive cooking project called the League of Kitchens, approached the IRC. She was seeking local refugees who might be interested in teaching cooking workshops based on their native cuisines. “One of my case managers gave her my information,” Nawida remembers. “She came to my house. I cooked for her. She liked it. Then she said, ‘We will hire you for League of Kitchens!’ Everybody is very nice. I’m so happy!”
Nawida began teaching cooking workshops in November 2013.
Nawida’s culinary skills are broad-based: She knows Afghan food, of course, but given her background she’s also well-versed in both Pakistani and Russian cuisines. “For my students,” she explains, “this is very exciting. They like traveling, so I make them different tastes.”
Yogurt, Nawida explains, is very different in Afghanistan and Russia. “In Afghanistan, we use plain yogurt. We don’t use sweet yogurt. We don’t like flavored yogurt. In Russia, so many people use sweet yogurt!” She sounds disappointed.
In Afghanistan’s long winters, yogurt and garlic are commonly paired, but less so in summer. In summer, yogurt is often blended with dry mint, salt, and water for a refreshing drink called doogh. “You mix it,” Nawida explains, “and it becomes bubbly!” Often, cucumber is added as well. “We crush the cucumber, little by little. After you drink that, you feel comfortable and cold.”
At home in Queens, Nawida makes her own yogurt. “We nicely boil the milk, we pull up the skin, we leave it to cool down, and then we mix in a spoonful of market yogurt. If you want,” she continues, “you add a little salt.” She covers the pot with a big towel and leaves it to ferment overnight. “Tomorrow, don’t move it! Just put it in the fridge, and in two or three hours you can use it.”
Nawida next describes kitrikuk, a rice and lentil preparation cooked with collard greens, onions, and tomatoes. To finish, she mixes garlic with yogurt and spreads this on a plate as a bed for the stew. The dish is finished with red chili oil.
Her favorite dish, though, may be Burani Bonjon, a combination of tender, shallow-fried eggplant and tomato-coriander broth napped with a cool sauce of yogurt and mint.
It sounds so good, I press her for the recipe. Happily, she obliges.
Photograph courtesy of The League of Kitchens.