What I Learned Making Food From Seven “Banned” Countries

This past holiday Monday, I and a group of friends and family held a fundraising dinner at my son’s school in support of two organizations supporting human rights and immigrant settlement in our community. Our goal was to make a dish from each of the seven countries on the current US travel ban (Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Libya).

I’m happy to report that we sold all 50 tickets to the event, and raised over $1000.00 in support of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia.

It was a lot of work– we prepped for seven hours on the day of the event, preparing (among other things) a traditional East African cowpea and coconut milk stew, Middle Eastern green beans, tomatoes and allspice, and a vegetable ragout (Saltah) that is the national dish of Yemen.

Three blizzards in a row in the days preceding the event made me even gladder we could pull it off– and I am endlessly grateful to my fellow cooks, staff at the school, and my long-suffering husband for all their help.

Here’s a bit of what I said to diners by way of a welcome before we dove into our vegetarian feast:

The idea for the Seven Sisters Dinner came to me as I thought about the possible ways to respond to the bad news that often floods our lives via radio, screen, and in person.

Since last year, with the arrival in Canada of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other troubled countries, I have been thinking of what it must be like to have to leave one’s home and the difficulty of finding a new home. The initial disruption, and later adaptation to a new culture, must be so hard.

When I hear that someone is sick, or facing a big life challenge, my first response is always to ask if I can bring food. It’s an old impulse to take care of our most basic need, to offer comfort in hard times, and nourishment while the body and soul heal.

Now more than ever, our global community needs nourishing. Individuals, communities, and countries are being asked to choose whether to respond to the needs of our global neighbours in a positive or negative way.

When I feel myself giving in to despair at the latest round of bad news, I try to find something to keep my hands and heart busy.

This past month, my family and I have learned a lot about the seven countries whose cuisine we are about to enjoy tonight, mostly through researching the foods eaten there (Please have a look at the globe if you’re unsure where they are located—it’s ok to not know exactly!)

Though most of the countries also consume meat, I deliberately chose to make this dinner vegetarian. In the New Internationalist cookbook, where I found most of the recipes, I found out that meat has often historically been viewed as a symbol of wealth, status, and virility, while vegetables are sometimes looked down upon as a humble, second-class food associated with women and children.

Because it is women and children who often suffer greatly during disruptive times like the ones we have now entered globally, I would like to dedicate this meal to them and to the struggle for a just world where everyone has enough.