Manal Kahi was missing hummus. Desperately. She was in New York, in graduate school at Columbia University, living the life everyone back in Lebanon could only dream of.
Infinite lights and opportunities in an infinitely vast country… Take food for instance: There was Chinese, Italian, Indian and Pakistani, a Halal butcher door to door with a kosher bakery, Tex-Mex to go or Japanese-Peruvian fusion fine dining… but not a lick of proper hummus in all of New York City.
Perhaps it was homesickness that made no other hummus taste like the one her grandmother made for the family on Sundays. Perhaps she used some special spice, some secret ingredient… perhaps it was just the love with which her teta prepared it.
Manal called her teta for the recipe. Her first try was a flop, but she eventually mastered hummus. Now, it tasted of home. She shared it with her New York friends, alongside anecdotes and titbits of Lebanese culture. They fell in love.
Not just with the hummus, but with Lebanon. Manal had found a way to bring a bit of herself to this new land, to make it more familiar. It wasn’t the recipe, good as it was. It was more than that. More than food. She understood why there were so many ethnic cuisines in New York.
This country was a nation of immigrants, and food was their contribution. Food, and music and art and language and religion and a world of customs and traditions they had, over centuries, woven into America’s fabric. They were America.
That year, 2014, the world was witnessing a surge of forcibly displaced people, in numbers unseen since the second World War. 59.5 million people, from every corner of the globe, were fleeing conflict, economic hardship, persecution, violence, dictatorship, and climate disasters. Many landed in New York, with little more than what they could carry and memories of home.
Manal and her brother, Wissam, saw an opportunity there:
A catering company serving homestyle, ethnic dishes prepared… by refugees.
“We had three goals:
The first was to create quality jobs for talented refugees who are looking to get into the food industry. The second was to build bridges between them, us, those working in the kitchen and New Yorkers. And the third was to change the narrative around refugees and to show a more positive story.”
In 2015, Manal and Wissam founded Eat Offbeat.
With help from the International Rescue Committee, they found, recruited, and trained talented refugees resettled in the New York area. Under the supervision of a head chef, these refugees then dipped into their culinary and cultural heritage, to create …
From Syria eech (bulgur wheat with tomatoes, green onions, and pomegranate molasses),
Nepali chari bari (chicken in cashew sauce),
Eritrean adas (red lentils cooked in assertive Berbere spices),
or even their own creations, like rood, a rice and chickpea dish inspired by Iranian flavors.
A menu of international, homestyle tastes and experiences.
An experience. That is what Eat Offbeat delivers: home-made meals from homes as diverse as Afghanistan, Guinea, Tibet, Eritrea, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Iraq, Syria, and others. English is not a prerequisite for employment, nor is professional cooking experience. “Passion, talent, and pride in the kitchen are.” And a commitment to sharing one’s culture, building bridges with others.
“We want to change the narrative around refugees, to provide a new story in which they are bringing something of value to the U.S. They’re contributing to the local economy and making the food scene in New York even richer.”
Since it was founded, Eat Offbeat has grown, adding dozens of chefs and cuisines to its menu, and generating more than $1 million in sales in a single year. Its message has grown louder too, and ever more pertinent in response to xenophobic rhetoric and hostile executive orders and policies in the U.S.:
“We’ll keep doing what we’re good at, which is helping people discover excellent new food and highlighting the value refugees bring,” says Manal.