Building Multicultural Understanding Through Food

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When Aida Alrafeei volunteered to teach cooking Syrian food, she had no idea it would lead to a new chapter in her life. The volunteering was for Multicultural Association of Wood Buffalo’s (MCA) cookery program, which led to rave reviews. And, now she’s preparing to start her own catering business.

“A friend had asked me to volunteer last year, and I agreed. It was nice to meet new people; all of them loved my Baklava. Then I started getting more requests; and now I’m preparing to start my own catering company,” shares Alrafeei, who moved to Fort McMurray four years ago from Syria when her husband landed a position with Suncor Energy.

Indeed in Fort McMurray, we build cultural understanding through food too – thanks to the MCA’s cookery program.

Running for over five years now, the multicultural cookery program “brings together individuals from diverse backgrounds and teaches them unique cuisines from different countries. Volunteers from these countries share their recipes, techniques and skills, and participants have the opportunity to learn hands on, cooking different main dishes, sides, and desserts. The class runs once a month from September to June with a different country’s cuisine each month,” explains Jamie Desautels, program manager at MCA, who has been with the group since January 2016. She’s a big fan of Alrafeei’s date squares.

“Aida was new to the community. She’s an incredible cook, the class raved about her Baklava. Just over a year later was my first time seeing her again, when she came by the office with some date squares. She said she was going to start her own catering business. The cookery showed her the appreciation our community had for her cultural cuisine and gave her the confidence to share it with others on a larger scale,” explains Desautels.

Back to the cooking class. Alrafeei, who has a love for healthy cooking made a Knafeh, which is shredded dough filled with cheese and then baked. An orange syrup is poured on top next – making it the ultimate dessert. The entree was a rice and minced meat dish fused with eggplant called Maklouba. This was accompanied with Yalanji, a version of stuffed grape leaves inspired by Turkish cuisine with diced tomatoes, onions, parsley and rice prepared in a light tomato sauce.

“Mediterranean and Syrian meals are healthy, yet satisfying. Thanks to MCA for the opportunity. I’m looking forward to starting my new business soon,” Alrafeei remarks.

So on any given Saturday you can learn dishes from Nigeria, Italy, Lebanon, Syria, India, Peru, Thailand, Peru, or Ethiopia. And, the list continues. In fact, in the last five years over 24 different types of cooking classes have been already organized.

“The goal of the program is to increase awareness of different cultures, bring people from different cultural backgrounds together, and to showcase the diversity of our community,” continues Desautels.

MCA has made sure to keep the process simple to encourage prospective teachers, and participants.

“Anyone is welcome to teach their cuisine as long as it hasn’t already been offered in the last 12 months, all they need to do is send an email to programs@multiculturefm.org and I will set up a meeting with them. Most often people that participate in MCA events like the Multicultural EXPO will ask how they can stay involved so we tell them about the cookery initiative. We also get requests from our participants and I reach out to those cultural groups. Once they have expressed interest we pick a Saturday that works for them, book the kitchen, and pick recipes. After the initial meeting their only commitment is to come with me the day before to get groceries and then to teach the class on the day of the lesson,” Desautels continues.

It is this sense of community, and the desire to give back that keeps Jay Falcone coming back. He’s been teaching Italian cuisine for the last two years to maximum capacity classes.

“I teach MCA’s financial literacy program to new Canadians. But, one day food came up in a conversation and Jamie asked me if I could teach Italian cooking? I said yes right away,” recalls Falcone, who works for Syncrude’s HR department, and has been a 33-year local resident.

Passionate about food, and cultural cuisine, Falcone enjoys sharing his Italian heritage through cooking.

“Italians love to eat, and share this love for food. The dishes I make are family recipes so you can’t find them in books, or the Internet,” he shares.

Indeed, his class paid homage to traditional Italian items such as Peperonata, or pepper stew made with bell peppers, and sausage. He made a lemon crab fettucine for his entrée finishing off with a limoncello tiramisu.

“My dishes are easy to make, and simple. It’s nice to be stopped and told someone made my dish. It’s a great way to give back to the community,” Falcone shares.

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