Refugee kitchens are rarely bursting with possibility. Filled with donated rations of pasta, rice, canned vegetables, industrial sized jugs of spices, and soon-to-be-dodgy-produce purchased at cost from local grocery stores, the daily pantry evaluation usually feels a lot more like putting pieces of a simple puzzle together than artistry.
The No Border Kitchen is a refugee encampment that was first established by young, punk rock German Anarchists to provide food for refugees catching one of the port’s thunderous ferries that depart every few hours. Built on the corner of the beach in the shadow of the Mytilene castle, within sight of the bustling port, the NBK camp has sprawled and evolved like a great tented organism to meet the demand of the refugees, providing shelter for those who need to stay there long-term, clothing, and washrooms in addition to hot meals.
The camp is run with a flat structure, which means that there is no direct leadership. The command center is a singleshared cell phone, hung from a string underneath the schedule. Tasks are assigned by consensus at the morning meeting, held around the dying embers of the previous night’s bonfire.
In my days at No Border Kitchen, I was assigned to lunch. My fellow volunteer and I had taken everything from the pantry that needed to be used up and laid it on the counter when we were joined by three Syrian men who, with the help of a translator, asked if they could assist us in cooking lunch. They were chefs in northern Syria, they explained, where their family had a restaurant. We explained what we were tentatively planning for lunch, and they nodded, grabbed knives, and began chopping with the agility of men more comfortable with knives in their hands than without.
They looked at the pantry and asked what we were planning to do with tomatoes, with the cabbage, with the small pile of potatoes we were willfully ignoring in the corner. Cabbage soup, again? We shrugged. But the greatest chefs can see beauty where there isn’t any.
Soon the Syrian Chefs’ whole families were in the kitchen, with daughters shaving thin slices of beet, and sons chopping onions. Small children who had been timid and shaken walking into the camp were sitting on stools by our feet, laughing with balloons made from latex gloves. The chefs proudly introduced us, gesturing, this is my son, this is my daughter, this is my father.
With one karate chop, the heads and seeds simply popped off of green peppers. One of the men returned from the road beside the camp with bunches of wild fennel he had foraged, and he feathered it into a large metal bowl. Oil was heated over our giant propane stove and soon the rich nutty smell of fried cauliflower filled the tent. The hot florets were dipped in a quickly whisked lemon and olive oil dipping sauce and popped into our mouths. Try, try, they insisted every time, looking anxiously at my face to gauge my reaction. Forkfuls of salad zoomed towards us from every angle, and soon did hot, salted French Fries, and spoonfuls of spiced rice.
These men looked like fish that had been dropped back into water. I imagined how much they must have missed this; how after one, two, or more months traveling and hiding in hotel rooms on the Turkish Coast waiting to cross, how much they must have craved not just the environment of the kitchen, but the feeling of being useful-- and of being in control.
One of the great gifts of those days in No Border Kitchen was the ability to give refugees a moment to be in their element. To be useful. To provide for their families, and to give them familiar smells, tastes, and laughs.
This slaw is what I will remember, and I will make it whenever I need to be reminded that beauty can be found even in the dingiest of pantries.
- 1 head of cabbage, shaved or chopped into long, fine slices.
- 2-4 Beetroot, sliced thinly or grated
- Tomatoes, cut into 1/2 inch dice
- Cucumbers, thinly sliced
- Fennel Tops (wild or leftover), chopped (Dill can also be used)
- Red onions, cut into fine half-moons or chopped
- Green peppers (optional) chopped.
For the dressing:
- Salt Pepper
- Olive Oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
Combine cabbage, beetroot, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, green peppers, and fennel tops into a large mixing bowl. Dress generously with olive oil and toss. Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper to taste. Allow to sit for a few minutes before serving to allow the onions to mellow and the juice from the fresh tomatoes to mix with the lemon and oil and really bring the dressing together. The color from the beets will color the salad a darker, more beautiful pink the more you toss it. Want to add grated carrots, sure! Raisins, sure. Really, the point is to empty out that produce drawer. It’s hard to mess up this slaw, so have fun with it!
Serves 4 as a main, 6-8 as a side