Meals with out frontiers: how the cooking of Eritrea got here to Leeds

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Winta Habtestion is standing in front of a large food processor at the Herd Farm activity centre near Leeds in the north of England. She has tipped a mound of hilbet, a paste made from water mixed with ground fava beans and lentils, into the bowl and is wrestling with the processor’s paddle.

The mixer shows no sign of life so Habtestion, a slight young woman with a gentle demeanour and carefully braided hair, yanks the bowl out, plonks it down on the work table and starts beating the thick, gloopy mixture with her hand. 

Tenacity and resourcefulness, minor and major, mark out Habtestion and the five other young Eritrean women who are spending the day at Herd Farm. Each of them left home as a child and, after years of travel and trial, entered the UK as unaccompanied minors seeking asylum.

Aged 18 to 20, the women are taking part in a food project co-conceived by Louise Sidibe, their social worker and the city’s lead for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and the British Library. “Food is just food,” she says. “It’s like a window into their world, a way we can find out about young people, and it’s non-judgmental.” 

The UN has estimated that 10 per cent of Eritrea’s population of 6.5 million are now refugees because of the repressive regime of dictator Isaias Afwerki. Prospects for children in Eritrea are grim, with limited education, forced and termless military service and restricted employment prospects. The young women gathered at Herd Farm represent a small part of a steady number of children fleeing the country.

Over three Saturdays in May, Habtestion and her companions cooked Habesha recipes, a cuisine common to Eritrea and Ethiopia. These have been used to create a cookery book in partnership with the British Library to share with carers and friends. They also made screenprint tablecloths and worked with a photographer to improve their food photography skills.

Winta Habtestion prepares hilbet, a creamy dip made from ground fava beans and lentils © Maryam Wahid

The deeper purpose, though, stems from Sidibe’s compassion and fierce ambition for these women. “I’ve worked in this field for 15 years and seen young people arrive really traumatised, and then we see them through a journey to become valuable citizens, getting jobs and going to university,” she says. “When we got the opportunity to work with the library I just thought this was amazing — an opportunity to show them and others they are part of British society.”

Early in the project, the library’s curator for Ethiopic and Ethiopian collections, Eyob Derillo, beams in from London. Since all the young women involved are Orthodox Christians, Derillo shows them 17th-century manuscripts that shed light on the dietary rules they follow today, including regular fasting.

Thahmina Begum, a freelance community worker, is the project’s co-ordinator. Wearing funky checked trousers, black-and-white brogues and a dark green headscarf, she sets up a table for screenprinting while we wait for the women to arrive. “Because of social distancing we can only have three in the kitchen at once, so half the group will cook in the morning and make lunch while the others do art and photography and then they’ll swap,” she says, like someone accustomed to creating order out of chaos.

Like Sidibe, Begum has an underlying vision for the food project: “The key thing is for these women to be recognised for who they are and for their voices to be amplified. This project is about celebrating their skills and telling their stories through food.” 

Millen Asmerom and Winta Gebrekidan, wearing traditional Habesha kemis © Maryam Wahid

A portrait of Monalisa Shishay, standing in front of a wall, smiling. She wears a traditional blue dress and white headdress

Monalisa Shishay left Eritrea when she was 13: ‘I learnt to cook watching my mum, sitting at the table with my sisters and brother’ © Maryam Wahid

Habtestion and her friend Elsa Asmara arrive first, bringing traditional costumes and bags of injera, a fermented sour bread like a pancake, made with teff flour, which they have bought from a shop catering to the Eritrean community in Leeds. They have been firm friends ever since they were placed at the same foster home three years ago. “People think we’re twins. Well, sisters at least!” laughs Asmara. 

The remaining four women — Monalisa Shishay, Millen Asmerom, Winta Gebrekidan and Ruta Yemane — soon arrive, followed by Sidibe, a slight, elegant woman wearing a black and yellow print dress and a huge smile. To judge by their squeals of delight, the women plainly adore her. She is fierce, funny and committed. “I am really passionate about the rights and opportunities for young people,” says Sidibe. “I am a bit of a rogue and if something doesn’t fit into the box, we have to change the box for young people.”

Habtestion, Asmara and Shishay are first in the kitchen. They chop onions, chilli and garlic with a speed and precision a professional chef would be proud to possess. Chisel-cheeked Shishay fills a plastic bowl with onions, grabs a knife and board, sits down at a table and sets about her work. She is cooking zigni, a rich stew made with small pieces of meat, berbere (mixed spice), tomatoes and vast amounts of onion. For half a kilo of lamb, she works through 12 onions, never once shedding a tear.

Portrait of Elsa Asmara wearing traditional Habesha kemis, her hair braided

Elsa Asmara: ‘The change in Elsa since she arrived is incredible,’ says her former foster carer Sharon Pearson. ‘She’s an incredibly strong person, a really smart cookie’ © Maryam Wahid

Ruta Yemane, smiling, peels potatoes in the Herd Farm kitchen

Ruta Yemane, at work in the kitchen. ‘I am really passionate about the opportunities for young people,’ says Louise Sidibe, who co-conceived the Herd Farm food project © Maryam Wahid

Zigni reminds Shishay of her home in Eritrea, of her mother and five siblings, whom she left when she was 13. “I learnt to cook watching my mum, sitting at the table with my sisters and brother,” she says. “She is such a good cook, so hardworking and she never shows us when she’s upset.”

There is plenty to be upset about. Shishay’s father left the family home just before Shishay, and his whereabouts are unknown. Two of her siblings are in different refugee camps in Ethiopia. Shishay, meanwhile, is now safely living with carers she describes unprompted as “the best”, yet thousands of miles away in the UK. 

“There is no democracy in my country,” she says. “You don’t have enough to live on, you can be conscripted into the army and if you complain you will be killed.”

Before arriving in the UK, Shishay spent months in Libya, held in an illegal warehouse containing hundreds of other refugees, waiting in limbo for money to fund her journey onwards. “I was 15 in Libya and I was very sick and stressed,” she says quietly. “I lost lots of people there, lots of friends died because of the food, the conditions.”

By contrast, zigni conjures good memories of home. “When my mum cooked zigni, we would sit with her and watch. This is my traditional food I grew up with so I love it,” she says, scraping the mountain of chopped tomatoes into a bowl and moving towards the stove to start cooking. 

A dish of ‘doro wat’, a rich chicken stew served with boiled egg

Doro wat, a rich chicken stew served with boiled egg © Maryam Wahid

Asmara, meanwhile, is at the cooker, stirring a large pan containing gomen besiga (lamb and spinach stew) and dictating the recipe to Begum who has the challenging role of being the project’s recipe-scribe. The air is heady with the scent of ginger, garlic and spice, and lunch, though only an hour away, feels a long way off. 

Asmara also grew up in a village and has memories of cooking with her mum. “I started washing onions and cooking with her when I was little until she trusted me on my own,” she says. She too left home aged 13 and embarked on a journey that took her through Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Italy, Switzerland and France. It ended when she hid in a lorry that by chance was driven to Leeds.

It is almost impossible to imagine how a person of 13 can make the journey from Eritrea to Europe on their own. “They leave because they are scared and they just set off moving wherever they can, as fast as they can,” explains Carl Pollard, Asmara and Habtestion’s former foster carer. “We have this belief here that migrants think, ‘Let’s go to the UK because it’s good.’ But they are running away, they are not running towards something . . . For every girl that turns up here, there are hundreds who didn’t have the luck to get somewhere safe.”

Today, Asmara radiates energy and warmth, chatting and laughing with the others while confidently wielding kitchen utensils. She has, she tells me, a face that is always smiling. “When I have to look serious for ID cards they say, ‘Please stop laughing,’ but I’m not laughing, I just have a happy face.”

This is a far cry from the girl who arrived in the UK in the back of a lorry three years ago. “I’ll never forget the day she came and sat on my sofa with a carrier bag with all her belongings, making herself small, without eye contact and hardly any English,” recalls Sharon Pearson, Pollard’s partner, choking up. “The change in Elsa since she arrived is incredible. She’s an incredibly strong person, a really smart cookie.”

Asmara and Habtestion are now studying health and social care at college and have moved into flats of their own round the corner from their former foster home. “They’ve kept their keys,” explains Pollard. “They are part of the family so they can always come home, just like our kids.”

A small bowl on a table contains creamy hilbet dip

Hilbet dip is hand-beaten to a smooth, creamy paste and copious amounts of garlic and chilli are added © Maryam Wahid

It is close to one o’clock when Asmara tips the gomen besiga into a chafing dish to keep warm. There is a final scramble to get everything ready. Habtestion’s hilbet has been hand-beaten to a smooth, creamy paste. “This is really hard to make, that’s why I chose it,” she says laughing and rubbing her aching arm. “Even women in our country don’t know how to make this because it’s so hard.”

She adds copious amounts of garlic and chilli to the mixture. It is served alongside a thick, rich, spiced tomato sauce called silsee. “This is my favourite food, we eat it when we’re fasting,” she says, tipping the mixtures into two bowls. (When the women fast for religious reasons, they are prohibited from eating meat, dairy and eggs, so they make vegan versions of this dish.) “It reminds me of being home and all eating together. It’s happy but also sad.” 

Winta Habtestion, photographed with a wall behind her, wears traditional dress, her hair braided. She smiles towards the camera

Winta Habtestion. ‘For every girl that turns up here, there are hundreds who didn’t have the luck to get somewhere safe,’ says her former foster carer Carl Pollard © Maryam Wahid

Across the kitchen Shishay adds her zigni to the tray with a garnish of green chillies and Asmara unwraps the bag of injera and places them on a serving plate. Following the young women’s lead, we cover the bottom of a plate with injera, then let Begum portion out the gomen besiga, zigni, hilbet and the doro wat, a rich chicken stew made with berbere, butter and tomato served with boiled egg.

Quiet descends on the room for the first time all day. We eat with our hands, using the injera to scoop up the food and mop any sauces. The food tastes familiar and unexpected, made of memories and love, rich with spice and the deep intensity of onion, garlic and chilli.

Second helpings served, the women disappear. When they return, their T-shirts, headscarves, trainers and jeans have been replaced by their Habesha kemis, traditional formal dress worn for celebrations. Watching them laughing and posing for the photographer, I am reminded of something Shishay said earlier: “I want to do this project to tell people about my culture so they know about Eritrea, because if people don’t know what it is, it’s like the world doesn’t know who I am.”

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library. Follow her on Twitter @PollyRussell1 and Instagram the_history_cook

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