In Greenpoint, a Sudanese Meal Raises Money for Refugees and Preserves Tradition

Fasulia, a summer bean stew, was one of the main dishes at the dinner. Photo by the author.

Cultures that don’t write down their recipes are forgotten, said Dr. Jessica B. Harris during a panel as part of The Iconoclast Dinner Experience at the Vice offices. She, Dr. Krishendu Ray, Ruth Tam, Rawlston Williams and Rupa Bhattacharya were discussing the complicated relationship of immigration, race and food, speaking truth on many critical matters, but that’s what stuck with me: I’ve long believed that cooking and writing recipes can be a political act; what Harris did was raise the stakes.

When I was invited to Roads & Kingdoms Banned Countries Dinner Series celebrating Sudan featuring Omer Eltigani of The Sudanese Kitchen, that quote popped into my mind. Here was someone doing the work of making sure his culture wouldn’t be forgotten, erased, by writing down its recipes. To the dinner—where proceeds from the $125 tickets benefitted the American Refugee Committee—I went.

This installment in the series, which had so far touched on the cuisine of Iran in both New York and San Francisco, took place at Franklin Guesthouse, which will soon be BarGlory, opened by the team behind Glasserie. It was that restaurant’s chef, Eldad Shem Tov, who was in the kitchen cooking the food for the evening. Eltigani helped to curate and consult on the menu, which ended up being Sudanese in influence more than expression; the guest of honor was mingling and enjoying the meal along with the rest of us.

The long and expansive menu offered foul, a blend of fava beans with cumin and lime; smoked eggplant; dakwa, a spicy peanut dipping sauce; stuffed vegetables; and a grain-based kofta served in an okra stew with the traditional, lightly fermented Sudanese bread kisra.

It was all quite lovely, but it was, Eltigani notes, much different from the pop-ups he throws in his home city of London. There, you’ll be treated to a more intimate, home-style experience, which can get lost in a more chef-driven approach. When he’s in the kitchen, “it becomes more of a holistic experience.” After all, his entire project was inspired by his mother’s cooking, which he just wanted to be able to make for himself when he moved out of his parents’ home. “I realized no one could do that, no one had access to this food, and I took it upon myself to bring it to the world, just so other people—Sudanese and non-Sudanese—could have access to it,” he told me as the event was coming to a close. “In this day and age, we should all have access to each other’s food.”

But without written recipes, “it’s usually passed down from woman to woman, mother to daughter,” he explained. Eltigani doesn’t have any sisters, which would usually mean that his mom would be left to cook alone; instead, he took it upon himself to help her, going against the cultural grain.

“I’m trying to record and preserve these dishes that so future generations know what their great-great-grandparents used to do,” he said, “that our culture is in black-and-white, and it’s there, and it’s always going to exist and be a beacon for other cultures to look at and take note from.”

While the atmosphere was relaxed and joyous, one couldn’t forget that we were there for a miserable reason, which is that the U.S. has imposed travel restrictions on majority Muslim countries such as Sudan. As my seat neighbor carelessly joked when we took our seats, “We should ban more countries; we’ll get more dinners.” When I mentioned that comment to Eltigani, he observed that, “For some people, it’s another soirée for them to go to and enjoy a lovely evening in a kind of high-society way. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Sudanese dinner, an Ethiopian dinner, a country that is banned or isn’t banned; it’s just an expression of their bourgeois exuberance.”

It does accomplish a lot, though, he acknowledges: The money is going to a charity that directly helps those who are having trouble entering the country, and there is increased awareness of Sudanese cuisine.

Eltignani will stay in New York City for a few more days before heading back to London and returning to work on his cookbook, to preserving traditions. Thanks to that, it seems Sudan’s food—ban or no ban—won’t be forgotten.