Connecting Communities through Food: Preparing for the Pakistani Pop-Up
With an exciting Pakistani Pop-Up event set to hit Hamilton House later on this month, I paid a visit to the Community Kitchen to hear about their work facilitating ESOL courses with a difference — mixing English language practice with cookery.
Through cooking ‘you’re able to speak without words and without language’. So says Claudia, one of the two coordinators of the Coexist Community Kitchen. It’s a sentiment that reveals a lot about what goes on in the kitchen, which as as well as being an educational space focusing on nutrition, food politics and sustainability, acts as an important social hub, where people from different backgrounds and communities, particularly those facing social exclusion, can learn about each other’s cultures.
Much like the work being done with Bristol Drugs Project — where people in recovery from addiction learn essential life skills around preparing food and budgeting— the Community Kitchen has been working together with City of Bristol College to provide ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses. But rather than being stuck staring at a whiteboard, students on the Cooking and Conversation: ESOL for Health course get to practise their spoken English, as well as learn skills around accessing health services for themselves and their families, all through the medium of cookery.
For Claudia, who has helped to facilitate the course since it started last Spring, it has been a great success so far. Despite language barriers, she believes that the course allows students to express themselves “in the most pure sense, which is cooking. Cooking is something that belongs to you, to your childhood, it belongs to your family. So this was the most powerful thing: to be in the kitchen, sharing and talking”.
This view was also shared by Shehla, who recently joined the course. Originally from Pakistan, Shehla moved to Bristol 4 years ago from London and has been finding ways to integrate into her local community. As someone who has always loved to cook, joining a conversation-based cooking class was an obvious way for her to make new friends and work on her language skills.
She mentions how one of the first friends she made in the city was from Cardiff and the two took turns to make each other meals: fish pie one week, chicken Pilau the next. Joining the course was also an important way for Shehla to connect with her own culture and to share it with others. As she put it: when you’re cooking and eating together with other people “you’re spreading love and you’re showing your culture.”
This fusion of cultural exchange and language learning is underpinned by a belief in the alchemical, transformative potential of food, borrowing from the ideas of acclaimed food writer Michael Pollan. In his book, Cooked: A History of Transformation, he noted that the ancient Greeks had a word for ‘cook’ — Mageiros — which could also mean a butcher or priest, and had the same roots as magician. This commitment to using food as way to connect communities led to the creation of the Mageiros Pop Up restaurant — the idea being to showcase the cuisine of a different country for each event.
The first of these will be a Pakistani themed event at the end of this month, and Shehla will be one of the chefs. She’s keen to stress that while Pakistani and Indian food share many similarities, Pakistani food uses many of its own unique ingredients and spices: “One thing I wanted to make it clear is that Pakistani and Indian food are separate. People from here, they know Pakistani food as Indian food, but we’ve got different ways to cook, different dishes.” The aim of the event is to help people from different backgrounds explore the nuances of each other’s cultures, all the through the most ancient and simple of human behaviours: the act of sharing a meal.