Feast or Protest? Dining Out in New York on Cuisines from the Trump “Banned” List.
On an early March evening in midtown Manhattan, 20 people crowded around tables jammed with plates of exotic dishes at the Ravagh Persian Grill.
“This is Shirin Polow,” said Behrooz Nournia, pointing to a platter piled with rice. “It’s a saffron-based rice that will have pieces of candied and shredded carrots, orange peels, and slivered almonds.”
Nournia is an Iranian architect who was born in Tehran but moved to New York 20 years ago. At this special dinner, organized by Foods of NY Tours, Nournia played tour guide to the cuisine of his country — a country whose residents are among those targeted by President Trump’s executive orders on travel. Though Trump’s orders are at least temporarily thwarted by courts, if enacted they would ban Iranians from entering the U.S.
Highlighting that Trump administration ban effort was the real point of this dinner, part of a special series organized by Foods of NY.
“We all speak the language of food,” said Amy Bandolik, the group’s director, addressing guests who paid $40 each to attend the special Iranian dinner. “It’s important that we are all here to express our opposition to the travel ban.”
Foods of NY Tours started the dinners-from-banned-countries series after President Trump signed his first executive order on travel in January. The company has specialized in tours of New York’s rich ethnic cuisines for 18 years.
“But after the travel ban, we decided to do something special,” said Bandolik, “Each month, we organize one tour to a different restaurant that is run by immigrants or refugees from the seven banned countries in New York.” (Trump’s January order called for a ban on travel from seven majority Muslim countries, but an amended order in March dropped Iraq from the list. That order would still temporarily suspend travel to the U.S. for people holding passports from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen.)
Bandolik said most of the 20 spots reserved online for each of the special dinners have been taken by New Yorkers. But a few come from elsewhere.
“I read about this project on The Washington Post,” said Sara Kipling, an immigrant policy worker in Washington, D.C., “and I always wanted to try Persian food.” Kipling brought her parents along for the meal.
During the dinner, Nournia explained Iranian customs, festivals and history to the guests.
“If you have the chance, you should travel to Iran,” he said.
“Have you seen any American people in Iran?” asked one young guest.
“Sure, I traveled back twice a year before the ban,” said Nournia, “I see people from all over the world go to Iran.”
Bandolik said the special meals were a way to connect people who opposed the ban, and start a conversation. “If you are fearful of people from Muslim countries,” she said, “you probably still eat food from those cultures.”
The restaurants chosen for the dinner are run by immigrants or refugees from the banned countries. In late March, Foods of New York plans a meal at a Yemeni Muslim-Jewish Deli in Brooklyn. In February, the group went to a Somali restaurant called Safari on 116th Street in Harlem. Owner and chef Shakib Farah served the 30 guests Hilib Ari — a traditional Somali dish made with roasted goat — along with vegan mango curry and roasted chicken.
Farah arrived in the U.S. as a refugee 15 years ago. He said his family visits him once or twice each year, so they would be affected by Trump’s ban if it takes effect. He believes that food is the way he connects to people in New York, and it helps him make a living here. “People should see Somali people’s contribution in New York,” said Farah. “It’s very positive.”
The travel ban dinners are not the only New York City effort aimed at helping refugees through food. The New Roots Community Farm, a patch of garden in the Concourse Village neighborhood of the Bronx, has helped refugees resettling in New York since 2011. Refugees who participate in the program grow fresh, healthy food for themselves and their families.
The farm program was started by the International Rescue Committee in 2009. The first venue was in San Diego, where it was used by Somali refugees. Now, New Roots provides gardening and agricultural opportunities in 16 cities across the nation.
According to Kathleen McTigue, program manager of New Roots New York, about 50 percent of resettled refugees have an agricultural background and a close relationship to the foods of their homeland. The IRC-sponsored farms match resettled refugees with local community members. McTigue said the refugees get more than a plot of land. They also can learn English from their local partners, make social connections, and get some training for other jobs.
IRC also supports other food projects — a farmer’s market, a bread kitchen, and Eat Offbeat, a food delivery startup that hires refugees in New York as chefs. The chefs cook foods from their national cuisines, which are delivered to homes of New Yorkers who order the foods.