Chicago chef Alvin Yu stands behind a stainless steel kitchen counter. In front of him are the ingredients for hummus and an attentive class. This is how the resistance begins.
“Today, we’re not just learning about how to cook hummus,” Yu tells them. “I want you to walk away with a story.”
He introduces the chickpeas, the garlic cloves, the ground cumin and paprika, salt and pepper, and jar of tahini sesame paste. There’s nothing fancy here—nothing you wouldn’t find in any kitchen in Israel, Syria, Turkey or anywhere else they make hummus, and that’s exactly his point. While one ingredient may change depending on the country, the dishes have more in common than not.
Hummus, a thick, chickpea-based dip, emerged during the Crusades as a protein staple and continues to be one today for these Middle Eastern countries. And yet, it’s not shared easily, Yu tells the small cooking class. The question of who owns hummus is hotly debated.
“Hummus can be a great template for how we solve problems today,” Yu says. “Let’s find a commonality and move forward.”
The class listens, intrigued to learn the history of a dish that’s taken over entire grocery store refrigerators. Once Yu is finished, they begin to cook. Oil spits and crackles on the frying pan as the garlic and chickpeas are added. The aroma of garlic wafts above the group.
This is Yu’s first dish in a series of cooking classes called Feasts of Resistance, hosted by the Chicago nonprofit Peterson Garden Project. Each class features a dish from one of six countries or regions that reflect Chicago’s diverse refugee and immigrant population, and the history of each dish tells a story of culture and conflict in that country that will be shared in class. The proceeds from the public classes will fund cooking courses for refugee girls at nonprofit GirlForward’s summer camp.
Food was a natural entry point for both Yu and the Peterson Garden Project. The latter fosters community through public gardens, and provides a space for refugees to grow familiar fruits and vegetables they either can’t find in Chicago or can’t afford. It’s also a place where families from across cultures can bond.
“With everything going on politically and socially right now, [food] gives you a connection,” said Christina Bello, program manager at Peterson Garden Project. “There’s something very special about sitting at a table sharing lunch together, and sharing stories like this makes that connection even stronger.”
Yu comes from a family of immigrants and refugees who moved from China to Hong Kong and eventually the United States. Both his father and grandfather were cooks. All that’s left from his family’s history in China is replicated in traditional meals. Food was the link to his culture and family while growing up in America.
Each meal he’s selected for the culinary classes, representing Ethiopia, Haiti, Vietnam, the Middle East, Cape Verde and Nepal, tells a tale. Embedded in the ingredients are stories of oppression and economic conflict, of cultural traditions and memories. While politicians and media use divisive rhetoric, Yu sees food as a bridge to understanding, a bridge to unite.
“I’ve seen food change people’s perception of how they look at their servers,” Yu said. “If you like a people’s food, then you will warm to who they are. You inherently have to find out. You cannot be racist and like somebody’s food. It’s all or nothing.”
Inside Ethiopian Diamond’s kitchen, Almaz Yigizaw stirs a burbling pot of chopped onions and herb butter—the base of her stew. When the onions are translucent, she tosses in fresh garlic, ginger and a blend called wat spice. Then she adds pieces of chicken into the mix. Soon, a mouthwatering scent permeates the space, but it’s not quite perfect, she says. A true doro wat (a spicy chicken stew), must simmer for several hours and has an aroma best understood through memory.
“You have to grow up with it to understand the smell,” says Yigizaw, who owns the Edgewater restaurant Ethiopian Diamond. “To me, I would say it’s a nice ‘Wat.’ … It reminds me of home.”
The smell and taste of doro wat transport her back to her home in Gondar, Ethiopia, where she grew up among castles and ancient churches. Her mother and grandmother were considered the best cooks in the entire city, and her family would sit down and tell stories over meals served on injera, a spongy, fermented flatbread. When they ate doro wat, it meant they were celebrating a holiday or hosting special guests.
It’s a sensation Yigizaw has been seeking since she had to leave her family behind at 15 years old, amid violence and police shootings that targeted students her age. She escaped to Sudan in 1981 in the back of a truck transporting charcoal and wood, and arrived in Chicago in April 1982.
It wasn’t until she discovered a shop in Chicago that sold familiar spices that she started to cook in her new country. She learned how to make injera and began replicating her mother’s recipes from taste and memory.
“I don’t think I can cook my mom’s or my grandma’s dish, but it satisfies me, my hunger,” Yigizaw says. “When you are hungry, you want to eat your food. It just completes my satisfaction.”
Today, she owns two local restaurants that are often filled with guests from around the world, learning about the Ethiopian food and trying out customs like “gursha,” where you feed a bite to the person across the table as a show of respect.
For Yu’s class, he plans to share a modern version of doro wat infused with coffee. Coffee is Ethiopia’s main export and ingrained in its traditions. It’s also a cause of economic strife, according to Yu. Farmers struggle to make livable wages growing coffee, while U.S. and international corporations profit off the beans.
The struggle over coffee is another form of economic conflict that has been a common issue in Ethiopia, he added. In the mid-1980s, a famine had caused hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to die and led to a mass migration of Ethiopian refugees to the U.S. and other countries. “That’s why we have a big, teeming Ethiopian population in Chicago,” Yu said.
By infusing coffee into doro wat, a dish eaten across Ethiopia, it’s a way of taking a political stand and reclaiming the contentious ingredient. “We’re using our traditional dishes and reclaiming coffee,” Yu said. “This is ours.”
While doro wat tells a story of culture and current economic struggle, Haiti’s soup joumou represents the country’s history.
Soup joumou is a velvety squash soup packed with beef, vegetables, yams, turnip, parsley and a bouquet of Haitian seasonings. It’s also a symbol of independence and freedom. During colonization, the type of squash found on the island was forbidden to be eaten by slaves because the French considered it a delicacy. After a bloody rebellion, Haiti declared its independence from French colonial rule on January 1, 1804, and soup joumou became a national dish, available in every home and soup kitchen.
Every year Persida Louison celebrates Haitian Independence Day by going to a friend’s house to eat soup joumou, a tradition she has followed since she was a little girl in Port Au Prince.
“It shoots you right back home,” said Louison, who grew up in Haiti and moved to Chicago as a teenager in the 1980s after the political situation became unstable at home under President Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Today, she works as a fashion designer for the annual Haiti Fashion Week, and she sees soup joumou as a perfect entry into Haitian culture because it highlights the country’s prideful history.
For her personally, it also serves as a way to recognize her roots. “It’s reminding ourselves as Haitians that we need to do better,” she said. “We are all in the same basket more or less. We need to help each other.”
When the class is finished cooking, they sit down to a feast. They chow on heaping plates of pasta mixed with creamy hummus and mugs of hummus tomato soup.
While they eat, they learn about Peterson Garden Project and GirlForward, which mentors teenage girls displaced by war and conflict. Most of the attendees had signed up for cooking school, but they came away inspired by the stories behind the food.
“It’s such an interesting way into a culture through food,” said attendee Nina Newhouser.
At the end of the meal, Yu assigns the class a task. He urges them to spread these stories and get involved in the community.
“In order to create change in the world, you need a cascade,” Yu says. “And that starts with an individual.”
This is how the resistance begins: With one story followed by another, shared from one person to another, over a table of food.
Courtesy of Chef Alvin Yu
2 cups well-cooked or canned chickpeas, drained and liquid set aside
½ cup tahini, with some of its oil
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 roasted and peeled garlic cloves
Juice from 1 lemon, to taste
1 tablespoon ground cumin or paprika
Salt and ground black pepper
- Roast or sauté chickpeas on high heat or in 400 degree oven, stirring constantly until toasted.
- Roast garlic in oven or sauté with olive oil and salt.
- Combine roasted chickpeas, tahini, cumin or paprika, garlic and lemon juice in food processor and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Purée, add chickpea cooking liquid or water as needed to produce a smooth texture.
- Taste and adjust seasonings. Drizzle with some olive oil and sprinkle with cumin or paprika and some parsley to serve.
Courtesy of Almaz Yigizaw
6 medium chicken legs
3 cups chopped red or yellow onion
1 cup berbere (red pepper)*
1½ cup of butter or oil
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
¼ teaspoon black pepper
Hard boiled eggs
- Remove skin from chicken and wash until it is clean.
- In a medium pan, cook onion until golden brown.
- Add red pepper, mix well with onion and saute for 30 minutes.
- Add butter, garlic and ginger and cook for about 20 minutes.
- Add chicken and cook.
- Add spice based on availability or sprinkle with black pepper and add peeled hard boiled eggs.
- Season with salt to taste.
*Try an Ethiopian market for the berbere, a blend of more than five spices.