Students rushed to help prepare the feast Rana Al Mozani and Sundus Al Ani were teaching them to cook in a SeaTac Lutheran center’s large kitchen.
The aroma of fried dates, cardamom, curry, cumin, Ackawi cheese, rice and chicken had been swirling above the Iraqi dishes — some that the students had never smelled, tasted or heard of before — for more than two hours, and they could hardly wait to eat it.
Al Mozani and Al Ani, who are observing Ramadan (the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset), are a bit more disciplined, and not just because they had to wait until sundown to eat.
Both are recent refugees from Iraq. They say they know how lucky they are to have made it to the United States, but becoming an economically stable part of American society brings a whole new set of obstacles for them to overcome, especially while each raise two school-age boys.
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But the women, who hope to start their own restaurant someday, also know there are opportunities to be seized.
Veena Prasad and Aparna Rae said it’s for women like Al Mozani and Al Ani that they started Project Feast, the nonprofit that’s training the Iraqi women and about 25 other refugees and immigrants to become cooking teachers, caterers and, someday, entrepreneurs.
Many of them live in South King County after leaving volatile homes in countries like Burma, Sudan, Somalia and Vietnam.
“We want to make sure these people — especially women, who have these amazing cooking skills — that we give them that opportunity to explore their own capabilities outside of the home,” said Prasad.
So far, those working for Project Feast at $13 an hour have catered 15 events for about 1,500 people total, Prasad said. Trainees have led public cooking classes, which students pay for, to learn how to make Burmese, Iraqi and Sudanese cuisine. More are planned for this summer.
Depending on the venue, the cooking classes can accommodate eight to 15 students. Some are held in large, open kitchens like the one at Lutheran Community Services Northwest in SeaTac. Others can be held in someone’s home anywhere in the Seattle metro area.
Prasad said the classes offer some of the best overall opportunities for Project Feast participants, many of whom are still learning English, how to speak up for themselves and how to lead.
Al Mozani, 32, and Al Ani, 37, had some help translating ingredients and directions, but still managed to teach and joke with their students.
As student Zac Eskenazi paused in front of onions he was tasked with chopping, Al Ani smiled at him and asked him “Cry?”
Eskenazi said “Oh no, no, no, I can do this” as about 10 others in the room laughed and waited for the tears to come.
Students in Project Feast cooking classes say they have a lot to learn.
Allison Carver, of West Seattle, said Sudanese teacher Rehab Babiker taught her how to fry falafels made of dill, parsley, garlic, chickpeas and lemon.
“I appreciate people taking time to share what they know,” said Carver, during the class. “I think it’s a great way to make the world a smaller place and eat really great food at the same time — I’m really excited to go do that next.”
As the nonprofit grows, Prasad said, she intends to add six-month training classes this fall that will give participants more intense training and work experience. Ultimately, she’d like to see participants find at least a part-time job to learn more about how this country’s food industry works.
Al Mozani and Al Ani aren’t as foreign to American food culture as you might think, though. They say they’ve been taking notes since they started watching such TV chefs as Emeril and Paula Deen while still in Iraq.
They want to be able to showcase their own culture’s cuisine, though. They hope its dishes aren’t so esoteric that a future restaurant wouldn’t be marketable.
Often restaurant owners have to generalize and Americanize their menus to make their businesses survive, Prasad said.
“That’s part of what I hope this nonprofit can accomplish, too: elevating and putting a spotlight on cuisines and cultures most people don’t know anything about.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.