Great things can happen when the right people share a meal. So it’s no surprise that the origin story for “Recipes for Refuge: Culinary Journeys to America,” the new cookbook from the Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA), began over dinner.
Leslie Ann Miller, co-founder of custom publishing service Girl Friday Productions, attended a dinner party and cooking class at ReWA. While learning to make bariis, a celebratory Somali rice dish, she was struck by the community impact of the Seattle-based organization — and intrigued by the class’s recipe booklet, created by ReWA volunteer Betina Simmons Blaine.
ReWA’s roots go back to 1985, when a group of Southeast Asian refugee women saw a need in their community for access to essential services — English classes, assistance navigating government programs, child care — in their native languages.
Founded as South East Asian Women’s Alliance, by 1992 the group had grown beyond the region and reflected that growth with an updated name. Today, ReWA serves about 12,000 King County clients each year, providing social services such as education, child care, immigration and naturalization services, housing support, and legal assistance for domestic violence and human trafficking. The organization is also a licensed community mental-health provider. The staff speaks more than 50 languages and dialects, and branches stretch from Lake City to Kent.
Thinking the group needed more than a small recipe booklet, Miller offered her company’s publishing services pro bono to upgrade from a booklet into “Recipes for Refuge,” a bona fide cookbook.
Simmons Blaine says the collaboration began with interviews at ESL classes, intended to collect stories of the students’ journeys in addition to their recipes. Volunteer photographer Manuela Insixiengmay then led two days of portrait photography, followed by five days of food photography at the studio of another volunteer, Hilary McMullen. The Girl Friday team then combined these ingredients into a book that blends food traditions with biographies and portraits of contributors.
Published in October, “Recipes for Refuge” includes more than 70 recipes and 30 contributor profiles from regions around the globe. The cookbook can be found at Book Larder, Elliott Bay Books and Third Place Books, via Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and at ReWA’s main office in Columbia City. Proceeds will help complete the final piece of ReWA’s capital campaign, aimed at enhancing the organization’s home base. The building’s expansion adds a gathering hall, preschool classrooms and a teen resource center, along with needed office space.
Throughout the organization, the cookbook project resonated with those hoping to share recipes from home.
Mahnaz Eshetu, a recipe contributor and ReWA’s executive director, came to the U.S. from Iran at age 20, earning her bachelor’s degree in accounting and hospital management before an MBA in economics. She says, “This cookbook represents the vibrant and beautiful cultures of our staff and clients from all over the world, as well as highlighting how the act of sharing food — through recipes and stories — is crucial to creating new relationships that tell us we are ‘home.’ ”
Her recipe for pomegranate khoresh with chicken is placed between a ReWA student’s recipe for Congolese poisson de mer with cassava and another for the Filipino soup sinigang, contributed by Geo Quibuyen, a Seattle rapper and co-owner of Hood Famous Bakeshop. Pick any handful of pages and find a different set of regions represented through recipes ranging from elaborate, feast-worthy dishes to weeknight comfort meals that don’t take long to prepare.
Shiro is one of the latter. This quick, vegetarian stew is so beloved in Ethiopia and Eritrea that four contributors to the book, including Nigist Kidane, submitted recipes for it. The editors melded the variants to include just one version of the dish, the product of compromise.
Kidane has owned Columbia City’s Kezira Café since 2012 and expects to open a vegetarian coffee bar, Café Zanta, this winter in Hillman City. You’ll find shiro on Kezira’s menu as both an appetizer and entree — it’s smooth and thick from chickpea powder, with melded flavors of ginger, garlic, tomato and berbere, the complex spice blend present in many Ethiopian and Eritrean dishes. As a warm dip, it goes down well alongside a St. George beer, the classic Ethiopian brew. As a meal, it has the same rib-sticking comfort of chowder or chili.
Kidane says affordability is part of shiro’s popularity — the few wealthy people in Ethiopia eat a lot of meat, but most everyone can buy chickpea powder. Laughing, she adds, “When you compare other food with shiro … you can eat a lot of shiro.”
Which is the most universal explanation of comfort food there is.
By: Nigist Kidane, Kdisti, Afeworki Ghebreiyesus and Kibreab Ghebremariam, as reprinted from “Recipes for Refuge”
Note: Look for niter kibbeh (spiced clarified butter), chickpea powder and injera at Ethiopian or Eritrean markets like Amy’s Merkato (Hillman City) or Jebena Cafe (Northgate).
Bob’s Red Mill chickpea flour can be substituted, but expect to add a little more water and salt. Berbere is available in the spice aisle of many grocers.
Makes: 6 to 8 side-dish servings
2 inches ginger, peeled and sliced
3 cups boiling water
1 yellow onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
Berbere, to taste (optional)
1 tomato, diced
1 cup shiro (chickpea) powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons niter kibbeh
1. Place sliced ginger in boiling water and cover; allow to steep for a minimum of 5 minutes.
2. When ready to use, strain water through a colander into a bowl. Reserve the ginger water, discard ginger slices.
3. Place onion in a blender or food processor and whir until smooth.
4. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add onion purée along with 2 tablespoons ginger water and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently, so onions don’t brown. Add oil and cook for several minutes. Add garlic, grated ginger and berbere (if using). Stir to combine. Add tomato and continue to cook for a few more minutes.
5. Mix shiro powder into the remaining ginger water and whisk thoroughly. Add to other ingredients. Add salt and niter kibbeh.
6. Cook on low for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning and adjust.
7. Serve warm with injera.
Correction: Nigist Kidane’s last name was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this story.