Forging Understanding Through Food

Luwam Melake (left), a recently arrived Eritrean refugee, and Saba Tesfay, who is half-Hungarian and half-Eritrean, wash, roast and grind coffee beans during a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony. PHOTO: Lauren Frayer for NPR

Luwam Melake (left), a recently arrived Eritrean refugee, and Saba Tesfay, who is half-Hungarian and half-Eritrean, wash, roast and grind coffee beans during a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony. PHOTO: Lauren Frayer for NPR

What are ways to combat xenophobia, an aversion to what is perceived as foreign? Especially when that involves fragile human spirits, miles away from their homelands and hoping on the faintest possibility of refuge in an alien land. Budapest is showing the way.

Customers crowd into a bustling Budapest restaurant for dinner. They open their menus, expecting to read about stuffed paprikas and Hungarian goulash.

But instead they find … Eritrean sourdough pancake bread. Afghan pie. Syrian sweets.

“It’s a little bit difficult, because not all the ingredients are available in Hungary. So a few of them are coming from Austria or other countries. But we can do it!” laughs Judit Peter, the bartender and director of special projects at Kisuzem, a trendy, bohemian bar in Budapest’s historic Jewish quarter. “People really like it. We’ve served 80 portions a day — and that’s quite a lot for a small kitchen like ours.”

Kisuzem is one of 10 Budapest eateries that have been serving up food from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia — in solidarity with migrants and refugees streaming into Hungary from those countries. It’s all part of the Körítés food festival, which aims to combat xenophobia through cuisine.

Andris Roder (left) and Adam Finding, cooks at the Kisuzem restaurant in Budapest, prepare a traditional Eritrean meal of injera bread, chickpea paste and meat stew. PHOTO: Lauren Frayer for NPR

This past week, migrant arrivals to Hungary so far this year surpassed the 300,000 mark. But the right-wing government in Budapest has taken a hard line against migrants, building fences along the country’s borders, and passing new laws that make it illegal to enter Hungary without a visa. Prime Minister Viktor Orban says mostly Muslim migrants threaten Hungary’s Christian character.

But a bunch of Budapest-based foodies are hoping cuisine can heal prejudice. The name of the Körítés food festival is a play on the Hungarian words for “fence” and “side dish.” The week of foodie events — including special menus, cooking demonstrations, art projects for children, pub quizzes — ended Sunday, but organizers hope to raise funds to extend the festival, and expand it to other Hungarian cities.

“If you don’t know something, you can be afraid of it,” Peter says. “And if you do something which can make you closer to that culture, it can help you understand each other — and stop the fear, and make something new.”

Read more here.

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