Eman Altaani cracks fresh pepper into a pot of sizzling ground beef and onions, surrounded by a group of students. Most have never tasted Syrian food, let alone cooked it.
On this Saturday morning, they crowded into Altaani's small kitchen to watch her every move and take careful notes.
"Would you ever make it with lamb? Do you like it with lamb or always beef?" one student asks.
“Yeah, I like it with lamb,” Altaani replies.
On the menu is Shishbarak, a Syrian dish of dumplings stuffed with beef and cooked in a tangy yogurt broth. Altaani says it's a food she used to cook during the cold winter months back home.
“I am from Syria,” Altaani says. “In America, I have one year.”
While chopping onions the students work through a language barrier to get to know the chief.
“How many kids do you have?” “Iman, you were a teacher, right?”
Helping people find commonality is, in large part, why Amanda Warner co-founded the non-profit organization Better Plate. For $30, students get a crash course in another country’s cuisine and a home-cooked meal – not from a trained chef, but from refugees recently resettled in Columbus and adjusting to life in America.
They’ve only had two events so far, Warner says, but they plan to find immigrants from all over the world to lead these cooking classes.
“I think just watching people meet over food and talk about, ‘Oh this is what my mom used to make,’ or, ‘This is what I make when I'm not feeling well,’ it's just such a way – food’s very humanizing,” Warner says. “I mean, we all eat three times a day, generally.”
Student Colleen Moidu says she was curious about Syrian cuisine, and is quickly learning that forming these tiny meat dumplings takes years of practice.
“It is not as easy as she makes it look,” Moidu says, laughing. “I think it will get easier with time.”
For now, it’s still tough. The dough rips and filling spills out. Altaani tries to correct her student's mistakes.
Altaani says Shishbarak is named for the shape of the dumplings, which look like little raviolis.
“Old ear man,” Altaani says. “It does look like an old man's ear!”
Altaani wants to explain her technique for cooking Syrian rice, but can't translate a few key words. Thankfully, one of the students, Ammer Smender, happens to speak Arabic.
“If you don't cover it like that, the rice will stick together,” Smender interprets.
Smender moved to Ohio from Syria over 20 years ago, leaving his family behind to get an education. He’s here because this dish brings back memories.
“I remember eating this as a child,” Smender says. “But I remember it being slightly different, maybe because we came from different regions of Syria.”
Smender and Altaani stand at very different points in the immigrant experience. Smender is an educated professional with an American wife, while Altaani is struggling to get a driver’s license and study English.
As she pinches and folds tiny dumplings, Altaani takes the opportunity to talk about more than just cooking, like life as a refugee.
“She said she didn't feel like they were alive in Jordan and they could not provide for their families, and they had to rely on their relatives sending them money from other countries,” Smender says, interpreting for Altaani.
Altaani says life in Columbus is great but Syria will always be home. She plops the dumplings into a vat of boiling broth, where they cook for another 10 minutes.
The food is plated up for a group meal. Before she takes a seat, student Julie Kimmet says this was her first time talking to a refugee from Syria.
“I feel like most people probably don't, we don't see them incorporated into our immediate communities very easily,” Kimmet says. “I feel like you kind of find them in little pods throughout the city.”
Everyone takes their first bite of Shishbarak, and the room goes momentarily. Then conversation picks back up.
“This is delicious,” the students say. “Thank you, Iman.”