Iraqis and Russian Jews Schmooze with Fried Foods

Iman Hashim Fihan leads a cooking demonstration of kobba hallab to a group of more than 40 Iraqi refugees and Jewish Russian immigrants. Photo by Alex Styer

If there ever truly was an authentic melting pot, it was in the Reading Terminal Market kitchen on April 17.

The market hosted the fourth interactive cooking demonstration and dinner as part of the “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers: Food as a Bridge to Cultural Understanding” series.

The project brought more than 40 people together from different backgrounds to experience each other’s cuisines and cultures. This session invited Jewish Russian immigrants and Iraqi refugees.

Anuj Gupta, general manager of Reading Terminal Market, said the communities have more in common than they’d think.

“These were two communities that don’t particularly know each other well, but they reside next to one another in the Northeast,” he said. “The focus of this project was either bring together communities that don’t know one another or that have some degree of tension between each other, and to get them to start to connect through this cuisine-based cultural exchange.”

Partnered with HIAS Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations and Penn Project for Civic Engagement, as well as the Southeast by Southeast Porch Light program of Mural Arts Philadelphia, the goal is to establish a foundational understanding of one another’s culture, and through this engagement start to build a relationship.

Gupta referenced sociologist Elijah Anderson’s book, in which he wrote about five public spaces in Philadelphia.

A chapter was dedicated to the “cosmopolitan canopy” of Reading Terminal.

“He observed a level of interaction between strangers occurring here that is hard to find elsewhere. And it was the food that acted as a common denominator cutting through social lines,” he said.

The last “Breaking Bread” session included longtime city residents and Syrian refugees — four days after the first executive action of the Trump administration’s travel ban.

“Whether it’s Syrians or the Iraqi community or the Russian community or frankly any other set of new Americans, any time you can establish right now that the Reading Terminal is a welcoming place, the city of Philadelphia is a welcoming place, in the face of all this nonsense — that’s an important thing to do,” he added.

Private chef Iman Hashim Fihan and Reading Terminal’s own Hershel’s East Side Deli owner Steven Safern led demonstrations of food preparation, à la Food Network.

Safern, alongside his right-hand man Andy Wash, made latkes and stuffed cabbage. Fihan shared her kobba hallab recipe (fried meat pies), arias (flatbread) and baklava, each sharing the significance of the food in their cultures.

Iman Hashim Fihan shows Roman Kovalenko how to make kobba hallab at Reading Terminal Market. Photo by Alex Styer

Fihan has lived in Philadelphia for eight years with her family and started cooking professionally about five years ago, as she was always the go-to chef in her community for weddings and gatherings.

“This food has been made for generations, and it’s part of our traditions,” Fihan said via a translator. “Taking those traditions and honoring them wherever I go is not to be forgotten — they’re meant to be passed on for other generations.”

Wash said he grew up making stuffed cabbage, which includes meat and rice.

“Depending on how much money my father was making at the time, it could be more rice than beef,” he noted.

But no matter which country of origin, he said each family has their own twist on the dish.

“It’s important to keep tradition alive. This is a dish that both my grandparents had their own versions of. My one grandparent was Russian, the other grandparent was Polish,” he said.

He chose his father’s mother’s Polish recipe that evening.

Some participants put on gloves and helped make the meals themselves, stuffing meat into lettuce wraps or kneading a rice mixture into a dough.

The excitement during the preparation of the dishes grew as loud as the sizzling oils they were dropped in. The smell of fried onions and potatoes filled the terminal.

Mohammed Obaid, who grabbed a kobba hallab before the others to become the unofficial taste tester, has lived in Northeast Philadelphia for four years with his wife, Mayyadah Alhumssi.

“It’s nice to have an intercultural thing that we learn about others, and others learn about us,” she said.

“Good for peace,” he emphasized, “to know each other.”

Alhumssi noted an expression in Arabic: “When you eat with someone, you won’t be able to betray him,” meaning when you share bread and salt together, you have an alliance.

Roman Kovalenko, who also lives in the Northeast after moving from Russia three weeks ago, moved here to study and advance his English.

Living in the Northeast with neighbors who are from Ukraine or Russia hinders his ability to speak English as they prefer their native tongue, he said, but events like this are good opportunities for practice.

“Everybody who came, you see many happy faces,” he said, “not because they came only to eat.”

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