SPAN’s Somali Women’s Group goes to the Community Kitchen at Coexist

Written by Annie Oliver, with input from Ari Cantwell and Kitty Webster

As part of the co-produced research project Who Decides What’s In My Fridge a group of Somali mothers have been meeting regularly at Single Parent Action Network over the last 6 months to explore some of the factors that regulate food habits. Taking part in the project has given us all the time and space to reflect on our food habits and share our experiences and knowledge of food.  Why is it that we eat what we eat? What would we like to eat more of? Why are we not able to? What food did we grow up eating, and do we eat the same food now? Why/why not? What do we tend to cook for our families? What would we like to learn?

When it comes to cooking there is considerable expertise within the group. Many of the women involved were born and grew up in Somalia or Somaliland and will often cook traditional Somali food at home. How does it feel when their children come home from school saying they had Shepherds Pie and school and they would like to have it at home? What is it? We know what an apple pie is, but what is a shepherd and what is it doing in a pie?! We had some giggles about the fact that the pie is named after the shepherd rather than made out of the shepherd! Imagine if you went to live in Somalia and your child came home from school and said Mum can you cook me laxhoox with mucgmad –where would you start?

And so, Coexist Community Kitchen to the rescue. Back in February, a group of mothers and children ventured over to Stokes Croft to a community building they haven’t been in before to cook a meal together.  We started off by introducing ourselves and talking a little bit about what we cooked and why – this was heavily influenced by where we came from and where we have lived. The women have lived in Somalia, Kenya, England, Italy, Holland and Denmark.  The children talked about their favourite food which is an interesting mix of Somali, English and Italian – interesting when you look at colonisation in Somalia.

Ari, from the Community Kitchen, introduced the session by reflecting on what ‘traditional’ food really means. Given that shepherd’s pie is considered a traditional British food, Ari commented that many people she knew growing up were eating all different cuisines from pesto with pasta to Indian curries. These appeared on people’s tables as much, if not more, than the classic idea of British food! We then discussed what people considered traditional food in Somalia and it became clear that our food is influenced by a multitude of things. The history of colonialism has put people in contact with a tantalising mix of food types that have now become part and parcel of people’s food cultures – whoever they were. In a globalised context, with colonialism, spice merchants, lone travellers, itinerant workers as only some part of our mobile international history, we are left with a constant fluidity in our food cultures. Something that was once ‘traditional’ in one corner of the world can appear thousands of miles away and decades later to be as integral to someone else’s tastebuds on the opposite side of the globe. This makes us think, what is ‘traditional’, what is ‘authentic’? One thing we know is that it definitely isn’t fixed!

And then we cooked, Ari did an incredible job of giving out tasks and dealing with 5 children (and the adults!) calling her name repeatedly. We chopped and chatted. The conversation was really lively with fascinating insights into our lives, culture, faith, travels, interests and of course food habits. There was plenty of cooking expertise in the room, and Ari made it clear that it is all about learning from each other, saying “I’ll teach you this recipe today and I’d love you to come back and teach me a Somali recipe next time.”

We made a shepherds pie with halal minced steak for the majority of the group and a smaller vegetarian shepherd’s pie for Ari and Kitty.  We had some interesting questions about why some people choose not to eat meat. Ari also showed the children how to make apple and blackberry tarts. And then we ate together.  And our first trip to the Community Kitchen was a resounding success. We all ate a little too much. There was plenty to take home for other family members to taste at home.  Our group loved the community kitchen and have already asked about hiring for cooking for Eid or for parents and children to cook together.  The whole group left with full tummies and with a real enthusiasm around the benefits of cooking together and learning from each other.


Annie Oliver is the Parenting Support Manager at SPAN.

Ari Cantwell is the Manager of the COmmunity Kitchen at Coexist

Kitty Webster is the Community Researcher on the project.

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