There is wonderful energy in the kitchen at Terra Preta in downtown Scranton as Chef Donna Vannan and guest chefs Faten Al Mahameed and Ameena Melad prepare for the upcoming Global Tastes of Scranton: Syrian Women Share their Culture & Cuisine. The event will be held on Saturday, October 14, at 6:30 p.m., at the Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple.
It’s a dinner that enriches the community — in mind, spirit, and of course, in good taste. As guest chefs, Syrian refugee women will create a “pop-up restaurant” featuring cuisine and culture from their country. The dinner provides a unique platform for new refugee communities and longtime residents to come together for an evening of welcome and exchange. The October 14 event marks the third Global Tastes dinner in Scranton in two years.
Trish Dickert-Nieves, owner of Terra Preta, has been involved with the program since it began in May of 2016. “What I love about food is that it brings people together. When people sit around a table, the conversation may start about the food, but then it transitions and evolves into more meaningful and deeper community conversations,” she said. “This event bridges the gap from stranger to neighbor.”
In sharing dishes from their native countries, the guest chefs also share their heritage and culture in a way that’s universally appreciated. “Similar to art or music, cooking is a vehicle they can use to translate something from their home country into something they can offer the community,” Ms. Dickert-Nieves said. In sampling authentic Syrian cuisine such as kabsa, kibbeh, grape leaves, hummus, tabbouleh, organizers hope to set the stage for deeper understanding of the families immigrating to the Scranton area from other countries.
Julie Schumacher Cohen, Director of Community & Government Relations at The University of Scranton, is among the founders of the Global Tastes dinners. She explained that creating awareness about the latest wave of immigration into Scranton is one of their goals in organizing the Global Tastes dinners. Educational materials, including recipe cards featuring brief information on the refugee crisis, will be featured at each table.
A cultural event such as this one provides an opportunity to consider how refugees enrich a community, as opposed to focusing on how the community will support the needs of refugees. “We can gain from the new cultures, ideas and experiences they bring to us,” Ms. Schumacher Cohen said. “They have culture, food, skills and talents. We’ve found that even with language barriers, we’ve learned a lot about their culture simply by the joy and devotion they put into making a dish. Hospitality is an important theme in their culture, and Scranton is also a hospitable place with a strong, warm community. We have that in common.”
Terra Preta Chef Donna Vannan is leading the culinary team that will serve about 200 people at the Global Tastes dinner. The team includes two guest chefs from Syria, and a great deal of support from culinary arts students at Lackawanna College under the direction of Chef Mark Seibert and Chef Kristen McNally. “Lackawanna College is generously letting us use their culinary space because it’s right across the street from the Scranton Cultural Center and 10 students will help us roll 200 kibbeh and 400 grape leaves and do all the prep for the dinner,” Chef Donna said.
The menu includes items that some people may already be familiar with, such as hummus, and dishes that may be new to many people: Makali salad (lettuce with fried vegetables, topped with yogurt dressing); tabbouleh (tomatoes, bulger wheat, parsley, lemon juice and oil); stuffed grape leaves with rice; kibbeh (ground beef and bulger filled with more ground beef and cooked with onions and pine nuts); and kabsa (roasted chicken in tomato spice sauce over rice with onions). For dessert, guests will enjoy Halawet El Jibn (sweet semolina and cheese pudding).
“As a chef, it’s been exciting not just to work with different foods ― because I’ve done Middle Eastern cooking before ― but to actually work with people who show me their techniques instead of me trying to figure it out,” Chef Donna said. She also noted the meticulous attention to detail of the Syrian guest chefs. “They are very, very precise about how they want every detail of the dish prepared; every handrolled grape leaf is uniform in size, and just beautiful,” she said. “It’s the same with the kibbeh. They are all the same size, and a lot of attention is paid to ensure the shape is beautiful and smooth. They pay attention to the flavor and presentation of each dish.”
Chef Donna is looking forward to a positive, uplifting event. “The whole evening will be filled with great energy, and beautiful food. We want people to realize that this is a beautiful culture coming into our area with people who are bringing something that will make this area even better,” she said.
Tickets to Global Tastes of Scranton: Syrian Women Share their Culture & Cuisine are available through October 6 for $35 per person. Proceeds benefit the refugee resettlement program of Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton and future Global Tastes of Scranton events. To buy tickets, click here, and be sure to follow the event on Facebook.
Partners & Supporters
Global Tastes partners include: Catholic Social Services, Lackawanna College Kiesendahl School of Hospitality, Lackawanna County Department of Arts & Culture, Lackawanna Heritage Valley National and State Heritage Area, Scranton Cultural Center at the Masonic Temple, Terra Preta Restaurant and the Office of Community and Government Relations at The University of Scranton. The event is made possible through the support of the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce, Lackawanna Heritage Valley National and State Heritage Area, and Scranton Area Foundation.