Cooking and culture will blend together in a variety of classes at the Tucson Jewish Community Center starting this month. The classes will emphasize healthy eating and the importance of cooking together as a family, as well as sharing food and culture from around the world. All dishes will be kosher and vegetarian.
“By offering these classes we are trying to showcase our amazing cooking demonstration area while creating a place for families to work together,” says Barbara Fenig, director of arts and culture at the Tucson J. “I also have been energized by teaching kosher laws to the instructors so they can tailor their dishes to be appropriate for our classes.”
“We include food from different cultures because sharing a meal is important everywhere in the world,” adds Fenig. “We want people to learn about other cultures in ways that promote our Jewish values of welcoming the stranger, making new friends and respecting the differences between people.”
The J has hosted Somali and Syrian cooking classes this year and plans to offer an Ethiopian cooking class next spring. Fenig worked with Piri Lanes, an employment specialist at the International Rescue Committee, to come up with cooking classes designed to give refugees a chance to introduce their cultures to the community and also to earn some money. In 2016 the IRC helped more than 26 million people around the world whose lives and livelihoods were shattered by war and natural disasters. In Tucson, the IRC helps refugees with food, housing, jobs, medical needs, legal issues, and integrating into the local community.
Chef Shahd, a Syrian refugee who came to Tucson last spring, will teach people how to make Syrian delicacies on Sundays from Sept. 17 through Oct. 8. Fenig says Chef Shahd is a 26-year-old mother of four who is just as excited to share her culture as her food. Her classes hosted by the J this spring were sold out.
Another refugee, Chef Samiro Elmi, taught a class on Somali food in August at the J. Elmi is originally from Somalia, but lived in Kenya before coming with her three children to Tucson in March.
“Taking these cooking classes gives you a cultural window on the world,” says Susan Ridgway, who took Elmi’s class in August along with her 11-year-old son, Rohan.
“Samiro gave us a good sense of the people as well as the food,” she says. “Rohan has been interested in cooking for a few years and he enjoys using the cookbooks we have at home and learning about the ingredients.” Ridgway’s husband, Jayadev, is from India, and she says that Somali cooking is similar to the food of India. Her 7-year-old daughter, Leela, is just beginning to take an interest in cooking.
“We gave a dinner party and Rohan made the rice dish we learned about in the class,” says Ridgway. “He was very careful to make the dish like the one from the class. Everyone who came to the party loved it and took some home.” The dish is made with Basmati rice, vegetables, cilantro, garlic, and cumin, and is often served with raisins and a chile pepper sauce.
The season’s first class is Family Cooking on Sunday, Sept. 10 from 1-3 p.m., and Fenig says people can call as of Sept. 8 to see if there are any spots available. The other scheduled classes include Learn to Bake Bagels (Oct. 15); Farm to Table Cooking (Oct. 29); Cookies, Pies & Cake Baking (Nov. 12); Kimchi & Korean Cuisine (Dec. 3); and Breakfast Pastries (Dec. 17).
“I would love to hear what topics members of the community are curious about so we can plan for future classes,” Fenig says. She recently attended Hazon, a Jewish food conference in Connecticut, where she got ideas about cooking for holidays, using seasonal produce and creating healthier versions of traditional Jewish recipes. Some of these ideas might appear as classes at the J.
For more information on cooking class schedules, fees and to register, visit tucsonjcc.org/cooking or call 299-3000.
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.