Cooking a brighter future in Athens

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Senait Neftalem sitting on a sofa, holding a plate of food with several dishes on the table in front of her
Refugees from all over the world are settling in Greece – and bringing the flavours of home. Yiannis Baboulias reports
‘I grew up with a mum who loved cooking’: Hassan Assi opened his own restaurant in the Athens suburb of Glyfada. Photograph: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis for the Observer
Yiannis Baboulias

The refugee crisis has brought hundreds of thousands of people to Greece in recent years, seeking safety and shelter or passage to northern Europe. Many have chosen to stay and make the country their home. One of the many cultural changes these new residents have brought with them to their adopted home is food. Here are three new chefs in Athens reshaping its culinary map.

Eritrean cook Senait Neftalem, preparing for a pop-up event. Photograph: Yiannis Hadjiaslanis for the Observer
Senait is part of the African community that has made the neighbourhood of Kypseli their home. Once a stronghold of the urban Greek working class, the past few decades have seen Kypseli hollowed out as the western part of downtown Athens was abandoned.

Senait is a former soldier from Eritrea, she fled after serving for seven years in the army. She arrived in Greece in 2012, crossing from Turkey to Lesbos on a dinghy. “I tried to leave Greece,” she says “but I didn’t have papers and I was arrested. That was then. Now I want to start something here: my own restaurant.”

For now she works with Options Food Lab (OFL), a non-profit organisation which provides people with the opportunity to showcase their talent, organising pop-up events. In a café near to their office, Senait prepares Eritrean dishes for more than 10 guests. The setting is informal even for Athens; someone is getting a tattoo a few metres away from the diners.

Injera, a traditional East African sourdough bread, makes the basis of an Eritrean dish, topped with stews that include whole eggs and chicken, a thick lentil soup, and beef curry. Senait has prepared all this in the small flat that she shares with her husband. Their marriage took place in May, after he arrived via the same route as Senait. Now they are trying to make a place for themselves in a country in deep economic crisis, with very limited resources. For now Senait is surviving thanks to the community here in Kypseli, and to the networks like OFL.
The neighbourhood of Exarcheia is a centre for many of the initiatives and networks that help refugees stuck in Athens. Steki Metanaston, an organisation for migrants set up to provide anything from language classes to legal help, is the epicentre. Aziz cooks for the organisation, which supplies food to the squats that house refugees around the area.

It takes time and work but it can be done – even now. If you want to get into cooking and make a living here, you can
“I was born in a restaurant, owned by my grandma” says Aziz, a professional cook who specialises in French cuisine. “My brother is teaching at the cooking school I went to and our younger brother is now training at the same one.” Aziz arrived in Greece in 2010 from Senegal and has been involved with activism ever since. “I could have gone anywhere, but I like it here.”

Today he prepares what are essentially Iranian inspired veggie burgers from coriander, parsley and breadcrumbs fried in olive oil.

Working out of a tiny kitchen, he organises a team that feeds hundreds of people every day.

“When Afghan refugees were staying in Pedion Tou Areos last year,” he says, “we were churning out 3,000 dishes a day.”
Hassan Assi arrived from Lebanon in late 2008. He is married to a Greek and despite the crisis he opened Sahara, his own Lebanese restaurant, three years ago in the southern suburb of Glyfada.

“It’s difficult,” he says, “it takes time and work. But it can be done even now. People who want to get into cooking and make a living here, can.” Born in Nigeria, he has worked as a waiter, a car dealer, a caterer and many other jobs before settling for that of a cook and restaurateur.

“I grew up with a mum who loved cooking,” he says. And it shows in the Middle Eastern food at his restaurant. A variety of perfectly prepared and presented appetisers, followed by varieties of excellent meat; all the staples of the Lebanese cuisine are expertly prepared by Hassan.

“Greece could be doing more to keep people here and help them start their own things. Now they won’t give you papers even if you want to invest money and time. It took us a year and half before work became more steady. But now it’s going fine.”

Hassan’s tale is not necessarily the most common. But it shows that it is still possible for newcomers to introduce different tastes and aromas to the Greek culinary scene, and to enhance the experience of eating out in Athens.

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