The New American Dish
Blending Food, Education and Empowerment
By Matt Lowhe
The food we eat has a lot to teach us, if we are willing to pay close enough attention.
For instance, a single bite of food contains an astounding amount of information at chemical, physiological, ecological, agricultural, culinary and economic levels. Molecular gastronomy allows us to peer into the science of cooking and at the minute chemical transformations that take place when ingredients are combined or heat is applied. Nutritional science picks up once the food enters our body, enlightening us on the large or small, helpful or hurtful transformations that follow. On still another level, the farm-to-table movement has pulled back the curtain on food production, giving firsthand exposure to the places and people responsible for growing, harvesting and producing what we consume. Likewise, both the local and slow-food movements encourage consumers to have a better understanding of the who, what, when, where and how of food preparation and production.
Knowing more about what we eat can thus point us in the direction of food that tastes better, is more nutritious, is grown responsibly or raised humanely and has a positive impact on our local economy.
As it happens, most of the meals we eat do not come with a brochure explaining these various bits of information. However, a recent undertaking by a small group of Omaha restaurants, educators and activists did just that. For a week in the late summer of 2016, the owners and chefs of Kitchen Table and Block 16 restaurants in Downtown Omaha partnered with the Refugee Empowerment Center to create dishes inspired by the traditional foods of two women who have relocated to Omaha, one from Burma (also known as Myanmar) and one from Sudan, complete with a brochure.
The inaugural New American Dish offering took place last September. The idea for the event started with Serena Adlerstein, an educator at the Refugee Empowerment Center in Midtown Omaha. Based on her work with women, often from countries in conflict, and a background in the food industry, Serena saw an opportunity to instill a “more human experience,” such as eating a meal, as opposed to “images of guns and violence” that are typically associated with countries like Sudan and Burma.
From its inception, then, New American Dish was conceived as an opportunity to educate through food. Without close collaboration between the restaurants and the women who inspired these dishes, this education for Omaha diners would not have been possible.
At Kitchen Table, co-owners Colin and Jessica Duggan collaborated with Moorah Khin, a Karen refugee from the border area of Burma and Thailand. The Karen are an ethnic group and the second largest group in each country. Together they created a dish centered around Moorah’s “food memories” from Burma, which started with a traditional Burmese curry base of coconut oil, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric and jalapeño. The curry was then placed on a homemade sourdough flatbread and topped with potatoes, peppers, eggplants and a fish paste made with locally sourced steelhead trout.
The Duggans’ participation in this event was motivated by an interest in community engagement as well as expanding the boundaries of Kitchen Table’s menu. “We’re constantly looking for new ideas,” Colin notes, especially any idea that “helps us to highlight local ingredients.” As much as possible, Kitchen Table uses local ingredients and features a scratch-made menu, so Moorah’s idea for a fish paste turned out to be a great fit.
Diners who ordered this dish were given a brochure with information about the conflict in Burma, and included details about Moorah’s experiences. Additionally, 5% of profits were committed to the New American Women’s Alliance, an Omaha program that works with women from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Syria.
“The response has been great,” according to Colin, who shared that the dish sold out every day it was offered. As an added bonus, the sourdough flatbread that they created for the dish is something they plan to feature on the menu in the future.
Just up the street, Block 16 co-owners Jessica Joyce and Paul Urban sat down with Geila Hassan to create a dish inspired from her childhood in Western Sudan. The result was a variation of traditional Sudanese geema—a stew-like dish typically made with beef, vegetables and an array of spices—packed into an empanada, fitting with Block 16’s emphasis on street food that is fun to eat.
For Paul, a highlight was working closely with Geila, because “talking about food from childhood makes everything better.” The dish did well during the week that it was served, and it was also served with its own brochure about Geila and the conflict in Sudan. Making the effort to “learn about other cultures, especially when it comes to food” has long been a priority for the owners of Block 16. The discovery of previously unknown spices, which they have since used in other dishes in the restaurant, was an unexpected windfall for their participation in the event.
The goal now is to spread the word, in the hopes that more restaurants around Omaha will be interested in another round of the New American Dish. The success of the Karen and Sudanese dishes at Kitchen Table and Block 16 should encourage other chefs and owners to work alongside the Refugee Empowerment Center to collaborate on meals that nourish body, mind and soul. For Paul at Block 16 it’s as simple as finding “any little thing that gets people together,” such as sharing food across and within our melting pot of cultures.
To modify John Berger slightly, to taste is an act of choice. The relationship between our food and ourselves is certainly knowable, and well worth knowing. A brochure may not be handed to us every time we sit down to eat, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t contemplate the ingredients, the transformations, the hard work, and occasionally the hardship, that are present in each bite.
The mission of the Refugee Empowerment Center is to resettle and empower refugees to become self-sufficient through direct services and educational programs. Learn more at RefugeeEmpowerment.org.
The New American Women’s Alliance seeks to develop a community of New American women and girls who feel economically and socially empowered through their abilities as business-minded artisans. Learn more at RefugeeEmpowerment.org/New-American-Womens-Alliance.
Kitchen Table, located at 1415 Farnam Street in Omaha, can be found on Facebook or online at KitchenTableOmaha.com.
Block 16, located at 1611 Farnam Street in Omaha, can be found on Facebook or online at Block16Omaha.com.
Matt Low lives and teaches in Omaha. He is currently interested in further exploring the intersection of social justice and sustainable food, especially in the Midwest.