Cooking class looks to add a dash of the familiar to English lessons for new Americans

 Teela Magar and Cing Neam prepare the roti dough. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

Teela Magar and Cing Neam prepare the roti dough. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, 20 recent immigrants and refugees to the United States streamed into a shiny commercial-size kitchen on the fourth floor of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s central branch. In a new twist on standard language courses, they were there for an English lesson folded into a cooking class. 

The program, dubbed Edible Alphabet, is run through the library and Nationalities Service Center, an organization which helps settle refugees when they arrive in Philadelphia. By holding class alongside a cooking lesson, organizers hope to provide a familiar setting for the students — who hail from over 10 different countries — to connect to each other. 

“It’s been great for us to sort of connect over: ‘Here’s a can of chickpeas. What do you use chickpeas for in your meals? How would you do this differently at home?'” said the library’s program administrator, Liz Fitzgerald.

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Instructor Jillian Gierke goes over the day’s lesson with Cing Neam. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

At the helm of each class is both a chef and an English as a second language instructor. The class starts off with an English lesson focusing on the day’s ingredients. Today, the students are spelling and sounding out words like onion, garlic, tomato and jalapeno. After the language lesson is over, they’ll set out to make chana masala and roti together. 

ESL instructor Jillian Gierke said the class is about much more than just learning English. 

“This is about welcoming new Philadelphians to the city,” she said. “There is no better way to do that than sharing a meal together.”

Student Jules Ntikarahava, said the class is helping him adjust to life in America. He moved to Philadelphia from Burundi two months ago.

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Jules Ntikarahava (middle) at the stove. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

“I like class because it help me to learn very well English,” he said.

“I am happy too much,” said Ntikarahava quietly, about life in America. “There is peace. More than where I am coming from in Africa.” 

For 22-year-old Dua’a Saleh, who came here from Eritrea, the class is a welcoming social space where she can meet friends. She said she isn’t too interested in cooking, but likes learning the English words for ingredients she recognizes. While fellow students rolled out roti and chopped vegetables, Saleh was carefully documenting each step on Snapchat to send her friends back home. 

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Dua’a Saleh uses Snapchat to share the class with friends back home. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

“I’m making a lot of friends because I am sociable,” she said, adding that it’s fun to share her new life with her friends over social media. 

All the recipes used in the class are pulled from the cookbook “Good and Cheap,” which focuses on meals that are affordable for someone on SNAP benefits (what used to be called food stamps). Fitzgerald said learning how to navigate an American grocery store on limited means in an important part of the class. Strawberries, for example, are available in America year-round, but will cost more and not taste as good in January. 

“One of the things we are trying to do is teach people about seasonality and getting the most bang for their buck,” said Fitzgerald. 

It’s the third time the class has been taught and along the way, the instructors said they have learned some lessons and changed things up a little. Fitzgerald said in the first round of classes, they started off by teaching recipes like quinoa salad. They quickly realized the students weren’t into the flavors. 

“They weren’t coming up for seconds,” she said. 

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Chana masala and roti. (Bastiaan Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

That’s when they started teaching recipes that used flavors and ingredients that are more familar to the students, who mostly come from Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In addition to today’s chana masala, the students will go over how how to make pancakes, dumplings, empanadas and savory cobblers during the course. 

“They all knew ginger, they knew garlic, they knew onions,” said Juliane Ramic of Nationalities Service Center. “Food is warmth, it’s comfort, it breaks down those barriers.” 

Galeb Salman left his native Iraq 25 years ago and most recently lived in Thailand. He said he is savoring the choices and freedom he feels since arriving here in September with his wife and five kids. 

“When I think I want to learn, I want to study, I can. When I want to work, I can,” he said. “I feel we have good life now start. This is my new life.” 

And of course, he’s enjoying trying out new foods. 

“I like pizza,” he said. “And what are you calling in Philadelphia? Cheesesteaks.”

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