Meet the migrant chefs revolutionising Cork's food scene

Izz and Eman Alkarajeh at Izz Café on George’s Quay in Cork. The couple got a hand from Darina Allen when they first started producing Palestinian food in Cork at farmer’s markets.

Izz Alkarajeh emerged from direct provision to open one of Cork’s most exciting new restaurants – Izz Cafe. Joe McNamee on our new migrant chefs, their respective cuisines and the impact on our native dishes

Our geographical location at the edge of Europe means we have seen comparatively few of the some 68 million displaced migrants estimated by the World Health Organisation to exist in the world today but there are still approximately 6,000 asylum seekers in the Irish Direct Provision system.

As a people whose own ‘diaspora’ means there are an estimated 80m people globally claiming Irish heritage, we are still finding our way when the shoes are on other feet and those feet are specifically headed our way.

Yet, since time immemorial, food remains a powerful common denominator—that old saw about ‘breaking bread together’ crops up regularly in the new testament, the notion being that in so doing, ‘enemies’ will become friends.

Claudia Roden, the renowned food writer and food anthropologist, in Cork recently to deliver a lecture, has made it a lifetime’s work to follow the migrant journeys of various national cuisines, beginning with her classic 1968 tome, A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

With three grandparents born in Aleppo, in Syria, who migrated to Egypt for economic reasons, her own immediate family, as Jews, were forced to leave Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956.

Having made her home in Britain since the early 1950s, she still recalls Theresa May’s comments of two years ago when she said ‘citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere’ and is deeply saddened by the renewed suspicion of ‘immigrants’ in Britain and elsewhere in the world.

“A lot of people felt like I did, a stab in the heart,” says Roden, “not just Jews but everyone who has been displaced and suddenly it really hurt them as well, That’s what the Russians under Stalin said when they persecuted the Jews, that they were ‘international and cosmopolitan.’

“I love Britain, am committed to Britain, loyal to Britain, but I speak French as a mother tongue and come from Jews of a Muslim world — I care about Muslims, I speak Egyptian. But we are a global world and everyone is moving about, either through choice or otherwise.”

Izz Cafe, owned and operated by Palestinian couple Izz and Eman Alkarajeh, who along with their four children, spent a year and a half in Direct Provision. Picture: Dan Linehan
Izz Cafe, owned and operated by Palestinian couple Izz and Eman Alkarajeh, who along with their four children, spent a year and a half in Direct Provision. Picture: Dan Linehan

Recently, I sat on the opening night of a little cafe on Cork’s George’s Quay, and watched an absolutely buzzing room packed with people, the majority of them Irish, and all there to celebrate their friends’ new business venture, Izz Cafe, owned and operated by Palestinian couple Izz and Eman Alkarajeh who along with their four children, spent a year and a half in Direct Provision.

Bread was more than broken, as all and sundry piled into a delicious feast of Palestinian food, and with not a drop of alcohol in sight, it was safe to say these were not mere opening night liggers scavenging a few free drinks.

From Halhul, a town north of Hebron and south of Bethlehem, Izz Alkarajeh went to school and then university, in East Jerusalem, eventually graduating with a degree in Computer Science.

“I tried teaching for a semester immediately after graduation but it wasn’t for me, I didn’t find myself in education so I decided to seek a job in my field but in Palestine there are almost no IT companies so I started looking abroad.”

Izz got a job in Saudi Arabia and moved there in 1999, meeting Eman, now his wife in 2002.

“My wife’s family is originally from the same abandoned town [over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were displaced or expelled from over 400 towns and villages during the 1948 Palestine War] as mine in Palestine but she was born in Jordan. Our families met together in Halhul and became friends and I met her in Jordan.

“But because of the lack of [Palestinian] civilian status for her and because I was living in Saudi Arabia, I thought, we can get married and work on the status issue later.”

The couple applied in 2005 to return home as a family but by 2016 they were still waiting and with Izz’s work contract in SA coming to an end, they would be unable to remain.

“We felt the family would be under the risk of being split — she would have to go to her family in Jordan but we felt Jordan would not give me status and I would have to go back to Palestine and so we applied for skilled immigration to Canada.

“We were in the process when they changed the age requirements down to 35 and I was 39 at that stage so we had to find alternatives. We came to Ireland and applied for asylum which took about a year to come through.”

Their first month in Direct Provision was spent in Dublin: “There was no cooking facilities and we had to eat the food we were served and it was really horrible —our kids didn’t eat anything except chips and biscuits for a whole month, and the processed food didn’t suit the family in general. We were used to traditional Palestinian food cooked by Eman.”

“People now realise food is culture,” says Roden, “food is something you eat, that goes into your body and becomes part of who you are.

Food is the last thing exiles or emigrants lose. They stop wearing the clothes, they stop speaking their language, they no longer listen to their music but the importance of food remains.

After a month, they were transferred to a Cork centre. The following week, the centre they had left in Dublin became the first in the country to offer cooking facilities to the asylum seekers.

During his time in Direct Provision, Izz kept busy, first doing a ‘start-your-own-business’ course with SECAD and then engaging with other business support entities.

“By that stage, I had a lot of Irish friends, friends I made since coming here and one of my best friends was pushing me to accept an IT job because it’s a high paid sector.

“I started applying after I knew my status was approved and doing some interviews but at the same time I became convinced that there was potential, a market for our food in Cork, because when we shared our foods with Irish friends and friends in Direct Provision, the reaction was always very strong, they loved it.

“Our best friend said if you insist I have a good friend in food who will advise you and he was hoping that the friend would tell us not to bother, to go away from this idea and go back to the IT sector.”

The ‘friend’ of their friend turned out to be Darina Allen.

“On the contrary, Darina liked the idea and was encouraging and I found her well educated about our cuisines, she knew most of our dishes.

“She suggested cooking manaeesh [a flatbread with toppings, baked in the oven] and said these could be massive and you will have almost no competition and in order to avoid large investment, start with a market stall.

“She connected us to her son-in-law Rupert [Hugh-Jones] who runs farmers’ markets in Cork and we got on the waiting list.”

Eman grew up in a large family of 11 children, cooking since childhood with her mother and sisters. She trained as an interior designer in Jordan and in Saudi Arabia, she took culinary classes.

On their first day at Mahon Point Farmer’s Market, their entire stock sold out in two hours and a new market star was born. With Hugh-Jones advising them, they invested in a proper stall set-up and began weekly trading.

“After starting the markets we really saw the potential of our foods and the skill of Eman as well in really presenting it. Even when the weather was terrible, she still gave it the same quality and we got huge feedback, interviewers with food bloggers and journalists and they loved the food.”

Just a few short weeks ago, Izz and Eman’s dream came true as Darina Allen cut the ribbon, performing the opening ceremonies at their brand new cafe/restaurant, Izz Cafe.

Both admit they are still learning about Irish produce but for the moment their favourite Irish dish shows just how much they have connected with their new home — mashed potatoes with butter.

“I would hope one day peace will be established in the Middle East and that we can return as a family but I am not a Palestinian exclusively any more,” says Izz.

I am now an Irish-Palestinian and if I ever did get to return to Palestine, I would call myself an Irish-Palestinian.

And maybe even open an Irish restaurant? Izz chuckles: “Yes, and I could serve mashed potatoes!”

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