They say that food brings people together and it couldn’t be more accurate in the story of The Chickpea Sisters. The story begins almost a decade ago, when a charity in southwest London, CARAS (previously known as Klevis Kola), initiated a cooking project for migrant and refugee women. The women met every Saturday to chat, eat, and share their recipes. They saw it as a way to practice their English, as a way to support each other, and as a way to teach each other to cook culinary delights from their respective parts of the world. Pretty soon other people in the community started tasting their food and the women received such glowing reviews that they realized they could take their cooking adventure further. With financial support from CARAS and a few private funders, The Chickpea Sisters as a fully-fledged catering company was born in late 2011.
Today, the venture is made of 12 women from different countries including Somalia, DRC Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Senegal, and Morocco. Now financially independent, the women cater a couple of events a month: from charity events to corporate lunches to supper clubs to training days to weddings. Available dishes span the diverse cuisines of the women’s home countries: Iraqi tabbouleh, potato kibbeh, North African style samosa, Congolese plantain, Moroccan tagine, alecha (a spicy Eritrean lamb stew), Algerian baklava, and dark chocolate tart from Senegal are just some of the salivating options on the menu.
On a trip to London a few weeks ago, I visited The Chickpea Sisters HQ to meet some of the women involved and hear their stories.
Fayrus has a kind face and a gentle voice. She tells me her childhood dream was to become a psychologist as “everyone who meets [her], tells [her] everything in 10 seconds.” Born in Somalia, she grew up in Holland and has been living in the UK since 2006. After finishing her studies in Holland, she couldn’t find a job and so decided to move to London where she had family. She has had some troubles in resuming her studies largely due to bureaucratic reasons but hopes to enroll into university soon and complete her dream of becoming a doctor’s assistant. She missed home—home being Holland—when she first arrived but as time went on, she got used to the UK and whenever she goes back to Holland now, she misses her life in London. She hasn’t been back to Somalia since she left as a child.
Fayrus’ aunt Husana got her involved in the cooking group and Fayrus hasn’t looked back since. “Everyone kept telling us they loved the food and so we decided to take it further,” she says of The Chickpea Sisters’ genesis. She reminisces about an event they catered in Hackney, in east London. “We were outside and there was a tent and it was summer. Everyone who was there was saying they wanted to learn the recipes and keep in touch.” The best thing about the enterprise for Fayrus is learning new things and the communication it opens up. Being able to meet lots of different women and forging friendships has been very special. “We are like a family now,” she says.
Farhia has piercing intelligent eyes and an energetic disposition. She came to the UK from Somalia 24 years ago. Civil war was raging in her country and so there was no option but to leave. Besides being a member of The Chickpea Sisters, Farhia is involved in other work with CARAS, helping minority groups in the community. “As we are all foreigners, we have common ground,” she says about the enterprise. An event that stands out in her mind was from early on in The Chickpea Sisters’ story when they catered an event for a Moroccan charity that helps children on the street.
Istarlin is quiet and composed and there is something innately warm about her. I’m not surprised when the other women tells me that it was Istarlin who initiated the idea for The Chickpea Sisters to become a business and is their “top chef.” Migrating to the UK from Holland 13 years ago, Istarlin, who is also originally from Somalia, has fond memories of coming to the UK. She doesn’t have any family in Holland and there is not a large Somali community there so coming to the UK where she does have family and which is very multicultural seemed natural. She got involved with CARAS when it was Klevis Kola many years ago and helped run community projects such as sewing and knitting clubs, English conversational classes, school clubs on Saturdays, and helping with practical matters such as opening a bank account and writing a CV. Asked about her favorite event that The Chickpea Sisters have catered, Istarlin remembers the wedding of one of CARAS’ directors Chris, which as she and Fayrus say, made them feel more like guests rather than just a catering company.
So what does the future hold for The Chickpea Sisters? “The aim is to become known. We know we have special food because we have so many people, so many cultures, so many colors together, and you can’t get that in any market or restaurant. Because we are so diverse, we can offer something different,” says Fayrus.
One of the venture’s original funders (and the woman credited with giving The Chickpea Sisters their name), Isabel, is helping them to develop a cookbook, and the venture hopes to expand into a line of products such as dips and sauces that they can sell in stores. Personalized aprons and bags are on the way. The Chickpea Sisters are also giving back. They help train and provide support for a new cooking group of migrant women that runs every Tuesday. It is nice to hear that they have come full circle and can inspire others to reach higher. What is one day a cooking group can be a successful business the next.
To have The Chickpea Sisters cater your next event, get in touch via email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +4420 8767 5378.
Main image shows some of The Chickpea Sisters, with Farhia on the far left and Istarlin third from right.
All the photos courtesy of The Chickpea Sisters.