Healthy Home Cooking: Makeovers and a Cookbook for Ethnic Recipes

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As always, Nadia Atef, an immigrant from Morocco now living in San Diego with her husband and two young daughters, made special foods for the holidays this year. But while she usually prepares holiday dishes from her country, this year she added a new one, spinach soup, an Egyptian delicacy. What’s more, the version Atef brought to the holiday table had been specially revamped by a group of home cooks Atef is a part of, to make the dish healthier than traditional recipes. The verdict: “my mother in law was with us, and loved it,” says Atef.

That spinach soup, and close to two dozen more healthy versions of African and Middle Eastern recipes developed by the group, are now part of a just launched cookbook, Around the World at the Farmers’ Market: Recipes from San Diego’s African and Middle Eastern Community that is being distributed at farmer’s markets and also available online. Recipes, in addition to the spinach soup, include chicken tagine, Atef’s contribution, and Kenyan braised greens.

The new cookbook is a collaborative effort of UC San Diego’s Department of Pediatrics’ Youth and Community Mobilization Programs, United Women of East Africa in the City Heights section of San Diego which works with women on empowerment and healthy living, and Leah’s Pantry, a San Francisco based healthy food initiative that offers workshops and training statewide aimed at helping low income individuals and families access and eat healthy foods. The group also worked with the International Rescue Committee of San Diego to include women from Egypt and Iraq, and their recipes.

The new cookbook was the dream of Amina Sheik Mohamed, MPH, who is the director of the UC San Diego program. Mohamed, from Somalia, has been involved since 2004 with a cooking class for immigrant mothers and daughters, mostly from East Africa, first held at the City Heights Wellness Center in San Diego. “The cooking class had multiple purposes,” says Mohamed, “including helping mothers share healthy versions of recipes from home, as well as prepare American dishes such as lasagna or hamburgers that kids could not always eat at school because many are Muslim and observe Muslim laws of food preparation.”

Our goal with this project is to make it easier for people to make healthy choices,” says Mohamed, whose UC program promotes healthy lifestyles to combat chronic disease and obesity and is supported by the San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency. “Our cultures are around food, so when we are together we ask how we make things, and it’s easier if it’s written down to share recipes at the community level.”

Countries represented in the cookbook include Uganda, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Egypt, Morocco and Iraq.

To get the cookbook published, Mohamed approached Adrienne Markworth, the founder of Leah’s Pantry because she knew the group had already produced some specialty cookbooks, including The Tenderloin Cooking School: Smart Meals for Small Spaces, a cookbook that doesn’t require a full kitchen to prepare the recipes.

The women met by culinary region in small groups and decided on traditional recipes that could be adapted to be lower in fat, sugar and salt. Nadia Atef says a change to her tagine recipe was using lower-in-fat chicken breast rather than the whole chicken. “They were used to plates filled with rice and high fat meats,” said Sheik Mohamed. “We’d say use more vegetables, less rice and maybe chicken breast instead of lamb.”

One cookbook participant has two young children and a husband who has only been able to find a part time job. The family gets $92 a month in SNAP benefits which helps the mother afford the produce for the recipes in the cookbook and other recipes the group has shared. “This helps my kids to grow up healthy,” the young mother says, adding that being a part of the group has helped her learn other healthy and money saving ideas. For example, before she would make a full bag of rice and toss out what was left over. The other women taught her to make as much as she needed, and now she has to purchase rice less often than she did before.

Thitina Shita, 46, who came from Ethiopia in 2003, says a key thing she has learned as part of the group “is to use measuring spoons and cups…in my country we didn’t measure.” She says she also learned to make grilled hamburgers, instead of fried one, for her two school age sons. Her husband, a civil engineer, has dealt with high blood pressure but it has been more under control since Thitina began serving the healthier recipes.

Funding for the cookbook came from the California Department of Social Services, which used a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The women tested their revamped recipes at the United Women of East Africa kitchen City Heights and Leah’s Pantry staff, which includes dieticians, used software to make sure the recipes met USDA guidelines for nutrition, affordability and ease of preparation. For now, the recipes are all in English, but photos show each step and Mohamed would like to see the cookbook translated into the languages of each country represented. The recipes are also available on cards which will be handed out at farmer’s market, and appear on Eatfresh.org, a website funded by the San Francisco Human Services Agency.

Some of the women whose recipes appear in the cookbook have started a catering company which allows them to showcase both their cooking skills and their entrepreneurship. “They’re in particular demand in California because so many of the recipes are vegetarian, and some even vegan,” says Mohamed.

Following this cookbook, Marksworth and Mohamed plan to work together on ones showcasing healthy versions of recipes from Native Americans and Asian Pacific Island communities in San Diego.

Markwork says the Middle astern and African cookbook is the most unusual project she has worked on so far, but calls it the coming together of two different things that are current in food movement—healthier food and food culture. “You can honor your food traditions and be healthy.”

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