With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, a look at the League of Kitchens, a culinary school that has moved online, inviting you (virtually, of course), into the homes of immigrant women from around the world.
On a warm Sunday afternoon, I’m hunched over the counter in my small Brooklyn kitchen, rolling out dough with an olive oil bottle—my makeshift rolling pin. Behind me I listen to the gentle murmur of my Uzbek cooking instructor’s Damira’s guiding voice, whose mantra of add more flour if the dough is still sticky repeats over Zoom like a meditation chant. I dutifully sprinkle a palmful of flour on my flattened dough, awaiting further instructions.
It’s here, in my own kitchen, that I’ve finally been transported up and away from Brooklyn, from the terrors of this pandemic, and into the doughy, inviting hands of Damira, who teaches Uzbek cooking classes at the League of Kitchens. Normally, the League of Kitchens operates like the many culinary schools in New York: in person, but with one important difference. Instructors from around the world—namely older immigrant women—invite a small group of students into their homes throughout Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, providing an in-depth culinary journey through intensive recipe instruction.
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There’s Mirta from Argentina, who teaches you how to form pillowy gnocchi, slathered in pesto. Yamini from India, who lives in Kew Gardens, Queens, guides you in swirling together a cucumber and yogurt raita, primed to be mopped up with warm rounds of aloo paratha (handmade charred flatbreads stuffed with spiced potatoes and onions). And there are other women, too, who hail from a league of nations: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Japan, Lebanon, Nepal, and Mexico.
These days, however, the League of Kitchens has evolved with the times: All cooking classes have moved online. Which is how I’ve found myself covered in flour in my tiny kitchen, pinching dough, jammed with spiced butternut squash and onions, into sambusas, a traditional Uzbek pastry. I’m not the only one here: Along with Damira, there are a handful of other students, whom I’ve only just met over Zoom, also dicing cubes of butternut squash and brushing egg wash over completed pastries.
Founder Lisa Gross has helmed the League of Kitchens since its inception in 2014, where she’s moved from having just a few instructors to boasting a full cast of women. The idea for the business emerged out of Lisa’s own experience growing up, where her Korean grandmother lived with her family, commanding the kitchen with her cooking.
“Whenever I wanted to help in the kitchen or showed interest in cooking, she’d always be like, ‘Don’t worry about cooking. You should go study because studying is more important,’” Lisa explains. “She was coming from a place where she didn’t value her own cooking skills or knowledge. She wanted me to have educational opportunities. I really understand that, but it also means I never learned to cook from her.”
When her grandmother died, all the recipes, knowledge, and expertise disappeared with her—a saga often echoed by many families. Later on, when Lisa began to fall in love with cooking, she attempted to replicate the Korean dishes from her childhood, but to no avail. Nothing tasted as good as when her grandmother had prepared it.
“I had this realization that there are all of these ways of doing things that you need to learn from a person that are based on sensory cues,” Lisa says. A recipe can only guide you so far. Lisa argues that you often need someone to actually tell you how the dough should feel, or what the spices should smell like, or how to account for flour and water on a muggy day.
And so the League of Kitchens was born, powered by exceptional home cooks from around the world who welcome people into their homes, teaching passed-down family recipes. These courses provide an opportunity to create cross-cultural learning, exchange, and connection—through food.
“The fullest expression of cuisine is found in the home, not in a restaurant,” Lisa says. “To really get the best food of so many cultures, you have to go to someone’s house.”
And while that may not be possible at this very moment, the sentiment remains the same—even if it’s virtual. As I roll my sambusa dough into one long log, I can see Damira’s hands doing the same thing. I mirror her movements, watching as she gently pushes four fingers into each tube of dough, creating eight even, dimpled circles. Mine are a little more lopsided, a little more rugged, but no one has to know. Damira promises even the most crooked of sambusas will still taste delicious.
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After we’ve folded and pinched our sambusas shut, we brush each triangle pastry with an egg wash, then sprinkle the tops with sesame seeds. They’re baked in the oven for 25 minutes, or until they’re golden and glistening. Damira kindly asks us to show her our sambusas, and we all proudly hold up our pastries, my Zoom square a twin of my compatriots. An enormous smile is plastered on Damira’s face as she approves our sambusas, a resounding, “Well done!” grandly emerging from her lips.
Damira asks that we all congregate together to share in our splendors. I break open a sambusa, letting the steam escape from its earthy depths, and take a bite. My sambusa shatters upon impact, a flaky mess of crispy dough and cumin-scented butternut squash.
Sure, you could enroll in a culinary school where restaurant chefs set their foundation. And in a city like New York, there are plenty of options. But there’s something so much more intimate and personal about garnering knowledge from someone who purely wants to share their culture and cuisine. After all, what’s more comforting and nostalgic than a taste of home out of your kitchen?
“We charge the same amount as the International Culinary Center,” Lisa says, “because what we’re saying is learning from these women has the same exact value as learning from a fancy French chef.”
Ahead, Damira shares her recipe for sambusas, a flakey, often savory, pastry that’s a staple in Uzbek cuisine. The dough is the most delicate part of the recipe, buoyed by several folds, rolls, and cuts. Once the dough has been rolled into a log, you’ll snip it into eight equal pieces, press four fingers into it, then roll each dimpled round into a circle, primed to be filled with butternut squash (or any filling you want). They’ll emerge from the oven crisped up and golden brown, a wonderful snack that promptly transports you to Central Asia—no plane fare required.
Spiced Butternut Squash and Onion Sambusa Recipe
Weddings in Uzbekistan have many special traditions. Sambusa are served, usually filled with meat (though this version is vegetarian), at the last stage before the actual ceremony. The bride’s family brings a big bowl filled with sambusa as a gift for the groom’s family, symbolizing strength, prosperity, and responsibility.
Butternut Squash and Onion Sambusas
- 1 large egg
- 3⁄4 teaspoon table salt
- 1⁄3 cup water
- 1⁄8 teaspoon sunflower or other neutral oil
- 1 1⁄4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed for kneading and dusting
- 6 ounces raw butternut squash peeled, seeded, cut into 1⁄4-inch cubes (about 1 1⁄2 cups)
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1⁄2 cup)
- 1⁄2 teaspoon table salt
- Pinch ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- Pinch teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to your spiciness
- 3 tablespoons sunflower or other neutral oil
- 1 large egg yolk
- Splash of water
- Sesame seeds, for sprinkling
- For the dough: Put the egg in a medium bowl. Dissolve the salt in the water and add to the egg. Whisk in the oil. Put the flour into a medium bowl and add the liquid. Mix with your hands, kneading and pinching and using your knuckles to knead. Add a few drops of water if the dough is too dry, or sprinkle with a little more flour if it’s too sticky. You want it to come together, lifting the flour from the bowl, so it’s smooth and not sticky. Form the dough into a ball. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes (at least 15 minutes).
- For the filling: Mix the squash, onions, salt, pepper, and oil in a large bowl. Crush the cumin seeds in your hands and stir into the squash. Stir in the cayenne.
- For rolling out the dough: Sprinkle the round with flour and press into it with your knuckles. Give a half turn and press again. Repeat for two more turns. The round will be about 1/3-inch thick and 8 inches in diameter. Sprinkle with a little more flour and start to roll it out, turning a quarter turn after a few rolls. Roll lightly, not pressing down too hard on the dough. Continue to roll the dough, turning quarter turns, until it’s a 20-inch round. This process creates a phyllo-like dough with many delicate layers. It will be thin and somewhat transparent, but sturdy.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with wax paper.
- Pour the oil on the dough and spread with your hands to cover. Roll it up into a 1 1/2-inch thick log, then fold in half. Cut at the fold to make 2 logs. Cut each log into 4 pieces. Stand each piece on its end and push it into itself. Sprinkle dough with some flour and roll out to about a 6-inch round. Fill each round with about 2 tablespoons of the filling.
- Fold the dough into a triangle: Hold the dough at 10 and 2 o’clock and bring the edges together to meet at the center of the filling. Squeeze to seal. Then take the dough at 6 o’clock and bring to the center. Squeeze to seal. Turn it over and tuck in the corners to make a neat triangle.
- Put the sambusa seam side down on the prepared baking sheet. Whisk the egg yolk and water together. Brush with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake until golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes (put the tray on the middle rack for the first 10 minutes and then move it to the top rack for the rest of the time).
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