SSWANA ‘Jeweled Rice’ Art Exhibit in Oakland Drops Term ‘Middle East’

Besides art, the gallery is complemented by a rotating orbit of food offerings. “Art galleries can be very exclusive and unattractive because of the way they’re painted or because of the people we think frequent these spaces,” says Djavahery. “Food is an easy way to invite people in.”

The chefs that Djavahery has brought together for these pop-ups come from a new generation of food bloggers keen to embody their identity. Many of these cooks noted that food is an art. Through their writing and their cooking, they materialize the heartaches of the homeland, reflect on culture and cultivate community.

A range of vegan snacks from Palestinian pop-up Mishmish include zaatar manoushe and cashew-based labneh. (Dana Plucinsky)

“I had never seen Persian cuisine in this way”, exclaims Djavahery, “I was fascinated by this new generation of young chefs who take control and agency of the foods they grew up with and present to the social media sphere.”

Helia Sadeghi from Great dill cooking came to the United States as a refugee at age 17. Cooking has become a way for them to process trauma, loneliness and homesickness for their hometown of Isfahan, Iran. They started Big Dill Kitchen as a cooking blog, which grew into a platform – and a pop-up concept – where they could use food as an expression of their identity as a queer Iranian refugee living in the Diaspora.

The independent, do-it-yourself setting of these pop-ups gave Sadeghi the freedom to stray from America’s limited understanding of “Middle Eastern” food – there’s so much more to it than kebabs, falafel, shawarma and saffron rice.

During their Jeweled Rice pop-up last weekend, Sadeghi offered paneer sabzi focaccia, carrot jam, rose chocolate chip cookies and a rose and chia refreshment. Sadeghi’s iteration of the art of focaccia trend adorned sourdough bread with ingredients typically found in a Persian paneer sabzi platter. Carrot jam, Sadeghi’s favorite, featured beautifully candied carrots with romantic flavors of orange peel and rose.

“I am a queer person from the SSWANA community. Just being an SSWANA person living in the Diaspora is a permanent existential crisis,” Sadeghi adds with a laugh. “I feel so disconnected – and I know it’s a feeling shared by other people living in the diaspora – from certain parts of yourself, from certain parts of your identity. It’s hard to express it or talk about it. It’s amazing to see it come together and see a community built around art and food.

Tomato and herb focaccia squares on a cooling rack.
Big Dill Kitchen’s beautifully adorned focaccia is inspired by a traditional Iranian dish. (Courtesy of Big Dill Kitchen)

Michelle Nazzal started her pop-up hodgepodge (“apricot” in Arabic) to preserve his grandmother’s Palestinian recipes and the practice of community care through food. “The way I see the food I make is that I want people to feel comfortable and in community. I want them to feel nurtured and cared for,” she explains.

In her next appearance at Jeweled Rice, Nazzal will serve a menu of Palestinian vegan snacks to replicate those heartwarming feelings. Nazzal sources hard-to-acquire Palestinian zaatar for his manoushe, resulting in a tangy flatbread. She will be selling vegan labneh, made with cashew nuts instead of yogurt. “I became vegan seven years ago, and labneh was the hardest thing for me to give up. It was important for me to figure out how to make it vegan,” Nazzal says of his most popular dish. traditional cardamom and mint tea will also be available.Update: Originally scheduled for Friday, August 26, the Mishmish pop-up will be rescheduled for a September date.)

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