Learning culture through food at Sanctuary Suppers

The coconut rice had peanuts and an egg, wrapped into a neat package in a banana leaf with crunchy anchovies, hot chili paste, and rich, warm spices. Nasi lemak, a staple of Malaysian cuisine, isn’t so different from some dishes elsewhere around the globe — it’s not unlike Korean bibimbap, Indian curry, or stir-fried rice with vegetables — but it was new to many of the 50-some attendants of a dinner at Saté Kampar in South Philadelphia last month.

The meal was the sixth in a series of Sanctuary Suppers, modest fund-raising events organized by a group of local activists with the goal of introducing city residents to members of Philadelphia’s growing immigrant communities through food, speakers, and education. Since the first gathering last year, the dinners have raised more than $13,000 for nonprofits and for the businesses hosting the meals.

The idea for the dinners began in early 2017, as a national debate about immigration grew louder following President Trump’s proposed travel ban. Local restaurateurs joined a list of  businesses that are “sanctuaries” for immigrants. A group of activists fresh off the Women’s March, some of whom have years of experience working with the immigrant and refugee communities, were inspired to take action.

“At the beginning, we didn’t really know what we were doing,” said Jonne Smith, one of Sanctuary Suppers’ key organizers. “It was just about getting people together. More and more, our goal is to add activism to it. We get them together to feed them, and then we feed them information.”

Sate Kampar kitchen staff Nurrin Ajmal (left) and Ammar Zuki  prepare the dinner as members of Sanctuary Suppers listen to speakers at the restaurant.

Each dinner costs between $50 and $60 per person, with the group size depending on the capacity of the restaurant. Dinners have been held at El Compadre, the owners of which have held their own events in support of immigrants’ rights; and at Flambo, a Caribbean restaurant on Broad Street. The speakers, usually refugees and members of nonprofit groups, focus on educating diners about different immigrant populations and offering steps attendants can take toward specific goals.

The Saté Kampar dinner was held to benefit Southeast by Southeast, a subset of the Mural Arts Program that focuses on immigrant and refugee families. During the meal, Smith discussed the proposal to add a citizenship question to the U.S. Census, and passed out addressed, stamped postcards for attendees to send to local politicians to register their opposition. She and other organizers compiled booklets with information about Malaysia, “In case people were vague on it but didn’t want to ask,” Smith said.

Camera icon TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Refugee Noor Azizah with Melissa Fogg (left) and Shira Walinsky (right) from Southeast by Southeast speak at the Sanctuary Supper at Sate Kampar.

The goal is not to open minds — the attendees of the dinners are overwhelmingly liberal — so much as to provide people with talking points to help attendees combat the spread of misinformation.

“People say we’re preaching to the choir, and that’s true,” Smith said. “But we want it to be an educated choir. We want people to have facts and data at their disposal to help dispel the many myths about immigrants.”

Guests arrive for the Sanctuary Supper at Sate Kampar.

The Sanctuary Supper was a perfect fit with Saté Kampar owner Angelina Branca, who last year brought some of the city’s top chefs together for a Muhibbah dinner series designed to unite different cultural influences through food. The dinners raised thousands for groups like the Nationalities Service Center and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

“When I look at Philadelphia, the word diverse should be in everyone’s vocabulary,” said Branca, who was born in a town near Kuala Lumpur. “But we are so segregated much of the time. I wanted to think about how we bring people together.”

Eric Edi, president of Africom Philly, a coalition that supports African and Caribbean immigrant and refugee communities, compared the suppers with “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers,” a program organized by Reading Terminal Market that encouraged families of different cultural backgrounds to share meals together. He said the Sanctuary Suppers also help social-service professionals like him broaden their understanding of the city’s residents.

“In Africa, food is what connects you,” he said. “And so often, when we get people in these small groups, it all comes back to food, a person’s culture, their history. The tastes will bring something back to you.”

The next Sanctuary Supper is planned for June 11 at the West Philadelphia Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia, followed by one later this summer at Banana Leaf. For more information, go to facebook.com/groups/135328140436138/.