The power of food for integration

I love to eat. So much so, that my friends and family often ask, 'how on earth are you not the size of a house?!' When I'm not out trying new restaurants, you can find me cooking in the kitchen, and if I'm not there, I'll be thinking about my next meal (probably while having a snack).

So, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that a key part of TimeBank's Talking Together course is a celebration, involving the sharing of food. It is my favourite part of the course, not only because of the delicious dishes, but because through the sharing of food, the outcomes of our projects are on display.

Talking Together basic English classes bring a diverse group of learners together and provide them with a space to learn English and build their confidence and make friends. Sharing food together and chatting over a meal brings the chance to talk about ingredients, quantities and numbers, timings and daily routines – all topics which are necessary to get by in life in the UK.

While also practicing English, the participants are displaying hospitality, acceptance and a sense of community and they are demonstrating the phenomenal cooking skills that they have. To see our learners who have come to the UK from across the world - Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, Eritrea, Morocco, Iraq, France to name a few – sit around a table and share a meal and a skill is something special. You can see in the participants' eyes the nerves of wondering if everyone will like their dish and the pride when they are told it is delicious. The boost of confidence that comes from someone accepting and enjoying a part of your culture is invaluable.

Louise Casey says that integration is a two-way street; for it to happen you must be willing to accept others and to give some of yourself in return. Our volunteers as well as I, always enjoy taking part in the celebration feast as it gives us a chance to try something new but also share a part of us that the learners may have not tried before. Exchanging a samosa for a flapjack or a chapati for a piece of Battenberg cake might not seem like a significant act, but it opens doors to a world of exploration, starting with the taste buds and leading to a place of infinite possibilities for both learners and volunteers alike.

Up and down the UK, there are opportunities for us to explore different cultures through food. Where I live in Coventry, there are at least 10 Turkish restaurants as well as Persian, Lebanese and of course the many Indian and Chinese options. There is also a social enterprise called Arabian Bites which is run by new Syrian arrivals to the city who are using food to integrate into the city and share their culture and skills.  All around us are opportunities to integrate and explore through food, so next time you are thinking of going out for food, expand your horizons and see what new cultures await you. This time last year I would never have guessed that biryani would become a breakfast staple for me, yet I often find myself with a plateful at 10am... and now I wouldn’t want it any other way!