RUTH Anagnostis was working on an employment mentoring project at the Northern Settlement Services (NSS), a migrant resource centre in Newcastle, when she got the idea for The Global Table Collective.
Frustrated by the lack of job opportunities available to the newly arrived migrants and refugee women she was assisting, she says, "I just felt like I wanted to do something about it."
TGTC is a not-for-profit initiative whose work is fuelled by a team of passionate volunteers and supported by Adamstown Uniting Church and Adamstown Arts.
It works to help refugee women and their families in connecting with the wider community and prospective employers, while also fostering a local culture of diversity.
The Collective aspires to "bring people together around the table to share food, stories and music". It's a vision that Anagnostis says they had planned to launch in 2020 through four big cultural events, each one to be catered by a team of local refugee women.
"People would come and have a meal, be exposed to another culture through food and music, and the women would talk a bit about their background. It would also be an opportunity for networking with local food businesses and caterers."
TGTC's first event, an Iraqi-Syrian dinner, was held in February. While they had estimated around 60 people would attend, they were inundated with bookings and had to cap the event at 100.
"It was absolutely chaotic in many ways, but it was a wonderful, wonderful night," Anagnostis says.
"It was so much fun."
The event also featured an Iraqi musician who came down from Brisbane to perform.
"It was an opportunity for the women, but it was also a multicultural interface for people in Newcastle."
Cooking classes are another part of the TGTC's offering.
Their first class - initially scheduled for March - was cancelled due to the nationwide lockdown. Happily, they have since resumed and fulfil all the COVID-safe requirements to operate.
Monthly cooking classes are led by a female cook demonstrating recipes from her home country. All of the ingredients and recipes are provided, with attendees sharing a meal and taking home some of their dishes.
An Iraqi cooking class is scheduled for October, a Persian one for November.
"The classes allow a more intimate connection with the cooks in terms of conversation and understanding and talking about their culture, as well as food," Anagnostis says.
"Whereas at the cultural events, the women are flat out cooking."
The Collective's sold-out September Persian cooking class was led by Bahareh Pakook, who migrated to Newcastle two-and-a-half years ago.
Pakook moved to the region to be with her husband, Jafar, who she met in Iran.
While Pakook has studied cooking and has experience working in restaurants in Iran, she struggled to find related paid employment in Newcastle.
It was through Anagnostis, who she met at the NSS, that she came to teach cooking classes for the TGTC.
Pakook enjoys sharing some of her favourite Persian dishes in the classes and "making people happy" through food.
She chose a Fesenjan stew recipe - one of the dishes made during her cooking class - for readers to try at home: "This is a very popular dish in Iran."
You can find it below.
Many of its ingredients - such as walnuts, chicken, spices, rice and pomegranate - are commonly found in Persian cuisine.
"I love cooking," Pakook says.
"I would like to offer something different to people in Newcastle and introduce them to Persian food."
Pakook hopes to eventually establish her own catering business, a goal she and Jafar are starting work on in the coming months.
While the pandemic has delayed some of the initial plans Anagnostis had for TGTC, she hopes to grow and transform it over time. This includes the eventual return of the larger-scale cultural gatherings and a desire to establish the Collective as a social enterprise.
"We hope eventually we could afford to rent a space for evening meals and cooking classes," Anagnostis explains.
"It would also be a cooking place for people from different cultures to meet and for people to advertise they have work available.
"It could become a lovely social network and opportunity for work connections as well. And at the heart of it would be food."
500 grams chicken breast, chopped into bite-size pieces
300 grams walnuts
1 small brown onion
1 litre water
1 tablespoon pomegranate paste
Salt, black pepper, sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of turmeric
Mint and pomegranate arils to serve, if desired
Steamed rice to serve
Note: Alternative meats or vegan meat can be substituted for chicken.
1. Using a blender, grind walnuts into a paste.
2. Finely chop onion in the blender.
3. Cook ground walnuts and onion with water and spices for one hour on low heat.
4. Add chicken and pomegranate paste and cook for a further hour.
5. If the sauce is not thick, boil on high heat, stirring regularly until thick.
6. Decorate the stew with mint and pomegranate seeds, if desired. Serve with steamed rice.