Finding Food and Fellowship in Philadelphia

Having grown up and lived in Philadelphia for more than 25 years, it is difficult to make me more proud of my hometown. On a regular basis I proudly defend my pronunciation of water, I yearn for a good cheesesteak, and I root for Philly teams in good times and bad. On June 24th, however, I had a new experience, which not only blended so many of the features which make my hometown so great but also embraced the core American values many seem to have forgotten in our society. 

 

I recently moved back to Philly to take a position as Director of Public Education at Al-Bustan: Seeds of Culture, a West Philadelphia non-profit dedicated to presenting and teaching Arab culture through the arts and language. In this role I was invited to attend, along with our Executive Director, Hazami Sayed, a Muhibbah Dinner. These periodic events are unique charitable fundraisers which showcase Philly as a culinary hotspot, capable of more than pretzels and cheesesteaks, while also raising money for worthy causes which directly support immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia. They are a reminder that diversity and the inclusion of new immigrants makes Philly a beautiful and vibrant place to live and thrive.

What is “Muhibbah”?

“ ‘Muhibbah’ is a Malay term that describes the harmony of races, religions, and cultures coming together in the spirit of peace and tolerance.” Ange Branca, the owner and chef of Sate Kampar, created this series of dinners beginning in 2017 which have become an increasingly popular staple of life in Philly for foodies and the socially minded alike. Muhibbah dinners are set around the city and center on a communal meal and drinks. This is, however, not your typical fundraiser or meal, both of which I am no stranger. The atmosphere is laid back, the food is elevated,  but unpretentious, and the participants are sincerely dedicated to the cause. In order to ensure the highest percentage of every dollar is donated, the Muhibbah organizer, Anita Davidson, recruits chefs and waitstaff who volunteer their time and skills without pay. Each dinner is then comprised of dishes from some of the best chefs from the hottest restaurants across the city. The amazing dishes truly showcase the explosion of diversity Philly has experienced over the last several decades. Each course is comprised of several dishes which are really more interpretive, often experimental and artistic expressions of the heritage of each chef rather than simply food. They are born of memories of home and immigration and inspired by new experiences. The unique flavors take participants on a tour their many restaurants and the world. Don’t worry, water ice inspired cocktails, soft pretzels, hamburger helper, and fish from the shore were all on the menu. They were, however, served  alongside Syrian stuffed grape leaves, Vietnamese Coffee, Malay Chicken Soup, and Thai Curry. 

 

The Muhibbah Dinner for Al-Bustan was hosted by Hungry Pigeon chef and owner, Scott Schroeder. His Queen’s Village gem, Hungry Pigeon, has received rave reviews in The Philadelphia Inquirer and in 2017 was named Best Restaurant in Philadelphia magazine. Clearly Ange and Anita mean business and are serious about providing an experience for participants that leaves them asking for the next event date. The Muhibbah Dinner organizers hope their meals provide the opportunity for Philadelphians to “reach across the table and ask your fellow diners about what inspires them, and what you can do to help make them feel more welcome in our melting pot”

The Importance of Dinners

Philadelphia was truly on display that night, and the fact that the participants came together to help fund the programing of a non-profit dedicated to promoting cross-cultural understanding across the city through arts and educational programing makes the importance of the dinners all the more relevant. Al-Bustan serves some of the least privileged and most at risk students and segments of the immigrant and refugee community in Philadelphia and the Muhibbah dinners are a fantastic way to bring people together to help the immigrant community. Beyond the core values of its mission, Al-Bustan was selected due to the work it has done with public art, including the recently reinstalled public art exhibit at Cherry St Pier, An Immigrant Alphabet and the 2017-18 (Dis)Placed Series. These programs focused heavily on the topics of immigrant and refugee experience. 

 

Inspired by her own diverse background Ange grew disheartened by the atmosphere and rhetoric following the 2016 election. It was out of this moment that Ange felt the need to take action and bring as much ‘Muhibbah’ to Philly as she can.  By bringing together chefs from different backgrounds and cultures to celebrate the diverse beauty of Philadelphia Ange has clearly succeeded in highlighting the immigrant community and continually supports causes that need our support, like Al-Bustan, SEAMAC, HIAS-PA, and the Nationalities Service Center. Muhubbah realizes we are one community, around the same table, and the distance between us is no greater than the next cup of tea.

David Heayn-Menendez
Director of Public Education

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