The fire started in the kitchen of flat 16 on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, a 24-story block in west London. Ethiopian-born Behailu Kebede had lived there for almost 25 years. Just before 1 a.m. on June 14, 2017, his smoke alarm shrieked, and he discovered smoke coming from behind his refrigerator-freezer. He called the fire department and ran up and down the floor to alert his neighbors. But smoke seeped through the building, and flames engulfed it. It was home to possibly as many 350 people. Many were Muslims celebrating Ramadan and may have either been away at the time or awake breaking their Ramadan fast and able to escape—even though residents were told to stay put. Still, over 70 people died. An inquiry into the disaster, called “Britain’s deadliest on domestic premises since the Second World War,” found that the building’s faulty construction invited a catastrophe. It took nearly 24 hours for the fire to burn itself out.
Meghan Markle, now HRH The Duchess of Sussex, moved to London the following January. She hoped to help somehow and quietly visited Al-Manaar. The mosque near the Grenfell community had opened its kitchen so women displaced by the fire could come and cook for their families. It evolved as a place where they could break through cultural boundaries, sip tea, grieve, share stories, and do life together. But the kitchen lacked funding to open more than two days a week. What emerged from the duchess’ visit is a cookbook. Together: Our Community Cookbook by The Hubb Community Kitchen is a testament to friendship and connection.
The Duchess notes in her foreword:
“It is cozy and brightly lit with scents of cardamom, curry and ginger dancing through the air.” She goes on to say that the recipes represent a “melting pot of cultures and personalities” from over 15 countries, including Uganda, Iraq, Morocco, India, Russia and others. She promises you will leave “stuffed to the gills with samosas flecked with cinnamon, chapatis flavored with carrots and onion, Russian seminola cake, Persian teas and my very favorite avocado dip that I now make at home.”
“Within this kitchen’s walls,” she writes, “there exists not only the communal bond of togetherness through sharing food, but also a cultural diversity that creates what I would describe as a passport on a plate: the power of a meal to take you to places you’ve never been, or transport you right back to where you came from.” Ultimately, the Duchess concludes, “these recipes aren’t simply meals; they are stories of family, love, of survival and of connection.”
In the cookbook, resident Intlak Alsaiegh shares a recipe for Kubba Haleb (Iraqui Lamb Croquettes). “I’ve … seen the power of food in creating a welcoming atmosphere,” she writes. “People of different nationalities are sometimes fearful of each other—sharing food helps them to relax and the bonds of friendship are made.” Intlak also makes Iraqui Dolma—stuffed grape leaves, though I think I myself might need to find a substitute for ground lamb. The recipe calls for three tablespoons of pomegranate molasses. Now that sounds tasty.
I really want to try Cherine Mallah’s Baghrir & Amlou (Moroccan Pancakes with Honey & Almond Butter), a recipe that calls for culinary argan oil. She also makes Atayef (Ricotta-filled Pancakes with Orange Blossom Syrup) and adds crushed pistachios. Oh my! Munira Mahmud makes Mahamri (African Beignets) with cardamom and shares her recipe for Vegetable Samosas. She writes, “Grenfell was a real community and my neighbor Rania and I used to party with food all the time. The first time I made these samosas for her, she ate ten of them. Really!”
I might have to make Sanna Mirz’s Zereshk Polo ba Morgh (Persian Chicken with Barberry Rice) just to smell it. The recipe calls for saffron, crushed rose petals, cumin, and cardamom.
Leila Hedjem prefaces her recipe for Lebanese Vegetable Lasagne by writing, “In Middle Eastern Culture, cooking is a show of love—and that’s what we do here at the Kitchen.” Jennifer Fatima Odonkor, who serves her Harira (Moroccan Chickpea & Noodle Soup) with chopped dates echoes Leila, saying “Make sure that all your stirring is done with love and prayer.” It’s fitting, then, that in Arabic, the word “hubb” means “love.”
Are you feeling hungry yet? Or adventurous? The Royal Foundation dedicates part of the proceeds from the sales of this book to support the Hubb Community Kitchen in London and help keep it open for up to seven days a week, expand its reach to others in the community, and help continue to change lives through the power of food.
Every dish tells a unique story of history, culture and family, personally introduced by the women on each page. These memories remind us that Together is more than a cookbook; it is a storybook of a West London community and how the act of cooking together has helped them to connect, heal and look forward. At the heart of this book is the message that a simple, shared dish can create connections between people, restore home and normality, and provide a sense of home—wherever you may be in the world.
A kitchen fire tore peoples’ lives apart. Now it’s the fire of friendships forged in a kitchen that’s bringing them back together. I’m off to make a menu and a grocery list.
For discussion: How has the cooking and/or sharing of food helped you or others through a time of adversity? Do you have a memory of a particular dish that is meaningful to you?
- Pandemic Journal: An Entry on Caring from a Distance - June 11, 2020
- Together: The Grenfell Fire, a Cookbook, and a Community - January 3, 2019
- Literary Friends: Keeping Anna Akhmatova Alive - December 6, 2018