Ellie Dyer meets the team behind a mouth-watering culinary charity project, Little Kitchen Cooking For Change. Photography by Chatti Phal.
The room fills with the perfume of rich spices as dishes of jewelled rice and slow-cooked lamb shank, Persian salad and rosewater rice are placed on a large table in front of ravenous diners.
Already mesmerised by a slide show of photographs illustrating the majesty of the Iranian countryside, the crowd quickly tucks in, expressing murmurs of delight at the deep flavour, sweet tang and spicy elements of a largely unfamiliar cuisine.
The night of Persian food, cooked by enthusiastic expats of Iranian heritage together with a team of helpers at Meta House, was the second event organised by Little Kitchen — Cooking for Change. The innovative charity project was launched in Phnom Penh late last year after an informal chat about Balkan cuisine between Bosnian expat Bojan Lisac and Meta House staff.
“We were just talking about food, as food lovers. They said that they had a small kitchen and they knew we had very good delicacies from the Balkans,” says 35-year-old Lisac.
“I thought maybe it would be cool to try and cook something here. Then I came up with the idea — why we don’t cook for a reason? Let’s try to make food, sell tickets and give the profits to someone,” he adds.
Little Kitchen, a name inspired by the diminutive size of Meta House’s preparation area, was born. A buffet of Balkan cuisine — including meat and cheese and pumpkin pies, sauerkraut and poached apples with almonds — ensued. It was followed by January’s Persian extravaganza and an evening of Southern United States delicacies last month.
“You can talk with people who you’ve never met — exchange some stories. You can learn something and discuss the food,” says Lisac, who hails from Sarajevo and gained culinary experience as a teenager while cleaning dishes and helping out in kitchens for a 1990s wartime charity project called Food For Life.
The Little Kitchen project is dependent on good will and a pool of volunteer cooks who are ready to share their home cuisine with around 70 strangers each month. Organisers emphasise that a lot of preparation is done behind the scenes and people should not be nervous of the challenge.
Menus are drawn up with goods that are available in Cambodia in mind, timing is planned in advance, and shopping is bought for the cooks by the Little Kitchen team the day before the event. A team of volunteers, including Lisac, also help the chefs in the kitchen on the day itself.
“We were singing and dancing in the kitchen, playing the music to ourselves,” says Lisac of the initial two events. “The first time we played some Balkan and international music, the second time we played some Iranian music.”
Those who come along merely to fill their bellies are also donating to a good cause. Profits from the $15 tickets go to charity, with a women’s football project — the SALT Academy in Battambang — already receiving $700. In the expat microcosm of Phnom Penh, Lisac says it’s also a good opportunity to branch out and try something new, with a Mexican and Philippine night possibly in the works.
“We promote different cuisines and bring people together, especially as sometimes in Phnom Penh you can feel pretty lonely I think,” he says. “We are so busy sometimes we don’t have time to meet even each other. This is good opportunity to meet new people.”
For more information, visit the Little Kitchen facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.