“PEOPLE ARE YEARNING to reconnect,” says Lisa Gross, founder of the League of Kitchens. And she’s not just talking about our relationship to our own cultural roots — she is tapping into a collective culinary wanderlust. The League of Kitchens is a New York City–based team of exceptional and highly skilled home cooks, all immigrant women, who teach cooking classes and share stories from their native countries. Gross launched the organization in 2014, born of her own personal quest to seek out a new “grandmother” after hers passed away —along with the familial knowledge of traditional Korean recipes.
This yearning for the taste of home blossomed into the League of Kitchens, where home cooks from around the world teach students to make their family recipes. Students can sign up for classes based on cuisine, from Uzbek to Indonesian to Greek. Taking a class can return us to the lands we (or our ancestors) hailed from, help us cultivate new tastes, or deepen our appreciation for flavors we have grown to love. Reconnecting and deepening cultural exchange through food feels especially nourishing after our lives were mostly lived online and at home during this pandemic.
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The way that culture and knowledge has been passed down over the last 10,000 years has mostly been an oral tradition between women.
Pre-pandemic, League of Kitchen classes were held in each instructor’s home: A small group of students would gather in an apartment-sized kitchen in New York City, cooking and then feasting together. This intimate in-person experience will resume at some point soon, says Gross, but won’t replace the online classes, which over the past two years have received an enthusiastic response and created unexpected connections. Families separated by continents have taken classes together. In one touching story Gross shared with me, the parents of a man engaged to an Afghan woman took a class so they could cook an Afghan meal to welcome their future daughter-in-law into their family.
There are many reasons we cook. We cook for a child, a sibling, a partner, ourselves, and in Gross’ words, with “attention, intention, and care. There’s something special, she says, about “eating something with the knowledge that this was made for you.” And for a long time, women’s daily efforts in the kitchen were overlooked. “The way that culture and knowledge has been passed down over the last 10,000 years has mostly been an oral tradition between women,” says Gross. “In many cultures in the world there is ‘court food’ and then there is the rest of what we eat that has mostly been cooked by women.” That effort is often invisible and undervalued. The League of Kitchens elevates home cooking and shares and celebrates this important knowledge and expertise. It is not performative cooking, not cooking for Instagram. It does not require expensive ingredients. It is done without fancy cookware and with in-season produce.
I enrolled in the Persian cooking class with Mab (all of the League of Kitchens’ cooks are known by their first names), an activist and champion for women’s rights, who had to flee her homeland of Iran and who relocated to the United States in 2010. Born and raised in southern Iran, she recently moved from south Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and she begins the class by assuring students that the cooking will be slow and not rushed. There is time, she tells us. We are cooking a chicken in a Persian style, with prune sauce, saffron rice, and potato tahdig. Tahdig is the crunchy browned rice that forms on the bottom of the cooking pot — when the pot is inverted, you hold your breath, hoping the potatoes and rice have held for a spectacular presentation.
We begin by pounding sunset-colored saffron, then placing the threads in a drinking glass topped with ice cubes, which will become our infused saffron water. As the ice slowly melts across the duration of the class, so do our concerns over having the right cookware or being able to keep up, for Mab brings a soothing energy to the experience. We cook on very low flames. Slowly, the prunes simmer to form a syrup. Rice is rinsed and rinsed again. A half-inch of water covers the rice in the pot and a dollop of ghee or butter graces its top. We return to chop onions, which will lie shimmering in a Dutch oven, mixed with turmeric to add a golden tone to their modest hue. Chicken is added, then cumin and cinnamon. There is a lot of fretting over the rice and prunes. Mab only asks if they are boiling, and if there is water remaining. “Keep it low, keep it slow.” Through her instruction, the difference between creating a recipe via a cookbook and being shown by a skilled hand is apparent. You can hear how it should sound. She demonstrates how the rice should feel, and of course you can smell it as you are cooking right along with her. We are in our individual homes, but we are tasting together. A silent moment punctuates the class after everyone has taken their first bite — just as it would when seated at a large family gathering, collectively savoring what is truly delicious.
Mab wasn’t the only home cook I got to speak with. A week after taking her Persian cooking class, I meet Despina across Zoom, a Greek instructor at the League of Kitchens. She shows me a cake topped with glistening sweet peaches that she made for her sister to celebrate her Name Day. Half the slices of cake are missing, having already been enjoyed. Despina recalls her love of food from an early age in Chalcis, Greece, where she waited for the fishing boats that would set sail at night and return the following morning. The fish Despina bought were cooked with tomatoes and dandelion greens — or whatever was freshest — in oil with lemon. This indelible experience of fresh, local food traveled with her to New York, where she now buys from farmers’ markets. “I put a lot of weight on ingredients.” Despina says. “I try to find the best when I feed my family.” She is also a painter, a fact that seems apparent as I watch her place sprigs of dill and a lone black olive artfully atop her tzatziki, a dish made from Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, lemon, and dill.
Food has always been central for Despina. When speaking about her life with her extended family in Greece, she says, “We used to sit outside in the yard, and everyone was thinking what to cook tomorrow. We were always discussing what to cook the next day.” But it isn’t enough to talk about it; hands-on practice is essential to making delicious food. Despina tells me that there are many tricks you learn when cooking alongside someone, letting me in on one example: cutting your spinach pie before it bakes, because if your filo dries out in the oven it will crack when you take your knife to it. “In a cookbook you cannot see how a person applies their skills to a particular dish’s needs,” she says.
Shandra, another League of Kitchens instructor who emigrated from Indonesia, started cooking when she was 3 years old. By the time she was 9, she says, “I was playing Grandma,” instructing people who worked in her family’s business about how they should prepare the day's fare. She tells me she often begins her classes with a quote: “Accomplishments start with trying.”
In addition to working with the League of Kitchens, Shandra also teaches cooking at a nonprofit that empowers survivors of human trafficking. She believes the act of cooking can help foster self-knowledge by requiring the cook to notice what makes them feel good — we can take note of what level of spice works for us, feel how our hands are put to work, learn to move while cooking. “Cooking is very healing; it is a therapeutic activity for me,” she says. By paying attention while eating or cooking with others, an unspoken dialogue takes place. “You get to know me better, and I get to know you better,” says Shandra. And no one comes to her house without being fed: “We offer them food, and we save Tupperware for them to go home with.”
Another talented home cook and instructor, Angie, immigrated to the U.S. from Monterrey in northern Mexico. Growing up, her grandmother had a ranch where they sold nuts from the pecan trees they grew. She has vivid memories of her mother standing in an outdoor kitchen surrounded by mountains, overlooking a river while rolling out flour tortillas. They cooked using charcoal made from their trees. This instilled in Angie a connection to the land, which she continues in her home garden.
Angie’s passion for cooking began by learning the recipes of her mother and godmother, whom she would visit after school. By 12 years old, Angie was uncovering pots of food cooking on the stove and exclaiming, “I want to learn how to make this!” Now when she cooks, she is aware she is keeping alive the recipes passed from her grandmother to her mother to herself. She also uses recipes from her husband’s family. Their traditions from Puebla will be passed on to her young children, and beyond, through her passion for teaching. “The best way to show love for someone is to cook for them,” Angie says, “So when I cook I am smiling, knowing that my love goes into my food.”
The instructors at the League of Kitchens offer their abundant cultural and culinary knowledge with a generosity of spirit. Through their classes we make the same food our great-grandmothers made, even though we never met them. Or we have the opportunity to cook from a recipe passed down from someone else’s great-grandmother — in Vietnam or Uzbekistan, Lebanon or India. We might differ in our tolerance to the heat of a chili, our passion for cilantro, or our dietary requirements, but in hearing the instructor talk about techniques, about her own memories of tastes and aromas, we learn and we grow. All are welcome at the League of Kitchens’ table.
Caren Rosenblatt Writer
Caren Rosenblatt is a writer based in her hometown, New York City. She is an editorial art director and graphic designer who navigates the space where word and imagery converge.
Flora Hanitijo Photographer
Originally from Macau, Hanitijo grew up in Montreal, Canada. After studying at Cooper Union, she spent a decade living and working between Paris, London, and New York. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, with her family