Photo by Iaritza Menjivar
The immigrant run eatery continues to honor culinary-cultural exchange and global fare.
(Somerville Wire) – Nibble Kitchen has been braving the coronavirus with aplomb. Having officially launched in the winter of 2019, the takeout-only storefront in Union Square’s Bow Market celebrates international cuisines, with a rotating menu from different diverse cultures for each day that they are open. The restaurant aims to support immigrant communities by using food as a lens for storytelling and teaching its entrepreneurs the skills that it takes to open up a business. While the pandemic brought moments of uncertainty to Nibble’s team, they have forged ahead with their programming and are looking forward to the summer season.
The brick-and-mortar restaurant is the project of the Somerville Arts Council, but Nibble has existed as a program before the physical space was actually opened. It began with tours of Union Square’s international markets and led to the creation of a blog and book. Nibble hosted cooking classes taught by members of Somerville’s immigrant communities, and to take things a step further, the organizers began doing pop-up restaurants, using local shared kitchens as foundations. They started an entrepreneurship program, which consisted of workshops that gave an overview of how to launch a culinary career in the United States.
“Nibble has grown organically over the past ten years. When we started with Nibble, we never thought that it would lead to opening our own restaurant one day,” said SAC Cultural Director Rachel Strutt. “… We met some great folks from our amazing immigrant communities, and we learned that they love to cook and were talented, and in their respective countries, many of them had existing culinary careers. But as is so often the case, when immigrants come to this country, they go through downward mobility. We thought, what can we do to help promote their cultural talents and provide some rich cultural programming for our community?”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Nibble Kitchen had to close down for approximately three months, a time that Maria Martinez, who is in charge of marketing and social media, described as “scary. We didn’t want to put at risk our chefs or entrepreneurs.” But Martinez said that the crew did not stop working, but organized a social media series called “Nibble At Home,” sharing tips and recipes. For a month, Kitchen Manager Aly Lopez prepared taco kits to share with the public. Finally, in June, the leadership at Nibble chose entrepreneur Robson Lemos to be the only chef to open up the restaurant again, for one month. While they began to gradually reintroduce the other chefs as time went on, Lemos observed the changes that Nibble underwent while he was working with the whole kitchen to himself.
“Number one, before the people would come to have conversation and have a little food. When it became only takeout, I could not have conversation, which was a big challenge for me, because sometimes the clients would come talk with me [before],” said Lemos. “The second thing was that before, we could work two chefs on the same day. For example, on Fridays, we would have one chef from 10 to two o’clock, and then [the second shift would start]. Now we don’t share the same day.” He added, “We also changed the sanitation stuff. We are more careful. Before, we always would leave the kitchen the way it was [when we came in]. Now, we need to do the deep cleaning after we work. We need to make sure everything is clean and organized, because of the restrictions of the pandemic. So it was a big change, but we had to keep going.”
Chef Afruza Akther said that things became unpredictable when the pandemic hit. She said that they saw fewer clients for a time, as people were scared to come out in public, and she still wonders if the restaurant will have to close down again at some point.
“We don’t know,” said Akther. “It’s like, ‘next month, what’s going to happen?’ We’re going into every month; that’s how we’re doing it. We’re planning that way. We have to know, next month, who’s going to be where, what is going to sell, and how much you’re going to work. That’s an unfortunate thing, but it is what it is.”
Both Lemos and Akther said that preparing food has become an important part of their lives and a reflection of their cultural identities. On Thursdays, Lemos, who is from Brazil, makes acarajés, black-eyed pea fritters that are stuffed with shrimp and vatapá, a sauce made with coconut milk, bread, peanuts, and dende oil. On Fridays and Saturdays, Akther, who is from Bangladesh, serves several specialties, favorites being the paratha kati rolls with curried chicken, shingara turnovers filled with potatoes and vegetables, and Bengali mango lassis to drink. Lemos said that when he comes to the kitchen, all of his worries fade away, while Akther said that cooking for other people has become something meaningful and gratifying for her.
“Cooking is a passion of mine and my husband’s,” said Akther. “…We like to feed people. If somebody is eating, and I see their smile, that is it. All the hard work that I put in, everything seems smooth now. I get that feeling, always.”
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.