Saturday in the City - Upohar Ethnic Cuisines

Saturday in the City - Upohar Ethnic Cuisines

The kitchen is steamy and filled with spicy scents of coriander and limes, chilies and lemons. Five women work around each other, chopping tomatoes and cilantro, sautéing peppers and onions, and whirling mounds of chickpeas, sesame tahini and garlic in a large food processor.

The kitchen is the East Side Community Kitchen, a shared use, licensed commercial kitchen in Lancaster for startup catering and food-based businesses, started by one of Lancaster’s social entrepeneurs, Leah Margerum. (more on Leah & ESCK in a future blog post!)

The five women are refugees from Bhutan, Iraq and Syria (and one is an Egyptian immigrant) who now live in Lancaster. They are all employed by Upohar Ethnic Cuisines, a social enterprise catering business started by Srirupa Dasgupta (she goes by “Sri”).

First a word about social enterprise. The Social Enterprise Alliance provides this definition:

“A social enterprise is an organization or venture that achieves its primary social or environmental mission using business methods. The social needs addressed by social enterprises and the business models they use are as diverse as human ingenuity. Social enterprises build a more just, sustainable world by applying market-based strategies to today’s social problems.”

Sri explains the origins of Upohar: “Many things converged for me over the past few years. I read Muhammad Yunus’ book about creating a world without poverty and the potential of social businesses. I was volunteering with non-profits in India – my home country. But I was living here in Lancaster city and thought, ‘What am I doing in my own community?’”

As she considered ways to make a positive impact in Lancaster, she looked to the history of her own family. Sri’s paternal grandparents had become refugees during the partition of British India into India and Pakistan in the late 1940’s, and they had then helped numerous relatives get reestablished in their new country. And Sri’s maternal grandmother, Ashoka Gupta, had spent her life helping countless refugees, homeless women and children. Gupta had also served as president of the All India Women’s Conference, and worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi.

“Didima (Bengali for ‘mother’s mother’) saw that there was work to be done, so she just did it,” Sri explains. “I started to think, if I die tomorrow, what do I leave behind? What would people remember me for?”

Sri went to Church World Service in Lancaster to learn about the needs of refugees living here in Lancaster. She discovered that there were numerous refugee families in Lancaster who had been forced to flee their countries due to war, persecution, genocide and other terrors.

“I didn’t want to reinvent or duplicate services, but wanted to complement what already existed. I discovered that employment for refugees was an unanswered problem. I thought about what kind of employment wouldn’t require refugees to overcome the barrier of having to learn a new language, new culture or new skills. I love food and cooking, so I thought of setting up a catering business to employ refugee women and pay them a living wage for preparing their native foods for customers.”

And in January, 2011, Upohar was born. Upohar is a Bengali word meaning “gift.” Upohar offers the gift of delicious ethnic foods to the community:

Like the aromatic Egyptian mesa’a’ah being prepared by Radwa with green peppers, garlic, tomato paste, eggplant, and spices . . .

Or the creamy, garlicky hummus Nidhal garnishes with pine nuts, a pinch of cayenne and a drizzle of olive oil . . .

Or the tabbouleh Najah prepares with juicy ripe tomatoes and finely chopped cucumbers, parsley and mint with splashes of olive oil and lemon juice . . .

Or Nepali dishes prepared by Tulsha and Devi, like cauliflower tarkari (cauliflower with tomatoes, onions, ginger and spices) and

Nepali chow mein, with red onion, cilantro, and a spritz of lime.

On the day I visit, the women are preparing dishes for an anniversary party, a birthday party and a regular weekly delivery of hummus and vegetarian sanbusa (savory pastries filled with peas, potatoes and onions seasoned with coriander) to Expressly Local, a small, independent grocery store in the heart of Lancaster offering chemical free, local foods and produce year-round. (they’re at 213 W King St)

During the spring, summer and autumn, Upohar’s delicious foods were also available at Eastern Market

(NOTE: Today is the LAST DAY for the season at Eastern Market and yes, they’re open – despite this dreadful weather. So put on your wellies, grab your umbrella and get on over there. They’re set up inside and they’re open until 2pm!)

Upohar was also a regular at the 2nd Sunday Flavor Fairs

a very cool collaboration between East Side Community Kitchen and Building Character here in the city. (alas, the 2nd Sunday Flavor Fairs are also done for the season . . . better get ‘em on your calendar next year – first one of the new season will be June 10, 2012!)

But Upohar’s main business is catering. Upohar can provide catering for business lunches, dinners, banquets, and private parties. Upohar also offers “Dinner at your Doorstep” – an ever-changing menu of ethnic meals that can be delivered to your home or workplace for those who don’t have time to cook but want fresh, homemade food. Be sure to check out their menu.

These refugee women offer Upohar’s customers the gift of delicious ethnic foods. And in turn, Upohar offers the women the gift of opportunity to use their skills, share their cuisines and their culture, and rebuild their lives.

NOTE: I’ll be writing more about social enterprise in future blog posts. I also write about restorative justice, sustainability, and people & organizations making a positive difference in the community. I invite you to SUBSCRIBE or FOLLOW my blog (links on the right) to be notified when I post new articles. And please help spread the word using the LIKE or SEND buttons below. Thanks!

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: city life lancaster pa social enterprise

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