Persian kebabs hit the grill during a past iteration of BBQ Without Borders, an immigrant-focused food event and fundraiser organized by the nonprofit No Immigrants No Spice. (Scott Hoag)
A wafting scent of familiar food can transport someone back home faster than Dorothy’s red slippers. If I smell chicken inasal, a form of barbecue from my island province of Iloilo, all those memories come flooding back.
For immigrants like me, food is one of the ways to preserve cultural traditions and keep that connection to home alive. Whether we immigrated at will or under duress, our paths led us to America for want of building a life better than what we had. And part of what made this country the promised land was that it was this physical melting pot of cultures — all made possible, and more flavorful, by immigrants.
That’s the idea behind the second annual BBQ Without Borders, a food-based fundraiser that brings the community together to celebrate immigration through dance, music, art and, of course, barbecue.
Did someone say lechon, kebab and yakitori?
The event — which will take place on May 13 at the Oakland Museum — is the brainchild of No Immigrants No Spice, an Oakland-based nonprofit that supports immigrant food entrepreneurs and celebrates the diversity and joy that they bring to this country.
“Food is our common denominator and serves as a profound vehicle to inspire curiosity about another culture. We can learn so much about each other through the foods we eat if we do so mindfully,” says founder Vibha Gupta, an ER physician, mother and first-generation Indian American who lives in the East Bay.
Gupta created the nonprofit as a response to the rise of racism and xenophobia during the Trump presidency. Laughing, she credits one of Trevor Noah’s stand-up routines — in which he says people who hate immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to eat their food — as her inspiration. Think Aggretsuko rage-screaming about her boss’ abuses, but in a more humanitarian way.
For Gupta, nothing is more American than barbecue, a culinary tradition that has always encompassed a wide range of different cultures. After all, the word barbecue itself comes from the Arawak word “barbacoa,” which refers to the wooden structure that the Taino-Arawak people of the Caribbean used for cooking meat many centuries ago. What most Americans think of as barbecue today is an evolution of indigenous traditions, techniques brought over to the U.S. by enslaved Africans and, more recently, a host of different immigrant influences.
What better way to celebrate American diversity, then, than through the unifying lens of barbecue?
This year’s edition of BBQ Without Borders will celebrate immigrant food traditions with roots in Cuba, India and Japan, as chefs Lilly Duran of Oakland’s Clandestina Cocina, Ron Dumra of Hayward’s Wah Jee Wah and Tadayuki Furui of Family Cafe North Beach (now closed) will each showcase their own form of barbecue.
Duran’s menu, for instance, will feature Cuban-style whole roast pig (lechon) and grilled fish. Dumra will serve his grilled Punjabi chicken tikka kebab. And Furui will offer a selection of yakitori skewers, including grilled chicken thigh, tsukune (meatball) and rice balls. All of the chefs will offer at least one vegetarian entrée, and, to top it all off, Third Culture Bakery will provide dessert.
The three featured chefs will also serve as the inspiration for an immersive “sanctuaries” exhibit that will be set up outdoors in the Oakland Museum’s garden. Each interactive structure will show how the chefs “cultivate home.” For instance, Duran’s sacred space is an exploration of the Cuban family home. Furui’s part of the exhibit will show how he finds solace and inspiration in his sewing and woodwork studio. For Dumra, a combination of his mother’s kitchen and his father’s Indian-style grills epitomizes the meaning of home. Each sanctuary space will feature personal found objects, important mementos and photographs that provide a deeper dive into who the chefs are and what immigration has meant for them.
In addition to the delicious barbecue and heartwarming cultural celebration, BBQ Without Borders also supports a good cause. The event is a fundraising partnership with Fruitvale’s Unity Council to raise funds to support Bay Area front-line workers, especially those whose documentation status has put them in a vulnerable position during the pandemic. This Resilience Fund supports those folks via unrestricted $500 micro-grants.
As Gupta puts it, “This event is a way to inspire folks through their palates — to enjoy the food but also hopefully find a deeper connection to the immigrants who contribute in innumerable and invisible ways to the social fabric of this country.”
BBQ Without Borders 2023 will take place at the Oakland Museum (1000 Oak St., Oakland) on Sat., May 13, from 5 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $32–$125 and can be purchased via Eventbrite.
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