Nitti Sachdeva, Khadija Baaja, and Alganesh Michael

International Food Night Celebrates the City’s Many Flavors

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Thursday December 01, 2016

What if South Burlington threw a potluck and invited every family to share its favorite dish? That is the spirit behind “Around the World,” an International Food Night debuting Wednesday, December 7. Held in the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School (FHTMS) cafeteria from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the event will showcase beloved family dishes from some of South Burlington’s most gifted cooks, along with a hearty soup and salad bar stocked with locally grown food. The event is free and everyone is invited to have a seat at the table.

“South Burlington has such a richness of family traditions that come from all over the world,” explains Susie Merrick, Healthy Schools coordinator for South Burlington School District. “When we share those traditions and stories, we create foundations for community. And what better way to do it than gather around a meal?”

The evening is the first of what Merrick hopes will become a regular event in the Healthy Schools Community Series, with other community members cooking and sharing their dishes. South Burlington Nutrition Services, South Burlington Healthy Schools, and the Farm to School Program are all participating hosts of the International Food Night.

The event’s featured chefs include Alganesh Michael, a cooking teacher and founder of the popular Ethiopian Night pop-up dinners at Burlington’s Arts Riot; Khadija Baaja, a FHTMS custodial services staff member who learned Moroccan cooking at her mother’s knee; and Nitti Sachdeva, nutritionist, cooking teacher, and former owner of the Deva Naturals line of Asian-Fusion condiments, spice blends, sweets and savories.
The evening will also “celebrate the fresh, local foods available in South Burlington schools through our Farm to School program,” explains Merrick. Student chefs from FHTMS Rebel Chef event, as well as those planning to compete in the statewide Junior Iron Chef competition in March, will be on hand to help cook, serve, and talk about the cultures behind the dishes. Merrick adds, “It’s a night of listening and learning, as well as some really delicious food!”

Meet the Chefs

Nitti Sachdeva

Nitti Sachdeva was born in Bangkok, schooled in India, and is now “a full-fledged American” who has lived in South Burlington for 12 years. Sachdeva blends Indian, Thai and American styles into her home cooking as well as in her cooking classes. “I’m something of a mutt,” she declares proudly.

Her contribution to the International Food Night is poha, a simple and versatile pilaf that hails from Gujarat, in the northwest region of India. She says she fell in love with the dish when she was a student in Mumbai. “It’s not fancy, but everybody loves it,” she explains, adding, “People eat it anytime, especially for breakfast and snacks.”

Poha is a beaten” rice that has been flattened between iron rollers, a process that increases its iron content. “In India pregnant women and teenagers are advised to eat poha instead of rice to get more iron in their diets,” she explains. The simple flavorings, which include turmeric, curry leaves, mustard seeds, chiles, leave plenty of room Sachdeva’s personal touches. She likes her poha with a sprinkle of cilantro, fried shallots, and peanuts.

Khadija Baaja

Khadija Baaja grew up in Casablanca and later moved to Montreal. She has lived in South Burlington for 14 years. Today, she’s a much loved member of the FHTMS custodial staff, where recipes are a common thread in the conversations.

Baaja’s dish, Moroccan chicken, is often served at weddings and special occasions. She shares, “This dish was used after Ramadan to celebrate the end of the fast. After the last day there’s a big party. My family would eat it then.” She says she learned how to cook the dish from her mother as “the recipe gets passed from mothers to daughters.”

Moroccan food is surprisingly accessible for American home cooks. Even the most exotic ingredient in the dish, preserved lemons, are easily made at home with lemons, salt, and water. Key spices and seasonings, such as cumin, saffron, turmeric and cilantro, are available in most supermarkets. “I like to buy them organic, because they taste so good,” she notes.

Alganesh Michael

Alganesh Michael hails from Eritrea, in the horn of Africa, but has lived in the U.S. for many years, arriving in Vermont in 2003. Her two daughters attend South Burlington High School.

For the past three years, Michael and her business partner have cooked Ethiopian night pop-up dinners in Burlington and Waitsfield, and now also in Bristol.

While Ethiopian food is not Michael’s native cuisine, the culinary traditions are similar to Eritrea’s. As the country is approximately one-third Muslims and two-thirds Christians, she notes, “There are a lot of fasting days that rely on vegetables and vegetarian dishes.”

Michael will be serving two of the staples from her Ethiopian pop-up events, yemesir, fragrant lentils simmered with tomatoes, onion, garlic, and ginger, and injera, a spongy crepe-like bread. “You tear off a piece of injera and use it to scoop up food,” she explains, “and you just pop it all into your mouth, no utensils needed. Kids really love the injera.” Michael adds, “They love the chance to eat with their hands!”

SOURCE: Joyce Hendley

The “Around the World” International Food Night takes place Wednesday, December 7, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at F.H.TMS. Free and open to the public. Interested in being a part of the next “Around the World” dinner? If you have a beloved family dish you would like the community to taste and share, contact Susie Merrick at or 802-652-7035.