ETSS' Food Ambassadors program brings hard-to-find cuisines to your home.

This spring, I experienced two culinary firsts: the first time I tried the hand-pulled noodles known as lagman, a dish common to the Uighur people of Northwest China, and my first chewy bite of maznik, a hand-stretched Macedonian pastry filled with blissfully salty feta cheese. Though they are distinctive delicacies from different parts of the world, they have common threads: Both are kneaded, stretched and nurtured by hand. Both are a labor of love. And both are delicious.

It’s unlikely you’ll find lagman or maznik in local restaurants—Columbus doesn’t have a Uighur or a Macedonian eatery. Instead, I tried these hard-to-find cuisines during a pair of dinner parties organized by Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services as part of its fledgling Food Ambassadors program. Columbus Monthly contributor Bethia Woolf and her husband, Andy Dehus, founders of Columbus Food Adventures, hosted the dinners for friends in their Victorian Village home.

ETSS is a local nonprofit that helps immigrants and refugees put down roots in Central Ohio. Founded in 2000 as an outreach service for the Ethiopian community, ETSS now provides English language classes, case management and other services for refugees and immigrants from all over the globe. Food Ambassadors is the brainchild of prolific traveler Kathleen Gibbons, who works in translation and interpretation services at the East Side organization. “I realized, once I started working at ETSS, the endless possibilities. ETSS has a potluck once every two weeks … and the food was phenomenal. It was like eating at the United Nations, because we have so many different countries and cultures represented on our staff.”

Gibbons thought, why not show off the talent of these home cooks and introduce the broader community to new cultures and cuisines in the process?

Through the program, residents can host a dinner featuring authentic cuisine from a variety of countries and cultures, such as Ethiopia, Nepal, Ghana, Haiti and more. Proceeds directly benefit ETSS and the refugee or immigrant cook who prepares the meal and shares their life experience.

“We bring culture and cuisine to your home,” says Gibbons about Food Ambassadors. “I want them to be able to tell their story … but I also think that through food, it’s the easiest way [to take down] barriers.”

In April, the Macedonian dinner I attended was prepared by Tatjana Bozhinovski, an ETSS staff member and native of Bitola, Macedonia, who immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager. Bozhinovski prepared a traditional meal of maznik (which requires stretching phyllo-like dough over a kitchen table), ajvar, taratur (a refreshing dish of yogurt and cucumbers), turli tava (a casserole of meat and vegetables) and oblandi, a wafer and walnut dessert. “It doesn’t get any more Macedonian,” Bozhinovski quipped.

“My mother and my grandmother were very good cooks, and I started cooking when I was very little. I remember making my first cake when I was 9 years old,” Bozhinovski says. Now, she and her mother annually drive to an Amish Farm in Mansfield where they buy 10 bushels of peppers for making a year’s worth of ajvar, a red pepper paste that’s served on bread and topped with feta cheese.

It’s the chance to hear from people like Bozhinovski—where she sources her peppers, where she finds the best feta (Restaurant Depot) and what it’s like to move to the U.S. knowing no English—that makes these dinners special. That and the chance to sample international foods cooked the traditional way. You might even end up Googling the complicated history and current struggles of the Uighur ethnic minority in China or the influence of the Ottoman Empire on Macedonian cuisine. When was the last time you did that after dining out?

To learn more about hosting a Food Ambassadors dinner in your home, contact Kathleen Gibbons at kathleen.gibbons@ethiotss.org.