Her first stop in New York was at Subway.
When 53-year-old Nepal native Rachana Rimal came to America seeking asylum 10 years ago, she got a job working at the sandwich chain.
“I cut vegetables like onions and tomatoes. I didn’t have the confidence to cook,” Rimal tells the Daily News.
Rimal didn’t speak a word of English, and left behind her husband and three children. “I was so scared,” she says, of leaving her hometown of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city. “I had no choice. I wasn’t safe.”
Now, Rimal’s one of six refugees who cook up meals from their native countries for the Queens-based delivery service, Eat Offbeat.
Rimal says she faced terrorism from the Maoist, a radical communist group who demanded money from her family’s factory, and killed her brother.
After six months in the U.S., she extended her visa and learned English. When she felt alone, she relied on comfort food.
“When I come to the kitchen, I can cook whatever I like to,” Rimal says. “I feel at home.”
These days, she cooks her family recipes at Eat Offbeat’s kitchen in Long Island City. Rimal’s dishes include chicken momo — a type of dumpling — and her favorite, manchurian, a fried cauliflower dish drenched in spicy tomato and chili sauce.
She works as a full-time chef at Eat Offbeat, which delivers food by car to catering customers in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn.
The company is the brainchild of Manal Kahi and her brother Wissam. They moved to New York three years ago from Lebanon and wanted to start their own hummus business when they couldn’t find any as good as their grandmother’s recipe. Instead, they decided to broaden the menu with a melting pot of cuisines.
The siblings teamed up with the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian group that resettles refugees in the U.S.
“We want New Yorkers to say, ‘Wow, we’re really lucky to have them here,” says Manal, who employs the six refugee chefs from five countries and regions: Syria, Nepal, Tibet, Iraq and Eritrea. Together, they cook up more than 100 different recipes.
“They don’t have professional experience, but they’re passionate about sharing their culture through food,” Manal adds.
Manal and Wissam hired chef Juan Suarez de Lezo, who’s worked in Michelin-starred kitchens like Per Se, to train the women in kitchen safety, technique, food temperature and balancing flavors. But all chefs cook their own recipes.
The food startup is currently offering meals to parties of 10 or more. On average, the cost is about $20 per person, and meals include an entrée, salad, and one or two side dishes from at least three different countries/chefs.
Customers can order from the website (eatoffbeat.com) for groups right now, and the company plans to launch individual delivery service via an app this spring.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the chefs were whisking, frying and sauteing away in Long Island City. Each prepares very different fare — Rimal’s vegan and vegetarian manchurian is a great juxtaposition to Iraqi chef Dhuha Jasim’s hearty potato kibbeh, a beef-stuffed and fried potato.
Jasim, 26, and her family came to the U.S. two years ago from Baghdad where life-threatening danger was once an everyday reality for her husband and two children.
During the Iraq War, she had to drop out of school and sanctioned to a strict 6 p.m. curfew. Her husband was almost killed in a bombing, she says, and on a different occasion, she couldn’t pick up her son from school due to another attack. They were separated for hours.
Jasim, who always dreamed of being a hairdresser and makeup artist, learned how to cook from her mother.
“I love to make everything,” she says in Arabic, via an English translator while grating potatoes.
Now, she and her family live in the Bronx where her children attend school.
Another popular dish from Eat Offbeat is adas, a beautiful bright orange Middle Eastern soup comprised of lentils, onions, tomatoes, berbere (an Ethiopian spice blend), salt and pepper.
“It’s simple and easy to make,” says Mitslal Tedla, via a translator, an Eritria native who arrived in New York just three months ago from Egypt. Reportedly, thousands of refugees leave the brutal dictatorship of Eritrea, an East African country, each month.
She doesn’t have any family in New York.
“I’m here because I want to work,” Tedla says.
In the kitchen, the women work with passion and efficiency. Even though they’ve only known each other a few months, the camaraderie is palpable.
“Are you okay? Do you need any more black pepper?” Rimal asks Jasim.
Rimal reunited with her family a year after she arrived in New York, when her husband and two of her kids moved here. They now live in Jackson Heights, and Rimal works side-by-side with her 23-year-old daughter, Satakshi, who assists with inventory and management at Eat Offbeat. Satakshi hopes to be a lawyer one day, and is applying to New York University and Columbia University.
Anna Corcuera, who lives in the Financial District, has ordered from Eat Offbeat twice in one month for her office colleagues. She raves about the manchurian, hummus and lentils.
“My colleagues were amazed,” Corcuera says. “It was a very strong flavor; very hearty, spicy and flavorful. We also tried a new dish with rice, cashews and chicken. I needed mostly vegetarian options, so they recommended the Iraqi Sumaq salad.
“We’re eating good food and we’re supporting these chefs. That was an additional draw.”
RECIPE: MANCHURIAN, BY CHEF RACHANA RIMAL OF EAT OFFBEAT
1 cup corn starch
1 cup tomato
3 tablespoons allspice
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 cup water
For the sauce:
1 cup tomato
1 cup sugar
1 cup vinegar
1 cup chili paste
3 peppers (green, yellow and red) each pepper.
Chop cauliflower and cook in the oven at 200 degrees. Once the cauliflower is soft and tender, let it rest. Mix the spices with tomato, corn starch and water to make a dough-like mixture. Add cauliflower. Deep fry the cauliflower in oil until crunchy on the outside.
For the sauce:
Mix all ingredients (except cauliflower) in a pot. Bring to a boil and mix in cauliflower.
Chop red, yellow and orange peppers, sauté until soft and tender. Mix with cauliflower and sauce.