Potato Bolani in the Park
From Afghanistan to Toronto, Malika Rasoli is building a new community and sharing the taste of Afghani cooking.
“I forgot the dessert,” Malika Rasoli laughs, recalling the first time she catered an event. Two short years later, cooking for 50 people doesn’t faze the go-getter entrepreneur and community pillar, but it was a challenge on her first try.
Now, sitting across from me at a picnic table in Regent Park, she presses flaky baklava and warm meat pastries on me. “Try,” she says, pulling out a thermos of hot tea and paper cups. She makes it look easy.
On her first catering attempt, however, planning the menu for a large number of people was new, and transportation was also an obstacle. Without a catering vehicle, she had to call a cab, which arrived later than planned. Then, in the flurry of trying to get out the door, she forgot the dessert. But despite the setbacks, she delivered the food and still managed to pull off rave reviews of her (somewhat late, dessert-less) meal. Those early days were challenging, but Rasoli saw each difficulty as a learning experience.
Growing up in Afghanistan, Rasoli had a large extended family, and she and her sister often cooked meals for everyone. It was the innovative part of cooking that was her favourite, especially experimenting with new flavours and combinations. “I wish I had all the ingredients,” she says of the experience of concocting new dishes. “I like to keep it interesting.”
When war disrupted Afghanistan, life took a different turn. Eventually Rasoli made her way to Canada in 1994, and she and her husband settled down, growing their family to six children. “That time for me was difficult,” Rasoli acknowledges. “I had small kids . . I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know the community.” But Rasoli soon discovered an English class and started to build roots in the community. She conquered the little things, like buying winter coats for the family. “I took the kids, and I found the park and the school, and a little bit, a little bit, I learned.”
Although Rasoli describes an initial timidity after arriving in Canada, on the day of our interview, she seems to know everyone in the neighbourhood. In the short time we sit talking and eating at our picnic table, she greets three people by name who happen to be passing by, flagging them down to introduce me.
While Rasoli seems happiest connecting, meeting, (and feeding!) people, she tries to avoid the limelight. (She has only agreed to my interview out of a sense of neighbourliness.) Though she shies away from being the centre of attention, her indomitable spirit of curiosity, love of learning, and sheer drive continue to open doors for her.
A couple years ago, with her children growing up (the oldest is now 24), she started looking for a job; catering wasn’t even on her radar. During that time, she discovered the program offerings at the TD Centre of Learning and met Sureya Ibrahim, who was helping run The Catering Collective, a diverse group of men and women who build community and share their culture through food.
The collective started in 2013 when a member of the local Regent Park community came to The Centre for Community Learning and Development (CCL&D), serving downtown east Toronto, and wanted to learn how to sell their food at a local food market. The CCL&D didn’t initially have a program to support the request, so they founded the Regent Park Food Incubator Program. As it grew, the Catering Collective was formed as an offshoot of the project.
Each of the caterers brings unique skills and recipes from their countries of origin, sharing their history and heritage through their cuisine to a new audience in Toronto. From samosas to Trinidadian street food to Tandoori chicken, the menu reads like a smorgasbord of dishes from around the world.
Two years ago, dropping by the TD Centre of Learning (run by the CCL&D) in search of a new direction, Rasoli instinctively brought Ibrahim a platter of food, much like she’d instinctively served me food during our interview. Ibrahim was impressed; they had been looking for caterers to join the collective who could cook Afghani food. Would Rasoli join? Rasoli said she’d “think about it.”
A little later, Ibrahim called Rasoli and said she needed some catering for the Centre’s celebration of International Women’s Day; she could make anything she liked. Rasoli agreed, and the food was a hit. She was in. Rasoli started catering, first for groups of 30 and 50, and soon 150 people.
Riding out the initial bumps (the forgotten dessert, the realization that daal—a lentil stew—is too sloppy to travel, and some occasional transportation issues with car-sharing drivers of new cars, who were nonplussed to discover they would be travelling with food), Rasoli has learned from and built on every challenge she’s faced.
She’s cooked for the CBC Studio, city hall, and groups at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto. In between, she’s been a regular at the Taste of Regent Park with her own market stall. One of her sell-out dishes is always leek and potato Bolani, an Afghani flatbread with a vegetable filling. Not afraid of a little competition, Rasoli has even competed in a cooking contest at the PaintBox restaurant. (Her team won, and she placed individually in both the dessert and appetizer categories.)
Every experience is an opportunity for Rasoli to grow, and she’s after all the feedback she can get from those who taste her food. When I try her baklava, she asks me anxiously if it is crispy enough. She worries because she has rushed the cooking time for my arrival. But her fears are unfounded: the golden pastry layers crunch as I take my first bite, releasing the warm taste of honey and nuts.
Despite her many catering responsibilities, Rasoli makes time to give back, whether it’s providing food for a fundraiser or volunteering at the Muslim Welfare Centre every Sunday to make lunch. She’s tells me about the July 4th community barbecue she volunteers for every year and the fundraiser she cooked for just last week. “We want it to be the best community,” she says. It’s clear Rasoli is going to be part of making that happen.
Now, sitting here at the park picnic table, she gestures toward the headquarters of the Catering Collective just a few streets over and to the PaintBox restaurant nestled at the street corner.
“That’s why I call you to come to this spot,” she says. “Because it all started here in this park.” It may have started in this park, but this community that Rasoli is growing is reaching beyond this little patch of grass, one leek and potato Bolani at a time.
Text: Kate Lane-Smith
Photography: Catherine Noble