Yasmine Halmane


When you enter Havenly, you’re welcomed by the warm chatter of people enjoying hibiscus tea with baklava, falafel wraps, and mujadarra. Busy college students working on laptops and businesspeople on their coffee breaks are all connected by the flavors of caramelized onions, fresh hummus, and the crunch of baklava. Inside the kitchen, behind the veil of the white swinging doors, is where the preparation happens, the creation of falafel dough, the layering of baklava sheets. There, my mother flows across the kitchen to make sure everyone is served a meal worth smiling for. 

My mother, Maria, spends most mornings in the Havenly kitchen cleaning, prepping ingredients, and greeting everyone else as they arrive for their shifts. She is the kitchen manager of Havenly, a community café that employs and supports immigrant and refugee women, and takes on the responsibility of preparing falafel and other Middle Eastern treats, training the community’s new fellows, and keeping track of inventory.

 “I hate taking inventory, but I have to master it,” she told me when she arrived late from work one evening. Recently, my mother has learned Excel to keep a spreadsheet of all the items in the kitchen: to count every cucumber, box of gloves and sheet of phyllo dough. Sitting at our kitchen table, I watched her fill in a column, check her list for errors, erase her work and start over. 

My mother was born and raised in Mexico, and immigrated to New Haven about 20 years ago to find better opportunities for work to send money home. She is often saddened by the fact that she has to live so far away from her family, but she reminds herself of Mexico through her cooking. 

At home she makes traditional Mexican dishes from tomatillo salsas, chiles rellenos and memelas. She is most known for her tamales, made with love and wrapped in a corn husk. My Tía Araceli taught her how to make them from scratch and they would spend their weekends kneading dough by hand and delivering orders of hundreds of tamales for parties and family gatherings. I remember they would tightly wrap their hair with bandanas, making sure no strands dropped into the food, and no one with malas vibras (“bad vibes”) was allowed into the kitchen, because we believe that the tamales won’t cook if we make them upset. I was rarely allowed into the kitchen because I was usually grumpy when I had to wait for the tamales to cook. Tamales are my favorite dish because of their doughy texture that makes them feel light. My mother’s tamales are special because the dough is never too soggy or stiff. She has made thousands of tamales and knows the perfect mixture of masa, salt and lard.

I always knew my mother was a skilled cook, but I had thought that skill was limited to Mexican food because that was what she knew best. Before the pandemic, she did not have much time to experiment with new dishes because she was juggling a job in fast food and work as a housekeeper. When she had the time to cook for us, she quickly boiled soup, made salsa and seasoned beans — all tasks and recipes she had memorized. I watched her go through the routine of work, eat, sleep, leaving early in the morning and coming home late at night. I hated knowing that she had very little control over her time and life outside of work. 

Last fall, I told her about the Havenly fellowship, which offers paid job training opportunities to immigrant and refugee women. I thought it would be helpful for my mother to have a job that encouraged her to grow and learn skills like using a computer or understanding restaurant administration. At first she was scared to take the risk of a new experience, but she knew the fellowship would allow her to have more time to spend with family. 

As my mother began the fellowship, she’d bring home samples of what she created in the kitchen. Not even a month into the program, she brought home baklava that melted in my mouth, and I was surprised when she told me it was from a batch she had made herself. Baklava, she told me, is tricky to cook. The phyllo dough can crack if you are not gentle enough, and the sheets burn easily so you must keep a watchful eye on them as they bake. 

When I asked my mother’s secret to mastering the art of baking baklava, she just told me that it was effort. “Whenever I do something new, I want to make sure that I practice and do it well.” To master baklava, you need patience and precision. In the Havenly kitchen, she carefully watched Nieda, her instructor, as she demonstrated the steps for each dish. Because of the language gap between them (Nieda’s first language is Arabic and my mother’s is Spanish), Maria focused on the movement of Nieda’s hands, the spices she grabbed, instead of the words. Every time she stepped into the kitchen, she repeated images of the cooking process in her head. Eventually, she learned the words of certain ingredients in Arabic and adapted to the fast pace of the kitchen. As she continued through the process of  learning new dishes alongside her colleagues, she learned about new seasonings as well. Cumin stands out — it is rarely used in Mexican cooking but is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. Food is a kind of universal language to her. She has learned which ingredients make a dish spicy, smoky or salty, and she appreciates new flavor combinations: grape leaves and tomato sauce, chicken and baba ghanoush. Understanding the food of different cultures takes love, she reminds me, and when people eat food we are reminded of that love and feel joy. 


I always wondered what a day in the kitchen looked like for my mother, as I had never joined her at work before. Cooking with her at home is a challenge because she works fast. When we cook together, she gives me small tasks like chopping vegetables or shredding chicken; She inevitably catches up to me and finishes my duties. “I enjoy working by myself,” she tells me. I know my help slows her down, but she always enjoys laughing at my unevenly cut vegetables. 

“This one looks like a finger,” she says and points to a giant piece of carrot. 

My mother invited me to work with her in the Havenly kitchen one evening to help prepare 100 chicken shawarma and falafel wraps. We enter the kitchen and join Nieda, the head chef of Havenly. Maria tells me that most of the ingredients are already prepared, so all we have to do is assemble the sandwiches. First, I put dishes into their place, count bags for the sandwiches and bring out the hummus for the wraps. 

“Nieda is speedy, follow her pace,” my mother warns me. 

Nieda and I form a small assembly line of wraps, I smear hummus on tortilla wraps and hand them off to Nieda so she can fill them with chicken and tabbouleh. I slightly lag behind Nieda, and I watch my mother walk through the kitchen preparing fresh falafel. 

The dough forms perfect spheres in her hands, and she calculates the amount of time they fry in oil so accurately that all of the falafel is browned to a uniform color. When she cooks, she never trips and her hands never tremble. Neither my mother nor Nieda use measuring tools — it’s obvious they are professionals. They work efficiently together when they cook, they know when some of them has run out of an ingredient, they judge each other’s food, “This sauce is too watery,” Nieda tells my mother.  


My mother admitted to me that she never invited me to work with her before because she did not want me to see how people bossed her around. In her previous jobs, she was only seen as a worker and her managers and coworkers would not even greet her; In Havenly, she is treated like a human, someone with incredible potential. She is invited to board meetings and special events where she contributes ideas to further the organization’s visions of empowering immigrant and refugee women. 

Cooking in Havenly, she was not anxious like those days when she only cooked when she had the time. When she cooks with love, you can feel it in the spice of her tomatillo salsas, the crisp shells of her taquitos dorados, the light aroma that effuses from her tamarind juice. Once we finished the last falafel wrap, she still had a smile on her face, a sign that there were no malas vibras in the kitchen. 

On our walk back home, we exchanged our memories of being in the kitchen together until we became exhausted. My mother opened bottles of tamarind juice she had prepared earlier that day and we both took large gulps. It was sweet with a refreshingly bitter taste that eased the heat.