Mazi Mas: Cooking With The “Invisible Army”

Art & Culture

"It was very difficult finding a job with my age and having children," Roberta Siao tells us. We're sat in the backyard of a café in East London's Victoria Park. The softly spoken Sao Paolo native is explaining to us how she came to be involved in a porject that goes by the name of Mazi Mas. As she sips her black Americano she recalls how, after meeting her English husband in the UK whilst on holiday, she had quit her stressful banking job and focussed on having a child. Roberta thought it would be easy to get back into work. It proved to be quite the opposite. But she wasn't ready to give up. She tells us: "I said [to myself] I'm going to fight. I love cooking so I thought I'm going to do something different." It was whilst volunteeering at a kitchen in 2012 that Roberta met Niki Kopcke who was doing an apprenticeship there whilst studying for her masters degree in gender studies. Realising there that were many migrant women in a similar position, the idea for Mazi Mas was born.

What is Mazi Mas? Mazi Mas is Greek for "with us" and alludes to the inclusiveness that the team have managed to create. Many women arrive in the country, seeking solice and escape from war, abusive partners and other difficulties. A lot of these women are from cultures that expect women to stay at home and look after children, or they may come from a highly educated background with a university degree, but one that isn't transferable to our workforce. "The problem is…they totally disappear," Roberta says with concern. "I call them the 'invisible army'. They are warriors. They are amazing. They are fighters. They are just invisible. They [usually] have a very good education in their country."

Roberta and her team take on seven women per cohort, with each cohort lasting for six months. They provide them with all the training necessary for six weeks, including the food certificate and kitchen skills, as well as team work and confidence building. They then get to work for six months, paid at the London Living Wage of £9.75, catering for events that could incluxe a wedding of over 500 people or smaller office parties. Each woman provides their own menu- starter, mian and dessert and they then each learn the dishes of their team members. The countries that these women originate from are well know for their unique and delicious cuisine- cuisine that's not found in restaurants over here. Dishes bursting with vibrant hues of red, yellow, and orange. Some of the chefs who are currently working with Mazi Mas are from Iran, Ecuador and Peru- countries well known for their exotic food. Roberta tells me with glee about a heavenly sounding Iranian quince and plum stew- a dish that had her running all over London hunting for quince. A task that happens quite often as the ingredients for such dishes aren't found in your average Tesco Express. 

The women come to them through various charities that they are in contact with and they often find themselves with a waiting list as they don't have the funding or structure available to take all of the women on. The social enterprise has now gone on to operate across the globe with cohorts in Australia, Berlin and Lyon. They plan to turn Mazi Mas into a franchise of sorts, providing women with the model for the business and then giving them the training to take on more women refugees to train them and provide them with the same skills so that they are better equipped to enter the workforce. Have many of the women gone on to find paid employment? "Yes, all of them," Roberta says assuredly. "A lot of them are working in catering or have gone on to start their own business. One of them decided to do South American cheese. One went on to be a teaching assistant."

An important point that Roberta makes is that Mazi Mas is not a charity. The women, she says, don't need charity or help. What they need is the "opportunity to develop the skills they have". One of the main struggles of running a social enterprise such as this is the expense involved. The food, the set up and also paying the chefs. They do receive a small amount of public funding, but the main money comes from the events for which they cater. But it seems that the positives outway the negatives as Roberta concludes: "The moment you give them the confidence and they think they are capable they just flourish. They feel valued…They feel connected, their children are proud of their mothers. It infuses people with positivity."

If you fancy having a go at making that cracking chicken dish in the main photo, here's the recipe:

Persian Saffron chicken

Serves- 4

1 kilogram skinless chicken thighs

1 large onion, finely sliced 

1 tin of chopped tomatoes (400 grams)

½ tsp of saffron powder or liquid


Olive oil

Generously coat a large frying pan with olive oil or any other cooking oil. Once hot, add the chopped chicken thigh pieces and cook on medium heat. Turn them around as they get golden brown. Allow to cook for around 5 minutes.

Add in the sliced onions and canned tomatoes and reduce heat to low. Add in a generous sprinkling of salt and saffron and mix very well. Allow to simmer for approximately 15 minutes, or until the sauce reduces.

Remove from heat and allow to sit in reduction sauce for 5 minutes before serving.

Serve it with rice and salad! 

Mazi Mas will be doing a grand gala as part of their relaunch on 27th June at The Round Chapel in Lower Clapton, East London. For more info on this as well as tickets head HERE.

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