A culinary gathering of the Muslim community

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A weekend ago, in the backyard of the Islamic Cultural Center of Rochester, stalls and tents provided countless dishes, desserts, and drinks from around the world at the International Food Festival. 

“We plan the entire year and wait for this weekend,” says Melih Güngör, a local youth imam.

The annual celebration of the Muslim community in Rochester brings Pakistani, Afghan, Indian, Turkish, Bosnian, and Russian people together. It showcases traditional dishes like cevapis, samosas, and kebabs, as well as American favorites such as steak subs and burgers.

Derya Aktas, who helped orchestrate and cook for the Turkish section of the festival and has taught at the Cultural Center’s school, recalls the origin of the festival. It all started with gyros, she says, beef shawarma, a Turkish dish.

The festival, which has been celebrated for more than 15 years, is completely volunteer-run and proceeds from the event to some programs at the Islamic Cultural Center, which encompasses a boarding and Islamic school and the Hamidiye mosque. 

The setup starts more than a week in advance, where tents are constructed and ingredients are bought. 

“Before (the festival), to set up, during and after with clean up, nobody here is paid,” Aktas says. “Everybody comes just to come, just to be together. And I think that’s just one thing that really clicks.”

The IFF stretches far beyond the bounds of Rochester. The boarding students who volunteered for this event hail from all around America—some coming from as far away as Nevada—while others traveled from Turkey to Rochester just to cook for the festival.

The festival showcases traditional dishes.

“From people’s husbands to their wives, those who cook for us, those who come in and bring in all the flavors,” Aktas says. “This is done with efforts that I turn to the community for, and I say, ‘Oh, you know, we need some chicken biryani. Can you help me?’ And they say, of course. They never hesitate. … If we were not respectful to one another, that wouldn’t have happened.”

She continues on to emphasize the true value of the festival, saying that it “started off with a big community of different people coming together as Muslims. We all bring something different to the community and food is the best way to gather and share.” 

Though attendance in recent years was hampered by COVID, the community has remained resilient. 

Outside of the food, the festival itself is a way for the community to stay connected, Güngör says.

“Our actual goal is to bring the community together, from all types of ethnicities,” he says. ”Sometimes we see people once a year (at this event), so it’s a great way to reconnect with those we don’t see too often.”

The festival plans to expand in the coming years. 

“We have other plans to hopefully continue to grow by not just having food but other types of crafts too,” Güngör says. “We want to branch out into other types of activities too to give more people an experience.”

Henry Cramer is a Rochester Beacon intern, a rising junior at the University of Rochester and a member of the Beacon Oasis Project’s inaugural cohort. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

2 thoughts on “A culinary gathering of the Muslim community

  1. If I could ask one thing of the media in general it would be – please save these excellent food event reviews and republish them next year – a week or two BEFORE that years events with a “this is coming up on so and so date” reminder so we know the event is coming. This way the event benefits from better attendance and the readers benefit by knowing what is coming up. I love the Islamic festival (and the Laotian, Greek. Polish, Turkish etc festivals, Ukranian that occured throughout the summer. But I frequently miss one or two because the event organizers don’t have the facilities or capability of publicizing them in advance well. Rochester has a lot of diversity and the city benefits from all these cultures learning about each other – what better route than through food and music.

  2. Great article about community events in our Rochester area providing information I would not know about otherwise. Thank you Henry for a wonderful article reporting on a wonderful event.

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