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Hungry for connection: Brown Girls Food Club builds community in North Texas through food

Members of Brown Girls Food Club eat together at JS International Grill
Michelle Aslam
Brown Girls Food Club enjoy a meal at JS International Grill in Richardson at their Galentine’s Day themed event on Feb 10. The group hosts meet-ups to support local BIPOC owned restaurants.

At the start of Ramadan in 2019, Ayesha Erkin found herself alone at sunset, preparing to break her fast. While she had a few good friends in Austin that she could have invited over for dinner, Erkin says most of them were white, and would not have understood how much it meant to share that meal together.

Living in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia while she was growing up, Erkin had the opportunity to celebrate Ramadan with everyone else in the community. But things changed when she moved to Austin.

“It was the first time in a while where I was like, I don’t have anyone to break my fast with,” Erkin said. “It just felt really lonely.”

So, she decided to take the initiative to build community herself.

“I just reached out to a few friends I made online, and I was like, ‘Hey, what about doing a little supper club for Ramadan?’” Erkin said. And to her surprise, there was a lot of interest.

Over the last few years, what started as a series of lively dinners at small apartments in Austin has quickly grown to meet-ups at BIPOC and immigrant owned restaurants in Dallas, New York, London and Istanbul. The group, now called Brown Girls Food Club, is a global network of thousands of women of color who are making connections while discovering local food.

“Each chapter kind of varies, because you kind of have to understand the city first and what the needs are of each group. So in London, it's not about diversity, necessarily. It's more about community. People want to meet new people and try new places without going by themselves,” Erkin said.

Erkin’s social media presence is largely responsible for the club’s success. Her content on Instagram and TikTok about navigating identity and culture through food, fashion, and even architecture, has garnered a loyal following of mostly young women who relate in some way to her experience as an immigrant, and as a Muslim.

“I would post [about the club] on social media, and we'd get a lot of responses like, wait, I never heard of this place before. I want to come, can I join you guys?” Erkin said.

Around once a month, Erkin helps plan a meet-up in a different city after doing extensive research. She takes a lot of different things into consideration when selecting a restaurant for a meet-up, including the story behind the food and how much the restaurant could benefit from a little bit of exposure. In Dallas, she’s held meet-ups at Eddie’s Euromart and Kenzo Sushi.

“The meet-ups are an opportunity to create a bit of a space for [restaurants] who don't have that social media presence or a good PR company to back them up. And so we kind of come in and we're like, ‘Hey, we want to spotlight you because your food is amazing,’” Erkin said.

But the most important criteria is that the food is made with Nafas, a heart-and-soul quality put into cooking a meal that makes it especially delicious. It’s something she says was noticeably absent from a lot of the trendy and expensive restaurants in Austin that felt like they appropriated from the cultures that inspired their cuisine. All while smaller and more authentic BIPOC-owned restaurants were being pushed out of the city.

“I started noticing a sort of food gentrification,” she said.

That’s why it was important for the restaurants to not only be BIPOC owned, but for storytelling to be a part of the experience Erkin created for the club. And despite the Ramadan origin story, Erkin is adamant that the club has nothing to do with religion. She made the decision when naming the club with her co-founders, Hamaila Qureshi and Amber Kazalbash, to open the meet-ups to all women of color.

“We're all different ethnicities. So it was just a way to create a space for BIPOC women in Austin, because I felt like that wasn't necessarily there,” she said, “If you identify as a minority, and if you identify as a woman, then you're welcome here.”

Yumna Mehmood was invited to join the most recent North Texas event, a Galentine’s Day themed meet-up at JS International Grill in Richardson by her friend, Amna Haque, who regularly attends the club’s events.

Mehmood says it’s hard to explain why exactly, but even with the large Muslim community in the Dallas area, being “different” in Texas can feel a little isolating. Especially as a young woman of color. Meet-ups like this are one of few opportunities to connect with other women her age that she can relate to.

“It’s not about if you’re from a different country, or belong to a different religion. We all have similar experiences,” she said.

Haque shares a similar experience living in Dallas. “Alhamdulillah, I don’t ever feel lost,” she said, “But now that we’re older it’s a choice we’re making for ourselves, to build community at home.”

There are common things women of color share, across ethnic and religious backgrounds, Erkin said. And breaking bread together is kind of like therapy.

“Whether I have five or six people show up, or 50, it's been the same feeling. And I don't know how to describe it with words to be honest, but it's just really nice to be a part of something that's much bigger than I am,” Erkin said. “I want the table to feel like it's endless, and that there are no empty seats.”

Follow Brown Girls Food Club on Instagram at @browngirlsfoodclub to learn about their upcoming events.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Michelle Aslam is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow and recent graduate from North Texas. While in college, she won state-wide student journalism awards for her investigation into campus sexual assault proceedings and her reporting on racial justice demonstrations. Aslam previously interned for the North Texas NPR Member station KERA, and also had the opportunity to write for the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer.