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Taste of Home: Immigrant-owned restaurants thrive in Harrisonburg

Malaysian female chef cooking and seasoning food in a restaurant kitchen, wearing a black shirt and white chef's hat
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
Marina Muan, Owner of BoBoKo Indonesian Café cooking lunch

Virginia’s immigrant population has more than tripled over the past 30 years, topping one million people in 2022. Immigrants represent nearly 13 percent of the commonwealth’s population - bringing their culture and cuisine to our communities...VPM News special correspondent Dennis Ting shows us how sometimes they can also help transform a city.


PARWAR SOFY: We have a grilled fish and tandoor – it takes an hour to cook on there, our charcoal, and it smells and tastes like you’re back home.

DENNIS TING: It’s the lunch hour rush at Pasha’s Rest and Café… and the heat is on in the kitchen to live up to its reputation.

PARWAR SOFY: You want authentic Middle Eastern food? You want authentic Kurdish food? The best cuisine in Virginia? That’s guaranteed.

DENNIS TING: Parwar Sofy, the owner of Pasha’s, opened his restaurant in 2020 bringing his family recipes from Kurdistan to what has now become his new home.

PARWAR SOFY: Man, that kabob is still here to this day, just like back home. That lamb meat just falls off, just like back home.

DENNIS TING: Parwar isn’t alone…within a few miles…you can find other restaurant owners and chefs also offering a wide range of cuisine from their homelands. But this isn’t New York City or the DC area.

Harrisonburg isn’t a big city. In fact, there are only about 54,000 people who live here. But it is one of the most diverse cities in the state of Virginia, and that diversity is reflected in its food.

EMILY BENDER: Harrisonburg has one public high school, and there are over 60 languages that are spoken in that high school.

DENNIS TING: Emily Bender is the associate director of development with Church World Service in Harrisonburg which helps refugees and asylum seekers settle into their new life in the Shenandoah Valley.

EMILY BENDER: Syrians, Afghans, Ukrainians, Congolese, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans.

DENNIS TING: That includes helping people find a taste of home.

EMILY BENDER: We know where the halal place is and we know where to point people if they’re looking for certain foods.

DENNIS TING: Parwar and other restaurant owners can remember how difficult it was finding authentic food when they first moved to Harrisonburg…

PARWAR SOFY: It was hard not having those foods.

VERONICA AVILA: It was a little bit depressing because it was like you were missing out of what you were used to.

DENNIS TING: Just ask Veronica Avila.

VERONICA AVILA: Being Mexican and having that background, it was like, ‘Oh, this is not Mexican.’

DENNIS TING: Veronica grew up in Mexico and California it’s now becoming less of a problem…

VERONICA AVILA: The variety of food options here is huge, humongous.

DENNIS TING: Veronica opened Taco El Primo in 2006 serving authentic Mexican cuisine in the very first registered food truck in the Shenandoah Valley.

VERONICA AVILA: It kind of brings us back to our culture, to what our heritage is from families, and it’s passed along to our kids.

DENNIS TING: For Marina Muan cooking is also a family affair.

MARINA MUAN: I always loved cooking because when I was little, Mom sells noodles in Malaysia, so that’s why I love to make noodles, or satay.

DENNIS TING: Marina, who hails from Malaysia, started working at Boboko an Indonesian restaurant in 2016 as a chef before taking over as the owner in January…hoping to continue sharing her culture with the Harrisonburg community.

MARINA MUAN: It’s just learning people’s culture and understanding them better. It’s nice to know people from everywhere.

PARWAR SOFY: Everyone wants food. Everyone needs a haircut. So, you’ll succeed in life with these, right?

DENNIS TING: Parwar says he learned to cook from his father… who moved his family from Kurdistan more than two decades ago seeking a better life in the United States.

PARWAR SOFY: He had his own business back home as well. He had a restaurant and a hookah lounge. He had everything back home, but his stuff was to have a better future for us.

DENNIS TING: Parwar says his goal for Pasha’s is not only to introduce Harrisonburg to his Kurdish community it’s also to offer new Kurdish arrivals a place of refuge and familiarity.

PARWAR SOFY: When they walk in, they see the flag right there, they’re like, ‘Oh wow, they’re from Kurdistan.’ And they love that. And I enjoy helping them out, whatever I can do to help them out.

DENNIS TING: Parwar and other restauranteurs hope their kitchens stay busy and their dining rooms stay packed… and that sharing their food can create a more inclusive and tastier community in Virginia. For VPM News Focal Point… I’m Dennis Ting.

Harrisonburg now has around 70 international restaurants, grocery stores and food trucks -- and the list keeps growing. In September, the city hosts its annual international food festival that attracts more than nine thousand people from across the Shenandoah Valley.

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