Ange Branca grew up in a culinary family in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia before working around the world and, eventually, settling in the United States 20 years ago. In 2016, as a way to reconnect with her heritage, Branca opened Saté Kampar, a restaurant in South Philadelphia that specialized in traditional Malaysian street food.
A year later, Branca set about connecting with other cultures. She started the Muhibbah Dinner Series, based on the Malay word meaning “people of multiple cultures and races coming together in peace and tolerance.” The one-night-only dinners bring together established and emerging Philadelphia-based chefs of various backgrounds to prepare a communal meal. The funds raised through ticket sales go to helping the city’s immigrant communities.
Since launching in 2017, there have been seven dinners, featuring contributions from Syrian, Burmese, South African, British, Indonesian and American chefs, among many others. Beyond fostering interesting culinary connections, the gatherings promote cultural exchange and community-building that extends far beyond the kitchen. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the series has paused in-person dining but put together and distributed its first to-go boxed meal in November.
Branca discusses her background in food, how she came up with the idea for a dinner series and the most memorable meal she’s eaten.
What role has food played in your life?
I have a large extended family in Malaysia and food has always been the glue that keeps us together, from cooking together to gathering for a feast or traveling miles to a hunt for special dishes. Malaysia is a very diverse country. In the 14th century it was the hub of the spice trade, which brought people from all around the world together—and their foods, too. I grew up with that diversity.
What made you want to open a restaurant?
I had been working in the corporate world for more than 20 years. I found I was getting more and more disconnected from where I came from and my own culture, and I needed to find a space to express that. So in 2016 I opened my restaurant, Saté Kampar, in Philly. I feel like the restaurant helped create a new acceptance for a very international place that doesn’t Americanize its food.
Why did you create the dinner series?
I started the series in 2017, at a time when it felt like immigrants were being victimized in our country. I wanted to create space for us to come together and celebrate the beauty of immigration and the fact that we have that diversity here in Philly—and I decided to use food as a way to do that.
In what ways does sharing food foster community?
When we share food, we put our differences aside and just enjoy the moment. I’ve learned that embracing one’s culture provides a sense of belonging. And building cultural bridges is one of the ways people can come together in a diverse nation like America.
Out of all the dinners you’ve hosted, is there any one truly emotional or impactful moment that stands out from the rest?
Our very first dinner. We had chef Tova [du Plessis], who owns Essen Bakery. She is South African and she cooked this dish called bobotie that’s a Cape Malay dish; it’s a dish that originated with the Malays who sailed back with the Dutch and the Portuguese during the spice trade and ended up settling in Cape Town, South Africa. So that dish has that history from where Tova comes from in South Africa, but going all the way back to Malaysia. And she was cooking right next to a refugee chef, Saw Maran Tan, who is from Burma. He was an undocumented worker in Malaysia for a big portion of his life until he was able to come to the U.S. as a refugee. Maran cooked a Malaysia curry. Seeing those two dishes right next to each other was such a memorable moment and such a good example of what this dinner series is about.