Situated on the corner of Splott Road in Cardiff sits a bright blue food truck that’s hard to miss. While the colour grabs your attention, the dishes that are on offer and the stories of those cooking are what keep bringing people back.
The Oasis food truck, which is part of the non-profit charity Oasis Cardiff that has been running since 2008, has travelled to food and music festivals across the UK in the last few years. And just two months ago, it opened a permanent residence on April 5 at the charity’s site and has since grown in popularity attracting people from all over the city on their lunch breaks.
“We recognised that on the [festival] offseason, we just have a trailer sitting in our car park and we weren’t really utilising it,” says Matt Davenport, the Oasis Centre’s catering manager. “We thought, ‘what better way to bring the community into Oasis to help with the wider goals of integration by opening up our food trailer to serve lunch for the local community?’ – and the reception has been brilliant”
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Alis David Chicas Cartagena, 24, started volunteering at the Oasis Centre two months after coming to the UK in October 2019 with his family, after leaving his home in Honduras due to gang-related problems. Now, he is Matt’s catering assistant on the food truck and said: “I always say my happy place is the kitchen because I really love it there. I cook and do all these things.” After volunteering for a year and six months, he got his settled status and became an employee on the food truck.
“I really love them for what I have here. So when I arrived, I just knew the basic things with English, like how are you, but I can have a conversation [now]. And the people here are really patient too. They are amazing, really. Because it’s not just like you meet with the people and that’s it. You make friends, you make family. So that’s really good,” he smiles.
“When we started with the trailer, I don’t know what I expected. It was my second time doing this with people around this area and I was surprised because the first day they start to come and they say: ‘Wow, the food… it’s amazing.’ Woah, they are in love with the falafel, now with the baleada, which is a national dish from my country. So I’m really proud really about that.”
He continues: “I always say, it’s not just food. For example, the people like the food, and we want them to have a proper lunch, a proper meal, and basically [food is] one other way to say what you feel. So it’s the people, they like what I’m making with my hands. That makes me feel good. Makes me feel motivated.”
The truck has proved to be a great way to engage people that have never come across Oasis on its own before – and with mezze boxes, wraps and baleadas creating a fantastic fusion of flavours from across the world, its food too certainly can’t be forgotten once you’ve tried it.
“I’ve had some really lovely conversations with people outside who didn’t really know what Oasis was,” Matt says. “Some people just thought that it was a food bank, so we’ve been able to talk about the work we do and now we see them regularly coming back.” He adds: “It’s nice that we have a community hub, as well as a hub for asylum seekers and refugees. We’re really reaching out to show to the Splott and Adamstown area that we are here to serve our community – and that includes everyone.”
Hafiz Osman Harun was Matt’s first volunteer over four years ago, and while he now has a job elsewhere – at the Motorpoint Arena – he comes back from time to time to help on the food truck and in the kitchen. Having come from Sudan in 2015, Hafiz tells us he came to Oasis “almost every day, like all the open days and I was sitting around doing nothing and I thought to myself: ‘I want to help people and at the same time help myself’ – do cooking or whatever step to help people. So I started in the kitchens, and at the same time, I was learning.
“I hadn’t been in a [working] kitchen before then – back home – when I came here, I didn’t know how to cook… I started at Oasis volunteering, I was helping Matt and some others with cooking stuff and after that I started doing catering [Oasis also does catering events inside the building] and I got my level 2 hygiene certificate and started doing some festivals. We did a lot of festivals and yeah, it’s been good stuff that I’ve done so far.”
Speaking of the reaction to the food truck since it came to the centre serving lunches to the community Tuesday through Thursday, Hafiz, 25, says: “We always get like nice feedback. Everyone gets our falafel or our mezze box and they go ‘You’ve got the best falafel wrap!’ That’s what we always want to hear. And we’ve got regular customers since we opened. The numbers are growing bigger and bigger.”
Discussing the launch of the street food lunches the truck offers – deliciously mouthwatering falafel boxes and wraps alongside a traditional dish of Honduras, Baleada – and its successes so far, Matt Davenport, who has worked with the centre for four and a half years, explains that the food trailer itself is part of The Plate project. A community lottery funded project, it was envisioned five years ago by Oasis’ CEO and deputy CEO, who recognised, inside Oasis, the thing that brought everyone together was a plate of food, Matt explains.
“It was translingual and I remember when I first came and volunteered at Oasis, I came into the hall and saw so many people of so many different nations [who] don’t necessarily share a language or could be able to communicate with one another, but they could sit and enjoy that plate of food in a safe space.
“So the [CEOs] saw food as being an integral part of people’s identity and the way in which they communicated with one another. The overall idea of The Plate Project is to gain experiences and skills, qualifications and ultimately work in catering and hospitality for asylum seekers and refugees.”
According to the charity: “The Plate is a project delivered in partnership with Oasis Cardiff, in which we aim to involve and engage the local and the wider community in the work we conduct with all of the amazing people who access our centre. The project enables an opportunity to deliver regular community events, inspired by the culinary prowess of our talented clients, in which we hope to create a melting pot of cultural food heritages from around the globe.
“Money raised from these events is put back into the organisation, contributing towards further help, activities, regular training and Cookery Clubs for those who have expressed an interest in cooking and catering.”
And this food trailer, Matt says, is just one asset Oasis has to “be able to make that a real world journey for the clients that come through.”
Explaining the process, Matt tells us that if people are interested in coming to the centre and volunteering in the kitchen, Oasis provide a free lunch for all asylum seekers and refugees in Cardiff between Monday and Friday – currently, their numbers are over 150 and reaching pre-pandemic levels, “which is fantastic”.
Once volunteers, if they show an interest in the catering and hospitality side of things, Matt works with them in the kitchen to develop their skills. Following this, they are put through a food hygiene qualification process so they are eligible to, firstly, volunteer on the trailer and then, when they get their settled status, Oasis can officially employ them.
“It’s really fantastic to see familiar faces and return customers coming back every day. And they’re sitting and they’re talking with the people that are working on the trailer, but then they’re also interacting with our clients that access the centre every day. And I think, in the same way, that food was a great unifier for our clients inside the building, and it’s becoming a unifier for the wider community and our clientele here at Oasis, it breaks down that barrier, which is fantastic.”
One of those regular customers is Katie, who has come to the food truck from Roath to get lunch for her and her husband. Her third time coming, she says: “We have the baleada and we hadn’t had it before, so I said we’ll try it, then [my husband] made me go back the next day… And then yesterday he was like, ‘Can you go?’ And I was like ‘I’m busy’. So then today he [asked for it again] – he won’t stop now!” she laughs. “It’s something different, you can’t get it anywhere. It is beautiful.” Having initially seen a friend’s social media post of the food truck, Katie was intrigued to try it. Now she has, she’s hooked.
After speaking with Alis, Havis, Matt and Katie, I was excited to try this falafel box that had been given quite the reputation – it’s “the best falafel in Wales!” according to Matt – who will take on anyone who challenges it. Spicy and herby, with an “overall presence”, I was intrigued.
When ordering, you get the choice of two salads – out of four. I went with the bean salad and a fresh, crispy, crunchy selection with radish, celery and cabbage. With a generous dollop of hummus to compliment the four heavenly falafel balls, the salad is nothing short of a delightful fusion of textures and flavours. Topped off with coriander and creamy tahini dressing, no additional seasoning is needed. The beans’ earthiness is a perfect contrast to the radish and coriander’s zing, while the falafel is crunchy on the outside and falls apart beautifully once it touches your lips. Topped with a fruity hibiscus lemonade, made fresh, it was the perfect lunch treat on a sunny day – and one I cannot wait to return to.
Oasis Cardiff’s food truck is open between 12 and 3pm Tuesday through to Thursday. For more information, view their website or social media platforms.