For Afghani refugee Zohra, a meal of kabuli pulao, her country’s national dish, offers more than just a taste of home. It has the ability to transport her back to her childhood, to a time before the Taliban, when life was good and women were given a free rein over their lives.
Zohra – who was born and raised in Kabul and has since fled the war-torn city to live in Kuala Lumpur with her husband – would come home from school to watch her mother prepare her the dish, a wondrous tableau of slow-cooked lamb luxuriating in fluffy gold rice jazzed up with sultanas and sweetened carrots.
Cooking and eating is, to many, an emotionally and mnemonically fraught activity. Perhaps the bowl of chicken soup reminded you of an irretrievable time when your mother still fussed over you. Or the nasi lemak tugged at some multi-layered memory involving your primary school days, when food used to cost much less.
It is no different for those who have permanently relocated in a bid to survive; in her book A Taste From Home: Recipes And Stories From Refugees Living In Malaysia, Haris Coussidis uses food as a means of delving into the personal memories and experiences of Zohra and others like her.
With 55 recipes and 17 stories spanning 11 countries from Africa to the Middle East, the book weaves a tale of courage and perseverance, as each refugee shares their most cherished recipes – and ultimately their identity, customs and diversity – brought with them in exile.
A Greek living in Malaysia, Coussidis is a freelance photo-grapher and trained cook, whose stints with humanitarian organisations since 2002 have inspired her to go a step further. Her modus operandi was simple: “I wanted to look for a more creative way to put a human face on the refugee issue. There’s too much emphasis on the misery. I’d like to shine the spotlight on the positive for once.”
The idea of writing a cookbook came about naturally last year; having lived and travelled across the globe since she was nine years old, Coussidis has formed a habit of collecting spices and cookbooks as travel souvenirs.
With the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she set off to work immediately, visiting refugee communities to see if anyone wanted to participate, and was ultimately blown away by the overwhelming response.
“I was surprised by how excited they were to share the recipes of their fore-fathers,” said Coussidis.
“I was welcomed into people’s homes and kitchens with open arms, equipped with my camera, a kitchen scale, measuring cups and my appetite.
“At the beginning, they thought it strange that I was photographing food from raw to cooked states – it would make them laugh. But as I asked questions about the food, ingredients and recipes, their eyes would light up.”
In response, many of these refugees ruminated over their personal experiences, resulting in a mixture of laughter and tears – not all of which are documented in the book for security reasons.
Coussidis, meanwhile, learned to set aside her camera and observe, gaining insights into parts of the refugee story that are often untold – those intimate family moments, the enactment of comforting rituals and even the expressions of self.
“Some of these refugees have had to adjust to the different food products available in Malaysia but they still created authentic food from their homeland and shared the memories that come with it. Food offered them a chance to talk about their countries in a different way. It is also a way to forget the daily uncertainties of living in a new or unfamiliar environment,” she added.
At the end of the day, Coussidis ended up with dozens of recipes – from Ethopian flatbread to Sri Lankan coconut sambal to Syrian meatballs – for her book.
But while the initial process seemed relatively simple, writing an entire cookbook based on what she photographed and scribbled down wasn’t.
“When I started working on this cookbook, I didn’t know what it entailed to actually create one from scratch. I had to reread all my cookbooks and test all the recipes at home at least twice just to make sure all the details are right. Then I sent them out to friends and family, who would test them out for me as well.”
Apparently, the Iraqi halawi simit, or a moist sweet semolina dessert speckled with toasted nuts, was a huge hit with the Coussidis clan. “It’s easy to make and such a refreshing dessert in warm weather,” she says.
As for the one dish that reminds the newly-christened cookbook writer of home, she answers: “My mum’s spana kopita, or spinach pie. I have it every time I return to Athens.”
A Taste From Home: Recipes And Stories From Refugees Living In Malaysia is currently available for RM60 at UNHCR, and will soon be made available for sale at selected bookstores. To inquire about purchasing a copy, contact UNHCR at 03-2118 4986 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. All proceeds from sales of the cookbook will go towards welfare and medical emergency assistance for refugees in Malaysia.