What do refugees and expats have in common? They all crave the tastes of their homelands. No matter what life or food is like in their new home countries, there comes a time when all they want is the reassurance and familiarity that can only be found in the comfort foods from their childhoods.
On the third day of our FAWCO Target Project site visit to the Collateral Repair Project in Amman, Jordan, we were greeted with the smiling faces of women refugees standing over raw ingredients, eagerly awaiting the chance to show us how to prepare their favorite dishes from home.
As an adventurous eater, I was really looking forward to this session, knowing that all of the finished products would be set out for lunch later. The CRP coordinators had done an excellent job in recruiting a cross-section of cuisine. There were home cooks from Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, overseeing enough food each to feed a small army.
The first table I visited was hosted by a refugee from Sudan who was preparing an appetizer. She had a dish of sautéed garlic, eggplant, green bell pepper and carrot in front of her with another dish of chopped raw tomatoes beside it. She explained that the tomatoes would be cooked separately with some peanut butter, lemon juice and water. Eyebrows were raised, then we followed her into the kitchen to see how this craziness was going to turn out. (She explained that at this point, Jordanians would also include mayo in their version of the dish. We talked her out of that and she seemed happy that we wanted the true Sudanese version.)
Once all of the ingredients had cooked down a bit, she added the previously sautéed veggies to the pan, combined everything, then it was done. I happily spooned some on to my plate later at lunch time and was pleasantly surprised at how well all of the ingredients worked together. Put this fancy baba ganoush-like dip on top of the local flat bread, and you’ve got a great snack.
Next, we visited an Iraqi woman who was crafting lamb dumplings from two different grinds of meat, onions and spices known as kubba (or kibbe - learn more). The course, fattier lamb with chopped onions and spices was formed into small parcels with a more finely-ground, leaner cut of lamb then wrapped around it. She showed us a pot of stock made from water and lamb bones that she had simmered for quite a while. She removed the bones, then popped the dumplings into the simmering stock until they were cooked through.
These, too, were delicious – though, full disclosure, I have yet to meet a dumpling I didn’t like. I commented that this lamb dumpling-making process was quite painstaking and time consuming and the woman explained that these dumplings were made for special occasions such as weddings or birthdays. I thanked her for making such an effort to share them with us, since our visit didn’t fall into a family festivity category.
I didn’t get to make it around to every station before lunch but I could see that the Arabic lamb and rice dish, mansef, was being presented on a huge platter and that a custard for dessert was in process on the stove. Even though every cooking station featured a different dish, the smiles were universal. These women all seemed genuinely proud of their cooking skills and happy to educate us on their culture’s comfort foods. It reminded me that when I moved from my home state of Georgia out to California, I would sometimes cook up a batch of chicken-fried steak with gravy for dinner parties when I felt a little homesick. The Californians loved it and the dish shared more about me with my new friends. I’m still using the same trick to get to know people after eight years of living in England, which makes me very appreciative that the refugees at CRP were willing to share a bit of themselves with us through their food.