By Sonia Nair
“There is no love sincerer than the love of food” – George Bernard Shaw
One of the things I most look forward to when I return home to Malaysia – other than seeing my parents and friends of course – is gorging on my mother’s cooking. Whether it’s her fragrant mutton curry or the crisp fish cutlets she rolls into neat little balls, the culmination of smells, tastes and sensations imbues in me a deep sense of appreciation of what it means to be a Malaysian Indian.
This same feeling is conjured countless times in The Rag and Bone Man Press’s latest corpus – Recipes & Refuge. In the same vein as Soup Van: Stories Over a Polystyrene Cup, the book is a collection of – at times harrowing, heartwarming – stories that go to the heart of what it means to be an immigrant and refugee in Australia.
Chris Nguyen and her mother Jolie, the latter of whom was a Vietnamese refugee who fled the war torn country on boat in 1979, are the unifying voices through which this theme is further explored. Canvassing a myriad of perspectives, the frank and thoughtful Chris – aided by the immensely likeable Jolie – produced the book to acknowledge the shared experiences of people who left their home in search of refuge in Australia.
Seeking to depoliticise the highly laden terms used to refer to such groups of people, Chris says: “These are stories of our everyday. About everyday people. Not everyday boat people’, not everyday ‘asylum seekers’, not even everyday ‘immigrants’ – just everyday ‘people’.“
Akin to a menu, the book is divided into four segments: the starters (departing), mains (travelling), desserts (arriving) and drinks (transitioning) to chronicle the different stages of relocating to a new home. Hailing from Addis Ababa to Buenos Aires, Siem Reap and Peshawar, nary a place is left untouched as Recipe & Refuge divulges the true diversity of Australia’s multifarious inhabitants.
The generosity of the recipes’ custodians in detailing how exactly one can perfect these venerable dishes bears testament to the unfailing sense of giving that permeates through [the book].
The stories oscillate from dark moments of despair, suffering and hopelessness to astonishing displays of perseverance and optimism in the face of immense hardship. Although a few of the accounts in the book are penned by immigrants who voluntarily chose to come to Australia, the overwhelming majority of them are the recollections of refugees – pervaded by an overwhelming sense of loss, regret and heartbreak. Vuthay Samreth recalls how he worked as a five-year old boy in a rice field during Pol Pot’s regime and Nepalese exile Ghana Gautam recollects how he spent 18 years in a refugee camp, among many other such accounts of human rights abuses.
From the fallout of the Holocaust and the breakup of the Soviet Union to Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the brutal dictatorship of Pol Pot in Cambodia and famine in North Korea, many of the stories in the book originate from some of the most shocking human rights violations and mass exoduses that have occurred.
Not every account is sad however. A bag of fried crickets is the launchpad for a long-lasting marriage between a Cambodian and Australian, while goats and chickens are the gifts Stuart Thomson presents the family of his soon-to-be Tanzanian wife, Nancy Mkojera-Thomson. Nancy’s account is predominantly happy, but Stuart makes the important distinction between Nancy’s choice to come to Australia and the lack of options many refugees have.
“I’m not sure if this is because Nancy had a choice – she chose this life, she sought love and she decided to move. Whereas a lot of refugees still don’t want to really be here. They want to be back home, but they’re fleeing because they have to, for a myriad of other reasons.”
And then there are the delightful recipes, peppering almost every encounter and providing a deeply tantalising respite to the heavier subjects at hand. The recipes themselves are far from the stock-standard ones you find on a generic food website, as they feature many personalised tips from the author themselves – from why you should rinse salty grated papaya under water to the number of empanadas you should simultaneously cook in the pan. The generosity of the recipes’ custodians in detailing how exactly one can perfect these venerable dishes bears testament to the unfailing sense of giving that permeates through many an account in the book.
Food, in the hands of the myriad storytellers who make up the book, transcends its basic sustenance function and comes to symbolise a way for them to reimagine their abandoned homelands, recapture their heritage and revitalise traditions that shape who they are.
For Rachel Teperman, the descendant of Jewish refugees, eating her grandmother’s matzo balls makes her feel ‘nourished, enriched and in some ways deeply connected’ to her grandmother, as she remembers the perilous journey her grandparents took to Australia to form the bedrock of the life she leads now. Similarly, Leticia Quintana unearths her parents’ origins in Argentina and Uruguay and feels instantly comforted by the familiar smells that greet her in the kitchens of her relatives.
Food also becomes a way through which newcomers navigate their foreign surroundings.
As Kazakhstani Felix Shparberg says when he first arrived in Australia: “When we came to Coles in this country and saw all the spices, we couldn’t believe it. So many spices. Paprika, cumin we know, but anything other people eat every day, we watch them choose this and this and this, and we think what’s this for?”
Certain accounts feature stronger links to food, whereas others merely use recipes as a platform to explore the weighty themes of displacement and disempowerment. The way food is talked about undulates from being something crucial to survival – such as the flour soup Gisela Kuszla’s mother made them after rations were low in the aftermath of Germany’s World War II loss – to a symbol of a tradition of yesteryears.
Despite the negativity many Australians feel over the past and present governments’ treatment of ‘boat people’, the many stories within the corpus evoke an inevitable sense of pride in Australia and much of what it stands for – canvassed from the numerous immigrant visas and asylum granted to refugees who arrived upon its shores. And therein lies the book’s greatest strength. As its personal stories confer a face to one of the greatest moral dilemmas to grace political debate in recent times, it simultaneously presents a snapshot of the Australia we live in today – a country that has benefitted greatly from the assortment of cultures, traditions, languages and food that constitutes its diverse tapestry.
As Jolie perfectly encapsulates:
“I don’t care who you are, where you are from, what you look like, what you do for a living, or who you know. None of that makes any difference to me. If you are sitting opposite me and you are a good, sincere person, then you are just another human being like me, and I will trust you. I will accept you, I will respect you; I can love you. It’s that simple.”