A taste of home: a rare opportunity for asylum-seekers to cook
For the asylum-seekers trapped in our never-ending Direct Provision system, cooking their own food is a rare treat. A unique pop-up event in Dublin this weekend celebrates their culinary cultures.
When Ellie Kyesombe tells me "food brings happiness, and food brings people together," she speaks a universal truth. We all eat, no matter where we're from.
Of course, what we choose to eat depends largely on what we were brought up on and have access to. Our food choices often define us. You know you're Irish, for example, when the sight of vac-packed rashers emerging from a suitcase could reduce you to tears.
The comfort of familiar flavours is peculiarly intensified when we feel out of sorts: when we're under the weather, hungover or homesick. There are times when nothing will do but mama's lasagne or mammy's brown bread slathered in butter and dipped into a chicken and barley broth.
Food is so much more than a basic human need: a leveller like no other, it can also be the most beautiful expression of our love for those who need it.
Imagine then if you couldn't make those choices. Imagine if you couldn't make a bad day more bearable by preparing the foods you love for the people you love.
That's the reality lived by almost 5,000 people languishing in Direct Provision centres around Ireland today, unable to work, study or even cook for themselves as they wait an average of four years - but sometimes two or three times that - for their cases to be processed.
Michelle Darmody of Dublin's Cake Cafe decided to do something to highlight what she sees as a national embarrassment. "Direct Provision has been in place for 16 years," she says. "It's just not a nice way to treat people who are coming to look for help."
With the support of the Irish Refugee Council (IRC), Michelle made contact with people like Malawian activist Ellie Kyesombe, who has been in Direct Provision since 2010. For two days next week (April 5 and 6), Michelle, Ellie and a team of volunteers will transform the lobby of Dublin's Project Arts Centre into a pop-up restaurant named 'Our Table'.
The food will be cooked by participants currently or previously in Direct Provision, who have devised a lunch menu that celebrates their diverse food traditions. Each volunteer will sit down to eat together with members of the public and people from the food industry as well as politicians, journalists and representatives from Amnesty International and the IRC.
"People in Direct Provision are very lost," says Annet Mphahlele, a Ugandan mother of two who is participating in the project. "It's very hard to meet Irish people," adds Ellie.
She welcomes Our Table as a chance for those stuck in the system "to come out and mingle" while giving Irish people "a chance to get to know people who are coming to Ireland - asylum seekers and refugees - and to know why they leave their precious home."
Both Ellie and Annet were involved in a recent fundraiser for refugees in Calais and their faces light up talking about friendships formed at the well-attended event. "People are often scared to make conversation," Ellie continues. "But when you're eating together it's a chance to interact, to comment on the food and then the conversation goes from there."
Unsurprisingly, everyone involved has their own favourite foods of home that they'd love to share on the Our Table menu, featuring those flavours they most missed on arriving here in Ireland.
Azad Izzeddin is a Kurdish-Syrian refugee whose application was fast-tracked on arrival in late 2013. Azad missed many dishes from home: yabrak (vine leaves stuffed with rice, garlic and tomato paste) or mulabat (a beetroot dip for naan, which is the Kurdish word for bread). But it was mulukhia (a nutrient-rich leafy vegetable used for a dish of the same name) that he craved the most.
"Oh my god!" exclaims the strong, slim man who describes himself as 'almost vegetarian'. "I could eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Unable to stomach the meat-heavy food served in the reception centres, Azad lost 11 kilos in weight in just four months in Direct Provision. "My bones were empty. My stomach was empty. I was starving." He was told he could apply for a doctor's certificate to have special meals prepared for him, but he didn't want to make a fuss, telling me "beggars can't be choosers."
He will never forget his first meal with Kurdish friends in a Kurdish restaurant in Dublin after receiving his papers from the Department of Justice. "I felt like I came back to my body."
Ellie also craves fresh vegetables. "I'm someone who likes to cook from scratch, and I have grown up eating really organic meals - cassava, maize and vegetables from the garden.
"I eat healthy meals: if I'm having a pot of meat I have to have fresh vegetables with it."
As well as freshness, she misses Malawian flavour combinations such as nsima gaiwa (a coarse-ground maize particularly popular for hangovers) with mpiru (a green leaf vegetable, served in a groundnut soup) with utaka wowotcha (small smoked fish cooked in the barbecue) or free-range chicken stewed with tsaboloa (red pepper) or nali (a hot chilli with the nickname abale samalani, which means 'please friends take care').
Another Our Table participant is Latifah Olagoke, the Nigerian-Irish talent behind a new catering business called Latifah's Contemporary Cooking. Latifah's cooking style draws on the traditions that she learnt in childhood.
"I was one of the lucky ones," she says, explaining that when she arrived in 2001, asylum seekers were allowed to cook in the hostel. "It enabled me to carry that knowledge forward and to teach my kids."
The cooking of meals was "a happy time," she remembers. "It makes you feel comforted, and the time goes by without you knowing. Without food, without flavour, you're stripped of everything. That's part of freedom to me, just to cook and express yourself in the kitchen."
Sharing food with the wider community is core to Nigerian culture, a tradition Latifah continues every Christmas, delivering parcels of jollof rice to her Dublin neighbours. It's rare to go to a Nigerian party, she says, and leave without a take-away plate of leftovers. Unlike Irish parties, where the numbers are limited, she says "for Africans, we want it to be big… So if we invite 20, we cook for 40."
For logistical purposes, the numbers at Our Table are limited and the pop-up restaurant booked out fast. But a drop-in cafe will also be serving tea and cake from noon to 3pm for anyone who fancies a cup of Indian chai, African rooibos or Middle Eastern mint tea and a slice of baklava or Harisi semolina cake, with proceeds going to the IRC's #EndDP campaign.
There will be screenings of videos produced by theatre group Change of Address who work with young people in Direct Provision, some of whom will have decorated the front window of the Project Arts Centre, and visitors are encouraged to bring garden or hedgerow flowers for the table as a gesture of solidarity.
All are welcome to drop in, even just to say hello. As Latifah says of any good party, "what makes it successful is the number of people who turn up."