• Book Review: Recipes & Refuge, by Chris Nguyen

I consider myself very fortunate.  I was born into a privileged country where there is opportunity and possibility.  A wealthy country too where we can afford to travel, have no problems obtaining visas and can earn what may be a year’s wage for some in a matter of weeks.

At the same time I am frustrated by my country.  My pet hate is when I am meeting someone for the first time and they ask me what nationality I am.  Despite being fifth generation Australian, people assume I am something else because my hair is black and my eyes are different.  It is astonishing that the experiences of my family, generations ago, are still relevant and highlighted in almost every conversation I have when I meet someone new.

The constant questioning makes me acutely aware of my cultural background, whilst not having benefited from much cultural or language diversity amongst my own family’s traditions.  I used to envy those who were able to speak the languages of their ancestors’ home countries, cook the traditional way and maintain cultural traditions.  Perhaps this (and my love of food) is why I was so touched by the book, Recipes & Refuge that was recently sent to me.

“Seeking refuge in food. Not comfort food as such, but clutching at the familiarities of a homeland, now far away, when surrounded by the alien.”

The book is a collection of stories about food and their recipes from individuals who have sought refuge in Australia.  It is not about “refugees” or “boat people” or “immigrants” but just every day people.  At the same time, the stories are extraordinary, sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes violent, but mostly with sentiments of reflection, hope and optimism.

It was Chris Nguyen who was behind the idea for the book.  Chris’ parents came to Australia from Vietnam in 1979, they were finally accepted as refugees and moved to Perth where Chris was born.  Her mother, Jolie, features often. It helped her to remember recipes and bring memories together.

There are some vegetarian recipes, truly homemade and authentic.  But it is the stories behind the food that are the most touching.  The sections are set out to match courses and journeys: Starters/Departing, Mains/Travelling, Desserts/Arriving, and Drinks/Transitioning.

Gisela Kuszla’s recipe for flour soup in Starters/Departing, is alongside a poignant telling of her as thirteen year old girl in Berlin around the time of the Second World War.

 “A Russian officer looked at my nine-year-old sister and said to my mother ‘let the little daughter go over with me to the school, I’ll give her something to eat.’  So desperate was my mother that she was unsure what to do.  After being assured that the Russian soldier’s intentions were good, she let my little sister go, and fifteen minutes later she returned with bread and butter.  We were all very relieved.”

Flour soup may seem strange to us today, but after reading her story I can appreciate the excitement around it.

“My mother was so pleased when I handed her the bag of white powder.  From it she cooked us flour soup often.”

Gisela lets us into her world, deeply personal and moving.

The book is filled with tens of such stories.

Some say that the only truth in history is the stories of individuals who were there at the time.  For this I love Chris’ book.  Recipes & Refuge is not only a moving depiction of remarkable strength and courage, hardship and change, but the history and culture of Australians that make our society what it is today.

Recipes & Refuge: Stories of immigrants and refugees told through food
By Chris Nguyen and a menu of other voices