Flavors from Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their
Stories and Comfort Foods
By Aimee Zaring
University Press of Kentucky
Review by Chef Madeleine Dee
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Chef Madeleine Dee. All rights reserved
I have always had a difficult time feeling grateful. Explaining this would be complicated, mostly because what I’ve suffered through in my life does not begin to compare to the atrocities faced by the average refugee. I was bullied horribly for most of my adolescence, and I grew up with the worst bully of all in my home. It has not been an easy road for me, but I have always had a roof over my head, food in my stomach, clean water, a good education, clothing, & health care. My life has never been directly threatened because of my religious or political beliefs, I’ve never been captured and left to starve in a refugee camp, my home has never been burned to the ground by angry radicals. But the people featured in Flavors from Home, a cookbook that offers recipes from refugees, have experienced everything I just described and much more. They fled their homelands and ended up in Kentucky, happy and grateful every day for the countless simple blessings that most of us take for granted. Through sheer determination, they survived and thrived to become friendly, smart, family-oriented, positive citizens who contribute to the state of Kentucky. Their stories are heartbreaking, exciting, and remarkable, and they are now available in a cookbook as compelling as any work of fiction.
The author, Aimee Zaring, has managed to weave such serious matters into a book that is at once both substantial and enjoyable. She has a gift for conveying material that is potentially depressing as simple parts of a larger, more inspirational whole. Each chapter begins with a written portrait of the refugee she has interviewed. As she recounts the person’s story, she describes the often-horrific experiences that caused him or her to flee to the United States, but she also focuses heavily on what life is like now in Kentucky. The text maintains a positive fluidity that makes the book a page-turner – I kept reading and reading because I loved finding out that people who had been through so much pain and hardship were able to come here and change their lives for the better. To put it simply, this book is an inspiration. Best of all, it’s about real people who you might encounter on the streets of major cities in Kentucky. With a remarkable attention to detail, Zaring paints a portrait of each interviewee as beautiful, important, and unique. It is clear that she values diversity and loves to showcase individuality. The tone of each chapter varies just enough that the author manages to inject the personality of the featured person into every sentence, and the result is that you feel well-acquainted with each individual by the time you finish reading his or her story.
One of the most interesting elements of this book is that many of the people who are featured live in the same city as I do, and Flavors from Home does a remarkable job of highlighting their vital contributions to Louisville. Several own restaurants in town that I frequent, including Coco Tran, the owner of Heart & Soy, Roots, Zen Garden, & Zen Tea House. She previously owned The Egg Roll Machine and Cafe Mimosa, but sold the business to an employee when she became a vegetarian and a Buddhist. Her nephews used her help and expertise to open Basa, one of my favorite restaurants in town. After reading her story here, she’s familiar to me and I feel like I know her. I think that it’s beyond cool that she lives here in Louisville. She has certainly been a gift to the city, and I might not have ever learned about her had I not read this cookbook. If I see Coco out on the street someday, I may squeak like she’s one of The Beatles.
The refugees interviewed are nearly all over the age of 30, and most are older folks. This was especially welcome to me because I get frustrated with how youth-obsessed American culture is. It was nice to read features on people who are old enough to have extensive experience and pearls of wisdom to share. I also noted that language skills seem to be a crucial part of successful assimilation into American society. While a few of them speak little to no English, the vast majority of the people interviewed were somewhat fluent in English. In fact, some were multi-lingual.
What I appreciated most about this book, though, is that it is sort of half narrative prose and half cookbook, which will make it appealing to a large audience. The stories about each refugee are short chapters, and they are so well written that you’ll likely find yourself saying, “Oh, I should go to bed, but I’ll just read ONE more…” An hour later, you’ll be halfway through the book, lost in tales of heroic refugees who led exciting and terrifying lives as political activists and revolutionaries. Who needs sleep when you could be reading inspirational tales of bravery and hard work, all while marking recipes that you’ll simply HAVE to try?
Food and cooking are the glue of this book because they permeate the text and represent life itself. Growing food, cooking, and sharing meals is vital for everyone featured in Flavors from Home. To them, food is about family, community, and identity. The dishes are a connection to their roots. As Zaring puts it, “When refugees prepare their native dishes in their American kitchens, it’s like a lifeline to their home countries, a way for them to find solace in an unfamiliar land, retain their customs, reconnect with their personal past and heritage, and preserve a sense of identity. For new refugees in particular, the kitchen is also a place where they can produce a sense of normalcy and stability in an otherwise strange and sometimes scary new world.” Later in the book, a woman from Cuba is afraid that she isn’t a good enough cook to contribute, and Zaring writes in response: “I reassure them that gourmet cooks and fancy kitchens are not what this book is about. I want to share authentic recipes from refugees’ native countries; learn more about their cultures, their celebrations, and their food in particular; and cook and share meals together in real, everyday kitchens where families and friends gather, memories are made, and differences are transcended.” Refreshing to say the least.
I tested 3 recipes (2 from Elmira Tonian of Ajerbaijan), and the results were outstanding. It must be stated that I despise cooking from recipes because I don’t like to measure or be tied to a book while I’m in the kitchen. I cook from memory, and I know that something is done when it looks, smells, or tastes a certain way. I add a little of this and a handful of that as I go. However, the refugees who were interviewed for this cookbook share that same antipathy to using recipes. The resulting instructions, therefore, are clear, concise, & painstakingly descriptive with a unique flair from each individual. Recipes in this book are so thorough, indeed, that it won’t be possible for you to feel lost or to end up preparing the dishes incorrectly. Zaring includes descriptions of strange ingredients and tells you where to buy them. Reading the steps makes you feel as if a patient friend is at your side teaching you how to cook. I love that each recipe ends with a version of “Bon Appetit” in the native language of the person interviewed.
I want to try the “Maklouba”, an Iraqi dish that contains several stacked layers of spiced chicken, rice, and vegetables. I’m also eager to prepare “Matoke”, which is a banana stew from the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are recipes from the following countries: Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Bosnia, Cuba, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan, Rwanda, Somalia, & Vietnam. Not a single dish sounds anything but delicious.
Flavors from Home will be a permanent staple in my kitchen from now on. I will buy it as gifts for fellow Kentucky foodies, and I will feel wonderful about sharing important stories AND about doing some good in the world because part of the proceeds from the sales will go towards supporting Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services & Kentucky Refugee Ministries. A woman named Goma, when asked about what she liked most about living here, responded “electricity”. I will never forget reading that.
In the Afterword, Zaring says that the refugees she interviewed taught her many life lessons, but more than anything, they taught her about hospitality. I felt like I had visited the home of every person she featured when I finished the last page. The refugees taught me about determination, and what it means to be an American, especially through the eyes of people who were not born in the United States. For that, I am grateful.
Elmira’s Whipped Potato Rosettes
1 tsp. salt
3 medium baking potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces
Fresh chopped dill or rosemary (optional)
Preheat oven to 400*F.
Fill a medium pot about 3/4 full of water, add salt, and bring to a boil. Add potatoes and cook over medium-high heat until they have softened (about 20-25 minutes), depending on their size). Drain the potatoes in a colander, then transfer them back to the pot. Mash well with a potato masher or a fork until there are no lumps. Add egg and butter. Stir, making sure the butter is completely melted.
Fill a piping bag or Ziploc bag with the potatoes and squeeze them out onto an un-greased baking sheet. Use a circular motion, starting from the outside and working in. Form about 8 swirled rosettes or mounds.
Bake for about 20 minutes, watching closely for the last 5 minutes. The tips of the potatoes should become lightly browned. Transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with dill or rosemary.
[box_light]Madeleine Dee is a busy personal chef, writer, and food photographer in Louisville, KY. She thinks about food every second of every day, and dreams about it at night. She is a graduate of Sullivan University, and for over 2 years, she has owned and operated a business called No Place Like Home (Facebook page!) through which she offers in-home personal chef services.[/box_light]