Telling stories through food: Refugee Perspectives

 As told to M. Nauman Qureshi. Edited by Aarohi Narain.

With a culinary repertoire spanning two continents, LK* tells her story through the medium of food. In addition to providing unique insight into the origins and usages of certain ingredients, she paints us a picture of her life in Hong Kong while narrating the struggle refugees and asylum seekers face in a system designed to disempower them. 

*not real name

Why do you love cooking?

Cooking is my life, I grew up with food. I love cooking because it is my passion, I think that’s what I do best. I love it. I think the most important reason is that I don’t like bad food, so I try my best to produce something good but it’s also easy. I don’t like complicated things.  That’s why I’m trying to produce something that is easy and tasty. 

So why do I love cooking? I think food is a very essential means in our lives, that everyone needs no matter what circumstances or whatever part of the world that you live. 

I also think that food has no boundaries and no limits. Cooking can speak with every language and is found in every nation. It’s how you express your feelings, how you express love and care to people around you. 

That’s why I like to cook. 

Where did you learn how to cook?

I don’t know honestly, I just learnt it like that. Growing up, I’ve never been in a restaurant in my childhood so I saw my mum cooking, my grandmother cooking, my neighbours, my aunts, and most of the adults in my childhood, they cook. So I thought women are supposed to cook. It’s sad to say that nowadays that women don’t like to cook because it’s a lot easier nowadays with restaurants everywhere especially when you live in a big city like Hong Kong. Food is not a big deal because it’s on every corner, at every step there is food. But I think it’s an advantage if a woman knows how to cook.

Who taught you how to cook?

 No one, I learnt it by myself.  

Is cooking in Hong Kong different from what you’re used to? In regards to ingredients or kitchen equipment, etc.

Yea it’s slightly different, especially since I came from a place where there is no preserved food; where I come from everything is cut fresh. We do the butchering by ourselves, and here in Hong Kong most of the meat comes from different parts of the world that we buy frozen; it’s very hard to find fresh meat over here, or even fresh vegetables. It’s slightly different when you have the expectation but as I like to invent something to make it not that difficult, but here it’s totally different. 

When it comes to cooking, what’re your dreams? Would you like to become a professional chef?

Not really, but I would love to have my own restaurant, or maybe a cooking school. I don’t have to be the teacher, but if I have a cooking school then someone can be teaching and maybe I can give opportunities to those people who are underprivileged. When I say cooking school it is not commercial or to make a lot of profit; if I have the means, I’d like to open a cooking school for the people who don’t have the means to pay the high fees and tuition if you want to do a masters class. 

So those are my dreams. I like to help people; I like to open something that will be useful to help other people.

That’s very thoughtful and kind of you. Let’s talk more specifically about food. So what’re your favourite meals to cook?

I have a lot of favourite meals. It’s very hard [laughs]. There are just too many choices. I like to work with vegetables more than meat and I’m not so good at making western food like steak, but I like something with heavy sauce or cooking with periods of time, with a little patience. In Indonesia, you hear of rendang or in India with curry, it’s something that needs a lot of spices, a lot of time, a lot of patience, but the outcome is amazing. It’s not just a piece of meat, you put salt, pepper and put in the grill, that’s too simple.

So my favourite dish to cook is a tasty one.

Ndole served with plantains. Photo: Phoebe So

Can you give any examples?

I’ve been discovering lots of African food in the past 15 years. Ndole is one of my favourite dishes to cook because it’s simple and easy and you can change the ingredients here and there. It’s simple, easy and very quick. Whenever I make it people always compliment how tasty it was, and it’s very healthy as well. So yes, Ndole is one of my favourite dishes to cook. 

I also like cooking noodles, any type of noodles, especially glass noodles. I can also cook any type of vegetables, leaves. I like to cook vegetables and can cook them but I prefer leaves over other vegetables that are different types or colours.  

Are there different versions of the Ndole?

Yes, in Africa people use bitter leaves, but over here I use Chinese spinach. And the result is that I can’t compare both of them, but I think both of them are good. Some Africans have tried my Ndole, and they even said that this is better than the one they ate in Africa. I think it’s because there’s no bitterness, that is the reason. 

When would you normally eat it? Would you cook it for a special festival?

Actually, Ndole is very universal, you can eat it anytime as long as you can afford it. I believe that it is a very cheap deal so yes, you can afford it. But you can also serve for occasions, this is what’s good about Ndole because you can serve it in ordinary and extraordinary occasions. 

Are there any other recipes that you’d like to share with people besides Ndole?

Yea, I also like Pondu which is made from Cassava leaves. I love Pondu, it is one of my favourite dishes. Back home in Indonesia, I didn’t know how to make Pondu but we ate a lot of Cassava leaves. We had different ways of cooking, like Indonesian types of curry, or make it stir-fried, or some people would just boil them and eat it like salad.

Are there any other ingredients that have cultural importance in Indonesia?

Actually, Cassava leaves are kind of unchangeable. If you want to make Pondu it must have Cassava leaves. You can’t replace Cassava leaves with anything else, you can’t substitute them with anything else, even sometimes they look the same but taste different, totally different. 

Is there any other dish you have a particular vested interest in? 

I’ve been talking about African dishes mostly, but I haven’t said much about Indonesian dishes. The dish that I grew up with. There is one particular dish that I grew up with, and there is one particular dish that is particularly famous in Hong Kong which is Gado Gado. It’s mostly vegetables and nowadays people are crazy about being vegetarians so if you wanna be a vegetarian Gado Gado is the perfect dish, there’s no meat and all is vegetable. But some people have peanut allergies. I still can’t find the substitute for peanut to make Gado Gado, but it’s one of the most favourite Indonesian dishes in Hong Kong and among western areas. When I talk to people about Indonesian dishes they say they love Gado Gado. Some love Nasi Goreng, which is fried rice, but for me that’s not something very special. Because everywhere people are doing fried rice with different styles.   

I also like to cook Rendang because it’s very luxurious, very tasty; it’s very unique and full of spices, not many people like to do that because they think it’s complicated, but the end result is just amazing. It’s worth the wait, it’s worth the effort, and it’s one of my favourite dishes. 

Preparing Gado Gado. Photo: Phoebe So

Are you always trying to find ways to cook new dishes and changing different recipes, or do you prefer to stick to the simple and easy ones?

I usually invent the recipes by myself, and I’m not following a recipe. I’m not a recipe person. So I can’t just read a recipe and follow it, it never matches my taste. Unless I bake: if I bake a cake, I need to follow a recipe. But for me, a cake is a very specific thing that I can’t mess with, but if you’re talking about savoury foods then I don’t follow a recipe. I create them, I invent them. Sometimes I mess up with them [laughs]. But in the end, it’ll always be a different version. 

Wow, have you ever thought about writing a cookbook?

Yeah, in my mind, I don’t know when but you know some of my friends in college told me to write recipes of my own. My friends also always keep pushing me to do Youtube which I did but it was terrible. I always rewatch it and say “what was I doing?” 

I still can’t get it right but I’m trying. I hope that I can improve very soon.

Yea, that’s awesome! You should put your recipes out into the world. 

Yea, I think it’s a good idea too.

Which recipes do you think represent you best? Indonesian dishes or would you prefer something African? What recipes do you think make people feel like home or make people feel like sharing their culture? For example, recipes like Pondu, Egyptian recipes for Falafel, and these are all recipes that people cook because it reminds them of home and it’s also something that they welcome people with. 

I won’t have a preference for Indonesian or African recipes because both are home for me. Indonesia is where I grew up, Indonesia is a place that I can’t erase from my life and now I’m married to an African man for 15 years, I’ve been eating African food for 15 years now so it’s also part of my culture. So I don’t mind sharing both types of dishes, Indonesian and African. 

That’s nice, now let’s move on from food and talk about your life in Hong Kong. How long have you been here?

Hmm, a long time, I first came here in 2001, that’s like 19 years ago. Almost twenty! Almost twenty. 

Do you like it here?

Well, I can’t say I don’t like it because I’m still here, if someone stays somewhere for 19 years that means you like the place. It’s not perfect, but I can’t ask for more than this, I wish it was better but I can’t complain.

What are your favourite parts of Hong Kong?

My favourite part of Hong Kong, wow, there are so many [things]. Are you talking about places or lifestyle or just generally?

Let’s start with lifestyle first.

Okay, lifestyle, I think my favourite thing about Hong Kong is the transportation is very easy here, you can get anywhere very easily even if you don’t own cars or motorcycles. In my country, you need to own one of them to have a convenient life for commuting from one place to another place. But over here it seems like we really don’t need that, that’s one part that I like. 

And also, discipline. I like how disciplined people are, like in the bus stops and the supermarket, everywhere people line up. I like that. 

Also, the system where you are living illegally, and how you apply to things is very easy. In my country even when you apply for an ID it’s so complicated. Over here it’s just going to immigration, you register, go to immigration, take a picture, and two weeks later you get an ID.  That won’t happen in my place. 

Beef rendang. Photo: Phoebe So

What about your favourite places in Hong Kong then?

My favourite places in Hong Kong… actually it’s where I live, it’s near the beach, and it’s not too crowded, it’s not too quiet, it’s not difficult to go anywhere. 

Is there anything you miss from back home in Indonesia?

My family. The rest, no. 

When it comes to telling Hong Kong people about yourself or your food, is there something you wish people would think about? Particularly concerning asylum seekers. 

Yea, I think nowadays mostly in their mind that they label with fake claims without them knowing the stories behind it, so we’re generalised as asylum seekers or refugees in Hong Kong. Especially when you come from South-East Asia like the Philippines, Indonesia or India, Nepal, Pakistan, they always think you are fake refugees, fake asylum seekers. I think people need to know the background and the story to get more ideas on what these people are going through and what they have to face when they return to their country before they judge, and also they need to see how talented they are. Because I think there are many asylum seekers that are very talented but are not given the opportunity to showcase it themselves. 

The fact that those people are not allowed to work or to share their talents legally, that is a really wrong system. In some other countries they are given opportunities to earn their lives because that is the reason people get depressed because they are unappreciated, humiliated, and useless. 

Some of us are very talented people but somehow we don’t have the opportunity to show what we can do, and the only thing we have in our minds is that I’m healthy, strong, and talented but I’m useless. And yes, the government is helping but I think it will be better if they give them [refugees and asylum-seekers] an opportunity to make a life. Some spend more than ten years doing nothing, they couldn’t eat anything, but if they are given an opportunity, maybe within those ten years that pass by they can earn something, they can be ready to move to something, they can move to some other place to start a new life. But over here no matter how long you have stayed here if you move to another place you will be zero because you didn’t earn anything, you don’t do anything, you don’t have the opportunity to prove yourself that you are worthy or you are able to do something that will be meaningful for the society or yourselves. It’s just dragging the dignity… we feel like we don’t have dignity. 

I think there is a very big opportunity if Hong Kong can change that law. Especially for children who are born in that situation, it’s not their choice but the government bans them from doing something bigger; they don’t have a higher opportunity for education. If you are very talented, for example, a very talented sports player in secondary school… I know some schools send their students abroad, but if you are born with that status [refugee or asylum-seeker] then you can’t travel anywhere even if you are very talented. I think that’s something Hong Kong needs to consider to change. 

Thank you for sharing that, I think that was extremely powerful and I think it really captures a lot of what many people have said, when they share these thoughts and stories, it gets really important that people get to hear these words and understand this perspective because I think people are just not aware and even NGOs sometimes are not aware either.

Yeah, the system needs to change. I was wishing that the government could give them a card, that they could just go to hospitals with that card without applying for any waiver. Like yes, you can go in case of emergency, of course, you can go to the hospital and you pay later or leave waiver but that’s complicated. 

The process is a bit complicated, because sometimes you don’t have time to wait to get a waiver, or you don’t have time to just think and lay on your bed and think once I come out of this place then I still need to get a waiver.  If the government can issue some kind of card for health service, for clinics or public hospitals, that would be amazing too. 

That’s going to require a lot of change but I hope that at least something can happen, the more that people petition for it, then there’s more visibility for it hopefully. And finally, if you could tell people in Hong Kong something what would it be?

Be more open-minded, and appreciate other people better, don’t always look down on other people just because they have a different skin colour. 

Accomplishing her selfless hopes and dreams of opening a cooking school for the less fortunate, and for the legal system to change won’t come easy. But with her perseverance and strength, and your support, we can make it possible. 

Editor’s note: Table of Two Cities is powered by Grassroots Future, a grassroots charity looking to build capacity among grassroots and refugee-led organizations. If you are interested in supporting community-based initiatives, please consider supporting future events held by TOTC. 

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