‘Recipes of Life’: Sharing Delicious Food and Messages of Hope with Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Ma Aye looks at salt to stop crying

Ma Aye looks at salt to stop crying

Did you know that if you look at salt while cutting onion, you won’t cry?  Or if you drink a raw bantam egg mixed with honey you will grow strong?  No neither did I.  I’ve learnt a lot over these past few months.  Not just about food, but also the incredible strengths and resilience that shines through the stories of refugees and asylum seekers.  Such is the beauty of ‘Recipes of Life’.  This collective narrative methodology, which I’ve talked about in a previous post, offers a safe way of bringing people together who may have experienced difficulties in their lives to build on their collective strengths, skills and knowledge.

In recent years, Darwin has seen a rapid rise in the number of people being locked up in detention centres having arrived on our shores by boat from Indonesia.  It has been difficult to stand by, relatively powerless and witness the desperate pleas of asylum seekers and how they are treated. Fortunately, we have DASSAN, a great bunch of volunteers who provide visitation and advocacy services to those in detention.  I happened to meet one such volunteer last year and we decided to trial a small group using the ‘Recipes of ‘program at the Mulch Pit Community Garden.  By the time, we found funding, government policy had changed and not many asylum seekers were being released into the Darwin community so our group was mostly made up of settled refugees. Although this made our task of communicating with group participants a little easier as many refugees have basic beginners English, we still had a group representing four different language groups.

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Creating food recipes using art materials

Without funding for translators, we plowed ahead and many parts of the program were adapted to accommodate more non-verbal methods of communication through doing, showing, acting, using hands, drawing, painting and using images.  This contributed to many laugh-out-loud moments, and inspired the women to help each other share their stories.  Using persistence and patience with us as facilitators and each other, somehow the group bonded!

One of the major achievements was the production of a Recipes Book featuring the participant’s favourite Food Recipes cooked and eaten in the on-site outdoor kitchen, as well as Recipes of Life featuring their strengths and skills, and Special Recipe Tips for surviving difficult times. Collectively, they also wrote a Recipe for Starting Life in a New Country.  Their hope is that this recipe will benefit other refugees who have just settled in Australia.

Sharing recipes and cooking food

Sharing recipes and cooking food

Outcomes included building new relationships amongst participants, connecting refugees to new resources at Nightcliff including the op-shop and community garden, improved English skills and confidence in the community, and increased knowledge about growing and cooking tropical food.  A lovely surprise was the spontaneous participation of partners, children and other family members, who would pop up in at different times during the program, either to lead cooking activities, resume natural food harvesting responsibilities or feast at the table.

I have no doubt this method would work just as well with other cultural groups, including Aboriginal women, men and young people.  I wonder what special tips they would have to teach us about food and about life…

If you’d like to find out more about the program or send a message back to the women who created the Recipes Book, we would love to hear from you through our Contact Page.

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Final Week Celebration with ‘Recipes of Living’ families

Recipes Of Life: How cooking is transforming my relationships, community and work

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Cooking in the Mulch Pit Community Garden.

Many years ago I started an initiative which I called the Community Chef. The idea was to share recipes using local food and a dozen of us would gather in someone’s house to prepare and cook these together. I remember the smell of garlic and ginger being pushed around the wok, the laughter of men gathered round the stove, the chatter of women munching on carrots and homemade spinach dips, and handwritten recipes handed down in families or along cultural storylines. There was something about this experience that was pretty darn special. Even though our community cooking nights have moved to an outdoor kitchen at my local community garden, this method of sharing knowledge and skills in such an earthy, organic way has huge therapeutic potential for each one of us. It does not assume that only one person is the expert but that we can all be teachers and learners.

It was pretty ironic that I would meet Natalie Rudland-Wood at around the same time as starting the Community Chef.  Natalie had developed the Recipes of Life program, adapted from similar narrative folk cultural methodologies like the Tree of Life.  Natalie was using Recipes to engage children and young people affected by homelessness in conversations about their lives using the metaphor of food.  Cooking and counselling was proving to be an effective mix.  In documenting and sharing their Recipes for overcoming hard times, the kids were experts in their own lives and becoming supportive mentors for their peers!

Having recently won a small grant, I’m currently preparing a program to trial Recipes of Life with refugees and asylum seekers living in Darwin.  It is not my intention to describe how the program works, but instead give you “a taster” by sharing my own recently crafted Recipe of Life.   Hopefully, you will see the two-fold potential therapeutic benefits, for the person writing their recipe and contributing it to the life of another, and the person receiving it (who might also be experiencing hard times).

LUCY’S RECIPE FOR LIVING WITH CHRONIC BACK PAIN

Ingredients

Mental strength         one bucket

Support                        a cup overflowing

Mindfulness                1 shovel full

Stamina                        a heap

Willpower                    as much as you can muster

Good diet                     1 teaspoon per day

Exercise                        between 1 teaspoon and 1 cup per week

Acceptance                   ideally 1 pinch per day

Patience                        1 handful per day

Understanding             doesn’t need to be added, just happens

Sourcing

The origins of Mental Strength are home grown after watching my mum who has had to put up with a lot over the years.  I remember having it after leaving home and it grows stronger every year.

Support is ‘on loan’ from my generous husband and kind friends.  It is always available but not always easy to accept.

The ideas and principles of Mindfulness have been imported over the years from friends, books, people I don’t know on the internet and Buddhist Monk, Gen Kelsang Dornying.

Stamina and Willpower is cultured from home as a result of leaving my birthplace and family in my early twenties and learning to rely on myself.

Good Diet and exercise are a mix of home grown skills of listening to my body mixed with advice from trusted naturopaths and chiropractors.  This sometimes gets confusing as the two sources can be conflictual.  But in the end, I know best, over any expert advice.

Acceptance is reluctantly borrowed from God who makes it easier to understand the need for this Recipe.

Patience is a gift from gentle role-models like my mum and Nelson Mandela.

Understanding is also a gift that presents itself from the mixing of all the other ingredients.

Method

Blend together mental strength and support using a wheelbarrow and shovel.  Pack down tight into the bottom of the wheelbarrow so there are no gaps.  You can’t afford to let any contaminants spoil this mix.

In a bowl, whisk together mindfulness, stamina and willpower.  Set it aside to ferment.  This will take a minimum of six months. Every day add good diet to the bowl.  Once a week add in exercise, not too much, just the right balance (depending on how you feel).   If it hurts, back off and just add the minimum required.  Even though you don’t like it, you must add small amounts of Acceptance especially on bad days.  For best results, add a pinch every day along with Patience.  The fermenting process is complete when Understanding has developed.   You are now ready to add this mix to the wheelbarrow.

Spread on top and leave out in the pure natural rays of the sun to cook. It will rise in the heat.

This recipe will take at least six months to ferment and develop its subtle flavour because you have to adjust ingredients as you go, depending on the level of pain on a given day.   Full maturity may take as long as two years.  

Mental Strength is the backbone of the recipe.  Without it, the recipe is doomed.

NB: My special tip is on really bad days to consume double the dose. For example, for my peace of mind, I had to advocate strongly to get an MRI against doctor’s advice which was “not clinically indicated”.  This takes a double dose of Mental Strength.

Serving Suggestion

Sometimes you will have to eat this in bed.

But the ideal way to serve it is at the end of the day, preferably in front of the sunset on the beach, surrounded by loved ones. I would have my immediate family, mum and close friends there, swaying in cosy hammocks with not a care in the world. The spread would be laid out on a huge picnic blanket with simple pure white crockery, the best silverware I could afford and fancy etched glasses with pink champagne.  The picnic basket would never run out of food.  We could eat as much as we wanted. There would be a high tide, lapping at our feet and a gentle breeze with the sweet smell of frangipani’s tickling my nose. The sound of curlews would ring out gently and intercept the laughter and joy of friendship.  I would speak with gratitude in honour of my soul mate and husband for sticking by me “in sickness and in health” for 21 years and the support of all those since that have drifted through my life, sharing their knowledge, encouragement and love.  A fairy would magically come and do all the washing up, leaving everything sparkly clean back in the picnic basket.

Has this got you thinking about how to use these ideas in your work?

Or perhaps how your personal Recipe could actually make a difference to the life of someone else?

Read more about Recipes of Life by downloading Natalie’s article in the International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work or if you’d like to write your own Recipe, contact us.