A couple of years ago when Aimee Zaring was teaching an English as a Second Language class in Louisville to diverse groups of older refugees, she noticed something interesting: when the class had potlucks, the language differences disappeared.
Food became a universal language that bridged all kinds of gaps.
"Seeing everybody from all different parts of the world come together around food was a really powerful thing," Zaring said. "Their sheer pride, in those potlucks, saying 'Eat, eat' ... It's a joyful experience. There's universal appreciation of the effort that goes into cooking."
It didn't seem to matter that many of the ingredients were unknown to other people in the class, or even to her, for that matter.
What mattered was sharing with others a taste of their homeland.
Kentucky receives about 2,500 refugees a year, primarily from Bhutan, Burma or Myanmar, Somalia, Congo, Iraq, Iran, Bosnia and Cuba, Zaring said.
The people Zaring was teaching weren't just immigrants. They were refugees, usually from places torn by violence. Because going home isn't an option, many refugees find ways to celebrate their culture here, even if it isn't quite what they are used to.
Zaring began to collect recipes from the refugees, but she wanted to tell their stories, too. That work flowered into Flavors from Home, Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods, ($29.95) published this month by University Press of Kentucky.
Zaring asked participants to share a native recipe that's representative of their home country and makes them feel closer to home when they eat it.
Some shared dishes that were literally the national dish of their country, often very time consuming to make. Others shared everyday dishes, comfort food, like the fufu recipe that Sarah Mbombo, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, shared.
Mbombo loves to cook so much — she wants to open a restaurant — that as a child her mother would discipline her by not letting her cook, she said. Fufu was the first dish her mother taught her to cook. It's a mixture of water and cornmeal that looks like a cross between mashed potatoes and porridge, Zaring wrote.
The fufu is made into little dough balls to dip into pondu, a dish of cassava leaves.
Zaring had never heard of cassava leaves and had no inkling where to buy them before meeting Mbombo, who told her they could be found frozen at Asian and African groceries but that fresh spinach, kale or other greens can also be used.
The dish, which looked like a mushy green stew, was a revelation, Zaring wrote, full of flavor.
"Take one bite and you'll be hooked," she wrote. "Pondu has become a true comfort dish for me
And it isn't the only dish she loves.
"There are some that I keep coming back to," Zaring said. "It's a combination of the relative ease, and something in the ingredients I find almost addictive."
Ema Datshi is a particular favorite, she said. The Bhutanese dish, basically a vegetarian curry made with chilies and cheese into a soup, was shared by Goma Acharya of Louisville.
In some cases, the recipe ingredients can be a little hard to find. While the refugees usually manage between ordering online, getting shipments from home or in ethnic groceries, they all readily encouraged substitutions.
If there are fresh vegetable and fruits refugees can't get, they grow their own.
"Even if it's a little apartment complex, you walk up the sidewalk and there they are," Zaring said. And sometimes this develops into a profitable sideline in produce sales that also helps them further develop their English language skills and business savvy.
"They all said, 'you have to make it your own,'" Zaring said of the recipes. "Hardly any used measuring cups or spoons. They don't like to cook that way and didn't want to stifle our creativity either."
A surprising number of the refugees own restaurants. Huong "CoCo" Tran, who came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975, has opened a series of successful eateries in Louisville including Heart & Soy and Roots, her latest ventures.
Amina Osman, a Somali Bantu who arrived in Kentucky in 2004, has been growing and selling her organic produce since 2009 through the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program, which has five garden sites in Louisville.
Writing the book has taken Zaring's cooking in new directions.
"I am cooking more and more with cardamom, and curry, and a product called Rice Seasoning from a Persian grocery, that has rosebuds in it, among other things," she said.
She hopes her book will encourage others to broaden their flavor horizons, just as previous waves of immigrants have already shaped the food landscape here.
"The refugee influences are not going to go away. As long as we have war in the world, they're going to keep coming, and we're going to see a melting pot in America like never before," Zaring said.
Did Zaring have any culinary recipe she shared with in exchange?
"Chocolate chip cookies. They wanted me to make them those."
Recipes from Flavors from Home, Refugees in Kentucky Share their Stories and Comfort Foods.
This is Bhutan refugee Goma Acharya's recipe for Ema Datshi
1⁄3 cup vegetable, canola, or olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1⁄8 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 medium red, yellow, or white onion, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 green bell pepper, sliced
2 or more hot green chili peppers, cut lengthwise into 2 or more slices, seeds and ribs removed, if desired, for less heat
1 daikon radish (or potato), thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon salt
3 cloves garlic, minced (optional)
2 cups plain Greek yogurt
Cheese to taste, crumbled or shredded (Dutch feta, Romano, smoked Gouda, or other)
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
1⁄8 teaspoon cumin powder
1⁄8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Few dashes ground brown or black mustard seed (optional)
2 tablespoons cilantro, leaves and stems
1/4 red onion, chopped
1 small hot green chili pepper, chopped
In a large (8-quart) stockpot, heat oil over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke slightly. Add cumin seed, turmeric, and onion. Stir. Add bell peppers, hot peppers, radish, and tomatoes. Stir and add salt. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until vegetables are soft, stir-ring occasionally. Add garlic. Lower heat to medium or medium-low.
Add yogurt and cheese and stir. If a thinner soup consistency is desired, add a little water. Add paprika, cumin powder, and cayenne pepper to taste. Stir and cook, covered, over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add ground mustard seed. Stir to combine. Serves 4.
Garnish if desired and serve with basmati, jasmine, or Bhutanese (Himalayan) red rice; sel roti (a ring-shaped sweet rice bread or doughnut); or bread.
This recipe for Burmese pork curry comes from Thomas and Esther Kap of Burma.
Burmese Pork Curry
1½ to 2 pounds boneless pork loin roast, fat untrimmed
½ large tomato, cut into chunks
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon Ajinomoto (umami seasoning) or Accent flavor
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 inch ginger, peeled and grated
½ medium white onion, finely sliced
10 cloves garlic, halved
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
Fresh cilantro leaves (optional)
1 sprig mint, cut into pieces, for garnish
Wash the pork, blot dry with paper towels, and cut into bite-size cubes. Put the pork in a large sauté pan, add the next nine ingredients to the pan, and top with vegetable oil. Mix well and place on the stove over medium-high heat. Cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Check periodically to see if there is enough liquid (it should reach about halfway up on the ingredients; if it doesn't, add a little water). Lower heat to medium-low and simmer for another 30 minutes, or until the meat is tender, stirring occasionally to prevent the juices from sticking to the bottom of the pan. The dish is ready when the meat is tender and the liquid has reduced to a stew-like consistency. Garnish with fresh cilantro and serve with rice. Serves 4.
Pakistani Dr. Gulalai Wali Khan contributed this recipe for Gazaro Halwa
2 pounds baby carrots (organic or the brightest orange available)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 to 6 green cardamom pods
½ cup sugar
1 cup whole milk
½ cup fresh whole or halved almonds (skins removed)
Pistachio nuts (optional)
In a medium saucepan, add carrots and just enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cook until soft. Drain leftover water. Mash carrots with a fork or potato masher. (If you prefer, leave a few chunky pieces for texture.) Set aside.
Heat oil in a large wok or saucepan until it sizzles. Add cardamom to taste. Open a couple of pods to expose the seeds. Lightly toast the cardamom pods and seeds, stirring to avoid sticking. Add carrot pulp. Cook on medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, until the quantity of carrots is slightly reduced. Stir often to avoid burning or overdrying.
Add sugar and stir until it is completely dissolved. Reduce heat to medium-low and add milk and almonds. Cook for 5 to 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until the milk has been fully absorbed and the oil begins to separate from the solid ingredients. (Make sure not to overcook the halwa.)
Transfer to a serving bowl and top with pistachios. Serve warm or chilled. Store in the refrigerator. Serves 6.
Here's Sarah Mbombo's recipe for Pondu. Mbombo is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
2 (8-ounce) packages frozen cassava leaves of frozen chopped spinach, thawed, or 2 (6-ounce) bags fresh spinach leaves, kales, collard or turnip greens, or a mix of these
½ green bell pepper, chopped
½ large eggplant, skinned (optional) cut into small chunks
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 green (spring) onions, chopped
2⁄3 cup creamy and/or crunchy peanut butter
1 to 2 tablespoons palm oil (or vegetable or canola oil)
1 to 2 teaspoons salt
1 hot chili pepper, chopped
1 (15-ounce) can sardines in spicy (or regular) tomato sauce
In a medium saucepan, combine 1 to 11/2 cups water with thawed cassava leaves (or other greens.) Bring to a low boil over medium-high heat and cook for 10 to 15 minutes.
Add bell pepper, eggplant, garlic, and green onions to the pot. (Or puree them in a food processor and then add to the pot.) Stir to combine, and cook for about 10 minutes on medium-low heat. Add peanut butter and oil and stir until well combined with the other ingredients. Add salt and hot chili pepper to taste. Stir. Add sardines in tomato sauce.
Continue cooking on a low boil, partially covered with a tilted lid, for 30 to 45 minutes. (If you're using cassava leaves, cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour.) Check the stew periodically, stirring to keep the mixture from sticking to the bottom of the pan and adding small amounts of water as necessary so the sauce maintains a gravy-like consistency. (When the heavy vegetative smell burns off, the dish is usually ready, according to Mbombo.) Serve with fufu, rice or bread. This dish reheats well. Serves 2 to 4.
22⁄3 cups water (more as needed)
1 to 11⁄3 cups fine white or yellow cornmeal or cassava flour (more or less as needed)
In a medium saucepan, bring water to a low boil. Add cornmeal slowly in small increments, stirring continuously with a large wooden spoon and mashing any lumps that form, until a porridge or polenta consistency is achieved.
Slowly add more cornmeal until the fufu becomes a thicker than mashed potatoes. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes, adding more flour or water as needed, stirring non-stop to avoid lumps and to prevent the fufu from sticking to the pan. The finished consistency should be thick, slightly gummy or tacky, and difficult to stir.
Remove the pan from the heat (the fufu will continue to thicken as it cools.) Stir some more, scraping the sides of the pan and making sure the fufu is well combined and has achieved the desired consistency.
Scoop out the fufu with a 1/2 cup round measuring cup, level it off, and then turn it over onto a serving platter or individual plate. Serve as a side dish to stew, soup, or anything with a gravy or a sauce. A dab of fufu is usually rolled into a ball, then used to form a small scoop in the hand, with which to eat the other dish. Serves 1 to 2.