Stories told through food

Beryl Lee (left) and Afife Harris. Photo by Linda Robertson.
Beryl Lee (left) and Afife Harris. Photo by Linda Robertson.
A group of people from many countries sharing their traditional food has resulted in A global feast: traditional meals in a new homeland (Otago University Press) a book featuring the food and stories of 26 immigrants to Dunedin. Charmian Smith reports.

One day, about five years ago, Afife Harris and Beryl Lee were sitting at Afife's kitchen table talking about food, as they often did, and had the great idea of getting people from different countries to cook their traditional food for others to share.

"One person would cook and the others would help, and afterwards we'd interview them and find out about their background and how the food fitted in, and then we said we'd put it together in a book," Mrs Lee said.

Cooking and sharing food from different cultures turned out to be an exciting community project. Everyone paid $5 towards the cost of ingredients and helped prepare the food.

Sometimes more than 20 people came and as word spread, more people wanted to join, so they had to limit the numbers as people's houses weren't big enough. A few people weren't happy cooking in front of so many people so they did it just for Mrs Harris, Mrs Lee and photographer Brian Treanor.

Sometimes the food was eaten before it could be photographed, and they had to take the photographs when they were testing the recipes, Mrs Lee said with a laugh.

Many practised cooks don't measure their ingredients as they know from experience how much to use, so the two women remade the dishes to make sure the measurements were right.

Others of the group who were less experienced, texted or emailed their mothers back home for advice and recipes.

"For a while, the connections were really going backwards and forwards to different parts of the world," Mrs Lee said.

Their book features the food of women and men from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and Africa, all living in Dunedin at the time. Since then, three or four families have moved away, there have been births and a death.

Mrs Harris is typical of many immigrants. She grew up in Lebanon, learning to cook from her mother, and still cooks the food of home for her family.

"My granddad used to stand at the gate and my mother and aunty were cooking in the kitchen. He'd invite people in and I have the same habits; it's how I grew up," she said.

She sells Lebanese food at the Otago Farmers Market, teaches Lebanese cooking and often cooks for other people.

In war-torn Beirut she worked as an executive officer with the YMCA and was always out helping people and doing things with people, so it's not surprising she is involved in numerous community organisations here.

However, when she came to Dunedin with her New Zealand-born husband 20 years ago, she couldn't find many of the ingredients she needed for making Lebanese food, she said.

"You used what was available but it didn't taste the same. But after a few years, with more multicultural people coming to Dunedin, you could find more ingredients and you didn't need to order them from another city.

"It's easier for people arriving now because things are available."

The two women met several years ago when Mrs Lee was teaching Mrs Harris' sons.

"As a New Zealander brought up in a traditional way, I found it absolutely fascinating the way she talked about how she cooked and the way she went about her cooking," Mrs Lee said.

A retired teacher, she provided support for overseas students and hosted world travellers through an international travel organisation.

When she interviewed the contributors to learn their stories, she focused on their upbringing, memories of growing up and the food organisation at home because that defined how they cooked, she said.

Both women were fascinated by the number of different ways the contributors cooked rice.

"There was Afife's one where she browns vermicelli in oil then adds the washed rice. The Turks use a risoni pasta with rice in the same way. Other people boil the rice and throw away the water, then add the cooked rice to oil in a saucepan.

"Some people browned the rice in oil first. Some steamed, some boiled and put it through a colander. There was rice cooked with vegetables, coconut rice done different ways, spiced rice, fried rice, glutinous rice, rice puddings and chelo from Afghanistan and Iran. Some used rice cookers, some didn't, and some steamed rice with a tea towel under the lid. Some had very exact measurements like one cup of rice to two cups of water and some used a finger to measure the water. It's amazing how people flavour their rices," Mrs Lee said.

She was also fascinated by the overlap of culinary traditions.

Someone from Sri Lanka gave her a calendar that showed fish drying in the sun. She mentioned it looked like baccalau (dried salted fish) from Portugal and was told the tradition was a legacy of the Portuguese.

Being a Kiwi, she was surprised to find almost all the Asian and South American cooks had had a maid at home.

"I didn't know how to write about that because in our terms this is not what we do, but it's commonplace in some cultures.

"When I asked, they'd say they weren't very rich but there was always someone who had less money than you who wanted a job. I found it difficult to write about it in a way that didn't put them down," she said.

It took 18 months to do the cooking and testing, another year to do the interviewing and writing, and another year correcting and chasing things up. Then there was the difficulty of finding a publisher. It fell between the cracks when Longacre was bought by Random House, and the other publishers they approached said they liked the idea and the book but it was too local, or they didn't do cookbooks.

They applied for grants, thinking they could publish it themselves, and were advised to apply under the multi-ethnic council, but that was in disarray at the time, so they formed their own charitable trust.

Then, when they went to pick up the manuscript from the last publisher, Otago University Press, they were delighted to be told that it had been accepted.

Wendy Harrex, publisher at the press said: "We took the book on because part of our publishing list is devoted to migration and ethnic history, including books for the general reader. This book brought the two themes together and arose out of an interesting community project organised around recent settlers' traditional meals, which they shared with others in the group. The range of stories was good and the food inviting. We thought people anywhere in New Zealand could find it useful and learn something from it."

Any royalties from A Global Feast will go towards giving the contributors copies and to charities they are fostering to keep culinary traditions alive.

And, as a result of their negotiations with the multi-ethnic council, both women have become heavily involved.

Mrs Lee is president and Mrs Harris runs chai and chat sessions where women get together to learn about living in Dunedin, learn English and share food and friendship.


Flavia's Brazilian caramel flan
This Brazilian version of a crème caramel is cooked in a bain-marie.


4 tablespoons caster sugar
9 tablespoons milk powder
8 tablespoons sugar
4 eggs
1½ cups water


Caramelise 4 tablespoons of caster sugar in a 22cm enamel pan or leak-proof cake ring. Do this by sprinkling the sugar over the entire base of the pan, and gently heating it on the stove-top until the sugar becomes a liquid and then turns golden-brown. Immediately remove from the heat source as the sugar will continue to brown and burns easily.

Mix the milk powder, the second measure of sugar, the eggs and water in a blender, or whisk thoroughly in a bowl with an egg-beater.

Pour the custard on top of the caramelised sugar in the enamel pan.

Place the pan into a large roasting dish which will act as a bain-marie.

It should be large enough to comfortably hold the flan. Fill the roasting dish with boiling water to three-quarters of the way up the sides of the cake ring. Bake at 160degC until set - about 35 minutes.


Atha's Greek octopus in red wine


1kg baby octopus
¼ cup olive oil
1 large clove garlic, crushed
2 large onions, chopped
2 bay leaves
410g tin peeled, chopped tomatoes
1 cup red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon whole peppercorns
1 tablespoon chicken stock powder 


Baby octopus is usually sold cleaned and prepared, so simply cut into two pieces - body and tentacles.

Combine octopus, olive oil, garlic and onions in a deep pan. Cook uncovered over a low heat for 20 minutes or until the onions are soft.

Stir occasionally.

Add the bay leaves, tomatoes, wine, tomato paste, sugar, peppercorns and chicken stock powder to the octopus and simmer, uncovered, for about 1½ hours until the octopus is tender. Remove bay leaves. The sauce will thicken as it cools. Serve warm or cold.


Recipes from A global feast: traditional meals in a new homeland. Get it

A global feast: traditional meals in a new homeland by Afife Skafi Harris and Beryl Lee (Otago University Press) is out now.

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