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Learn How to Cook These Refugees’ Favorite Meals

Displaced people stay connected to home through food. Here are some of their favorite recipes.

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Parwin Tayyar, a refugee from northern Iraq, stuffs vegetables and grape leaves with lamb filling at her home in Nashville, Tennessee. She serves the dish, a Kurdish casserole called eprax, at Thanksgiving.


This story appears in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

When refugees arrive in a new country they bring the clothes on their backs, the memories in their heads, and the recipes of their ancestors. From afar, they re-create the flavors of a past life. “Preparing these meals and sharing them with friends and family can have immeasurable psychological benefits,” says Zaid Jalood, a community health officer with the International Medical Corps in Iraq. For 40-year-old Fatma, interviewed by the organization in Libya, it’s a traditional pumpkin-and-barley stew. She learned to make it from her mother and now teaches her daughter. “Bazeen is not just a meal,” she says. “It’s a connection to my hometown.”

Leaving home can upend a person's diet. But the recipes and ingredients they bring to a new country shape its culinary future. In Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, food historian Sarah Lohman investigates how waves of immigrants introduced new flavors—like garlic and soy sauce—into American kitchens. Often, Lohman notes, these foreign foods were more readily accepted than the people who brought them.

In collaboration with the International Medical Corps, we collected recipes from refugees and displaced people around the world. They have not been tested—cooking times and ingredient amounts are approximate. Try out a new dish for the holidays and tell us how it tasted on Twitter at @natgeo.


BAZEEN, LIBYA

Fatma was 11 years old when her mother showed her how to make a pumpkin stew. It quickly became her favorite dish. Now, the 40-year-old mother of three has taught her own 11-year-old daughter to make the recipe. But their kitchen isn’t at home—Fatma moved to an IDP camp in Libya because her hometown, Tawergha, became a war zone five years ago. Until she can return, she treats homesickness with the pumpkin stew, called bazeen. “For me, bazeen is not just a meal; it is a connection to my hometown that brings back memories of my youth, my mother, my family and all the happy occasions I had during my life,” she says.

Fatma says this dish is “quick to make”—though the process takes about an hour and a half. It gets easier after a couple tries. The secret to getting the smoothest dough, she says, is by adding oil to the flour while it cooks.

Ingredients

  • 3-4 medium potatoes peeled and halved
  • 1 lb pumpkin cut into medium-size cubes
  • 1 large chopped onion
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste or 4 large tomatoes, peeled and diced
  • 1 Tbsp fenugreek
  • 1 Tbsp turmeric
  • 1 Tbsp red chili
  • 1 Tbsp black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1 large garlic clove, chopped
  • 2 chopped fresh green chilies
  • 6 hard-boiled eggs
  • ½ lemon

For the dough:

  • 3 cups barley flour
  • 1 cup plain or wheat flour
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 4-6 cups water

Instructions

Cook the onion in a pot with olive oil; add the fenugreek and chilies. When soft, add turmeric, garlic, and tomato paste. Add 2 cups of boiling water and wait for 15 minutes before adding 4 more cups of boiling water. Cook on medium heat for 45 minutes. Add potatoes to mixture and continue cooking over low heat.

In a separate pot, boil 4 cups of water. Add mix of barley and flour, ¼ cup of oil, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Push the edges in with a wooden spoon to create an island of flour in the middle and water bubbling around it. Do not cover. Cook dough for 45 minutes.

Remove the stew from heat when the potatoes are cooked.

Remove the dough from the pot. Knead it to get rid of the lumps, then form into a ball. Press the dough into in a flat serving bowl; make sure the edges stick to the dish. Pour the tomato sauce, potatoes, and pumpkin around the dough. Add the hard-boiled eggs and garnish with fresh chilies and lemon.

Serve in a communal dish. Eat by dipping pieces of the dough into the stew using your right hand, as is customary in many Middle Eastern countries.


BIKING BEANS, AFGHANISTAN

Fazal Rabi lives with his parents and six children an Afghan village far from his hometown. The 35-year-old farmer fled after his neighbors were kidnapped and killed by insurgents loyal to ISIS and the Taliban. Though money is tight, he still cooks his favorite meal, a stew called “Biking Beans,” when he has guests—or if his children beg him to. He used to be able to grow the ingredients on his own land, but now he gets them at the market. Meat is too expensive to buy, he says, but these ingredients are cheap and nutritious.

“No one refuses to eat this dish,” he says, and “anyone can learn” how to make it.

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups of beans
  • 1½ cups tomatoes
  • ¾ cup onions
  • ½ cup oil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp of pepper
  • 4 cups water
  • Garlic
  • Curds and sliced cucumbers for garnish.

Instructions

Wash the beans and put them in a pressure cooker with 4 cups of water. Cook for up to 45 minutes. Combine the beans and vegetables.

Garnish the dish with curds and cucumbers and serve it with bread.


DOLMAS AND SHILIK, IRAQ

In 2014, an ISIS attack drove thousands of Yazidis, members of a minority religion, from their ancestral homes on Sinjar mountain in Iraq. Many of them fled into a camp for displaced people outside the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk, where they continue making traditional foods, like stuffed grape leaves.

“This is one of the most popular foods for not just Yazidis, but all Iraqis,” says Shayma Qasim, a health worker with International Medical Corps who works in the city. “We eat it many times a month, but mostly on Fridays when families come together to share a meal.”

For special occasions, like religious holidays, Yazidis will make Shilik (recipe below).

DOLMAS

Ingredients

  • 4 cups diced tomato
  • 1 finely chopped medium onion
  • 2 lbs eggplant, chopped
  • 1 jar of grape leaves (16 oz)
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 minced garlic cloves
  • Parsley
  • Salt/pepper to taste
  • Olive oil
  • Lemon juice
  • 1 lb chicken (if desired)

Instructions

Soak grape leaves in water for 20 minutes.

Heat olive oil over medium heat and add onions, garlic, and shredded chicken. Cook until tender. Add the rice and enough hot water to cover the mixture. Simmer until rice is half cooked. Mix in diced tomatoes and parsley and salt and pepper. Add eggplants and any remaining tomatoes with the mixture.

Lay out the grape leaves with the smooth side down. Fill each one with the stuffing, then twist and roll into a cylinder.

Stack layers of stuffed grape leaves in a pot and pour lemon juice and olive oil over top. Pour water until it reaches an inch below the top layer. (To ensure the leaves don’t stick to the pot you can stack them on a layer of sliced carrots.)

Cover pot tightly and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for an hour. Take off heat and leave for 20 minutes.

Drizzle with olive oil and fresh lemon juice.

SHILIK

Ingredients

  • For Saj bread:
  • 2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1¼ cups warm water
  • 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • Oil for coating the dough

For topping:

  • Sugar
  • Ghee (clarified butter)

Instructions

Put yeast in ¼ cup of water, add sugar, and let stand for 10 minutes. Sift 2½ cups of flour and the salt into a bowl.

Form a well in the center; pour in yeast mixture and remaining warm water. Mix with hands or a wooden spoon, adding in remaining flour as needed.

Put onto a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes until smooth and no longer sticky. Put the dough in a large bowl coated with oil and let it sit in a warm place for 1½ to two hours. Knead again for another 15 minutes to keep it soft. Add salt to the dough.

Divide the dough into balls about 2½ inches in diameter. Roll the dough balls flat on a floured surface. Put the dough in a frying pan over medium to high heat with ghee and sugar. Cook each one for about five minutes.

Add additional sugar and ghee as desired and serve warm.


DAKERE, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

War forced 27-year-old Hamidou Hassan to flee his village in the Central African Republic (CAR) into Cameroon. While he waits to go home, he transports himself there with a sugary porridge his grandmother taught him to make when he was seven years old. Dakere is eaten every evening when families come together after prayers. Hamidou uses millet and vegetable oil supplied by the World Food Program, buys milk and sugar from the local market, and cooks the dakere over a traditional fire. “Each time the dish is prepared, even though I am a long way from home, I remember the good moments spent with my grandmother and entire family when we had peace in CAR,” he says.

Ingredients

  • 5 cups pounded millet
  • 2 cups low-fat milk
  • 3 cups white sugar
  • 3 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 16 cups water

Instructions

Marinate 5 cups of pounded millet with ¼ cup of sugar. Cook marinated millet in a pot with 4 cups of water over medium-high heat for 5 to 10 minutes until completely cooked and slightly toasted. Remove from heat and set aside.

Bring 12 cups of water to a boil in a pot. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. Reduce heat to a simmer and wait for paste to form. Take off the lid and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and place on a table.

Add 4 cups of natural milk into the warm mixture of water and sugar, stirring gently until milk is mixed in for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil.

Pour the toasted millet into the mixture of sweet milk, stirring gently for 2-5 minutes.  

Serve immediately in plastic cups.



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