Where there is food, there is hope. The cobbled pathways of Semmozhi Poonga transformed into a packed fete, as several asylum seekers from Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, offered Chennaites a delectable variety of traditional delicacies from their homeland on June 24 and 25, as part of the Refugee Food Festival, Oorum Unnavam.
Attendees sampled more than just one dish, flitting from booth to booth, and laughing with family and newfound friends. Parents took the opportunity to introduce their children to diverse flavours they would not encounter otherwise. On the menu, were traditional dishes cooked by refugees who have been living in Tamil Nadu.
From the Afghan kitchen, visitors could try Kabuli pulao, mantu (savoury dumplings filled with chicken and onions and firni), a chilled custard pudding made of pistachios, rice and milk, among other dishes. Offerings from the Myanmar kitchen included dhooi pila, a rice and jaggery based dessert and la paasu, a tangy lentil salad seasoned with lime and horseradish. Dishes from the Sri Lankan kitchen – cooked by women from Olai Puttu, a restaurant based in Thoothukudi, run by women from refugee camps in and around Thoothukudi – included popular specialities such as coconut milk sodhi, puttu with sambal and egg rolls. Other stalls served paan (a fluffy bread) with prawn curry, fish rolls and — since it is the year of the millet — crumbly millet ladoos, rich with jaggery and coconut.
Held to mark World Refugee Day, this event’s theme was ‘Hope Away From Home: a world where refugees are always included’. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, with all the stalls selling out, and the area set apart for fish and chicken curry meals busy with diners who waited their turns patiently in queue.
Attended by about 8,000 people over the weekend, the event was organised by the UNHCR and the Chennai Field Office, Organisation for Eelam Refugees’ Rehabilitation (OfERR), Advantage Foods (Hot Breads, Writer’s Café) and other stakeholders along side the Tamil Nadu Government.
Food is a universal experience, which the refugees acknowledged as a significant cultural catalyst. Mohammed Jumaid, a 19-year-old Rohingya from Myanmar who has been living in Chennai for over 12 years, says, “As refugees, we don’t have much to begin with — we don’t have a house, we didn’t have any land, but we have the memory of Burma and the recipes we grew up with. Now, we can surprise the people of Chennai with our flavours.”
Through the sale of food, the organisers were able to raise over ₹4.5 lakhs to help further refugee rehabilitation and integration. “These people left their homelands in the face of adversity, and have been at the recieving end for years,” says SC Chandrahasan, founder of OfFER “This festival is a way of giving back — we have empowered these people (refugees) to stand on their feet and be capable of sharing their ideas and facilitating an interchange between cultures.”
Refugee women who are often unnoticed, had the opportunity to bring to light the contributions of women, and all that goes into the making of a culinary tradition. Shaja Begum, one of the dedicated women behind the scenes, shared, “We have devoted countless hours to prepare these recipes and cook these meals, pouring our hearts into every dish. Because through our food, we convey our stories, and our spirit.”