Forging understanding through food

Culinary Tales

James D’Cruz giving a cookery lesson

“I can teach them whatever knowledge I have and I get something from them by mixing with them. That helps me with my energy and to get more focus. It keeps a person alive.”

James D’Cruz left many things behind when he fled his homeland as a refugee and claimed asylum in Australia six years ago. But among the treasures he held onto was a vivid memory of the food his father would cook, and a love of the flavours of his Indian childhood. James was given the opportunity recently to share this heritage at Culinary Tales, a series of multi-cultural cooking classes delivered by newly-settled refugees in Sydney.

“I said, ‘You tell me what you want to learn, because cooking is easy for me’,” James recalls. “The main thing is, it’s in my blood I guess – my father is a chef.”

The program is the brainchild of Enactus Sydney, a community of students, academics and business leaders “committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better, more sustainable world”. It’s a unique concept in which participants learn about exotic cuisines while engaging with refugees from cultures that are often vastly different from their own; refugees, meanwhile, are able to broaden their social skills, build new friendships and obtain valuable work experience.  With a high rate of unemployment among refugees – even those who are highly skilled – Culinary Tales is helping to bring about important social change by improving refugees’ employability and social connectivity. And it does so by soliciting something that refugees are uniquely positioned to deliver – lessons in how to prepare their own country’s signature dishes.

“We learnt a lot about Indian cuisine ourselves, and the customers enjoyed the hands-on cooking experience and conversing with James,” says Alicia Paolino of Culinary Tales.

“He was very enthusiastic and engaging with the customers throughout the class, and we wish to continue working with him in the future.”

The key to a successful demonstration is a simple but succulent menu, and after brainstorming culinary ideas James settled on quintessential Indian edibles: lassi and a cottage cheese curry called paneer masala.

“Lassi is a drink we have in summer. In our country we make it with curd, which is similar to yoghurt, but sweeter,” he says.

“I put a little bit of saffron in for colour, and cardamom seeds which you smash and grind to give flavour and taste. The masala was a little bit spicy, so the lassi diluted that.”

The accompaniment for the curry was chapatti – Indian flatbread which can be served plain or flavoured.

“I told them how to make their favourite chapatti, with meat or vegetables or cottage cheese. You have to get [the participants’] attention and keep their attention, and it was very successful – they enjoyed it very much. They were asking me when I’m coming back!”

Most of the participants on James’ course were university students, and the demonstration included a lot of ad hoc discussion about culture and refugee issues. It was an important opportunity for this new Australian citizen to socialise with his adopted countrymen.

“I can teach them whatever knowledge I have and I get something from them by mixing with them,” James explains. “That helps me with my energy and to get more focus. It keeps a person alive.”

Culinary Tales’ cookery classes are held in North Sydney and Surry Hills. The cost is $50 per person and all proceeds go towards the running of the project. More: www.culinary-tales.com

Photo: Christine Ai, Cai photography

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