Louisville Courier-Journal: Refugee cookbook highlights tastes from home

The following article was originally published in the Louisville Courier-Journal on May 26, 2015 by Jere Downs.

Flavors from Home Aimee ZaringAmina Osman sells dinosaur kale with leaves of dark green at the St. Matthews Farmer’s Market and bunches of red or white radishes so hot, the bite makes your eyes water. The Somali Bantu refugee has made a living since 2009 selling her fresh produce at Louisville-area farmers markets with help from the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program(RAPP).

Now you can enjoy her family’s favorite snack — fried, savory Sambusa pastries — and home-cooked delights from other refugees with the publication of “Flavors From Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods” by Aimee Zaring.

Published by the University Press of Kentucky in March, the hardback is already finding fans in Louisville who haunt the ethnic markets sprouting up on Preston Highway, in the South End, in Buechel and parts of the East End to serve the region’s refugees from South Vietnam, Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Cuba and elsewhere.

More than a collection of recipes, Zaring calls her first book a labor of love that also tells refugee’s stories. While some 800 copies have been sold so far, Zaring said the best moments have come as she has hand delivered signed copies of the book to the homes of refugees it chronicles.

“I’ve had people cry. I’ve had people shout and cover their mouths with disbelief,” said Zaring, who also teaches English as a second language.

Flavors from Home Aimee Zaring Amina Osman  displaying fresh produce from her community garden

Osman’s English is limited, but her son Amir Hussein, 13, said at the farmers market that making sambusas are a family affair. Stuffing ground beef and vegetables into pastry wrappers is a delicate business, he said, adding the trick is to crimp the ends tight before frying in vegetable oil.

“It is mainly how you fold it in to a triangle. I have screwed it up a 100 times,” he said. “Press the edges down tight before you put it in the oil.”

Osman farmed rice and vegetables in Somalia before her family fled to Kenya as a result of persecution from warring clans. Then followed a long stretch in a refugee camp from 1992 to 2004. Louisville became home to Osman, her husband, Bakar Hussein, and their seven children in 2006.

The story of Osman’s return to farming and dignity — in her case two acres donated by an Okolona church — is one oft-repeated among Louisville refugees with agricultural roots, said Laura Stevens, program coordinator at RAPP.

“A lot of them come with significant agricultural experience. Imagine you are living in a refugee camp for 10 to 20 years and you are resettled into an apartment without any green space,” Stevens said, adding some 2,000 refugees resettle in Louisville annually. “Being able to be back in the soil, get their hands in the dirt with something they grew up doing, is a great opportunity to help them get settled into their new life.”

Some refugees profiled in the book have gone on to translate culinary traditions into independent restaurants. Azar and Ata Akrami are the inspiration behind Shiraz Mediterranean Grill, and their story of Persian and Iranian cuisine is presented along with a recipe for their Tachin, or “Crispy Golden Rice and Chicken.” If you have enjoyed “Green Curry Soup” or Vietnamese spring rolls at Huong “CoCo” Tran’s Heart and Soy restaurant, 1216 Bardstown Road, you can find those recipes, too.

Savoring the food becomes meaningful as refugees candidly recount the traumatic circumstances that landed them in the Midwest. Pakistani surgeon Gulalai Wali Khan relays how she survived a suicide bomber that killed six people in her father’s home. Not long afterward, she escaped the bombing of a floor tile shop because she had gone upstairs.

Khan fled to Louisville in 2011. Never one to cook, Khan “woke up one morning craving her own food,” Zaring recounts in the book. “She managed to acquire the ingredients for one of her favorites, pulai, a rice dish steamed in meat stock … Suddenly in her home away from home, the smells and flavors of Pakistan — cumin, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom — came back to her.”

Jere Downs can be reached at (502) 582-4669, @JereDowns on Twitter and Jere Downs on Facebook.

Amina’s Sambusas

Flavors from Home Aimee Zaring Amina's Sambusas

Serves about 20, or two per person to make between 40 and 50 sambusas. These are ready in about 90 minutes, with two people preparing the sambusas. Vegeta is called for here as an all-purpose vegetable seasoning available at some Save-A-Lot or Wal-Mart stores. If you can’t find it, substitute another vegetable seasoning, like McCormick Perfect Pinch. You can find the wrappers called for here at the ValuMarket, 5301 Mitscher Ave., in Louisville’s South End, near Iroquois Park. Wrappers can also be found frozen in the grocery market located inside the International Mall on York at Eighth Street downtown.

5 small round potatoes, peeled, quartered and washed

1 teaspoon salt, divided

2 pounds ground beef

4 to 6 scallions, sliced into 1/8-inch rounds

1 green bell pepper, finely diced

1 to 2 jalapeno peppers, finely diced

8 to 10 cloves garlic, minced

5 stalks cilantro, leaves and stems, chopped

3 1/2 teaspoons cumin

2 1/2 teaspoons Vegeta all purpose seasoning mix

2 (25-sheet) packages 8 by 8-inch sambusa wrappers, spring roll pastry (not extra thin) or egg roll wrappers

Flour and water for paste

Vegetable of canola oil for frying

In a large stockpot, add enough water to cover potatoes. Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to boil over high heat. Please peeled, cut and washed potatoes in the pot. Boil on medium high heat, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes until potatoes are tender but not mushy. Drain and set aside to cool.

In a large frying pan, add ground beef and cook on medium high, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining 1/2teaspoon salt. Continue cooking, breaking meat into small pieces with a spoon. Set aside to cool. Combine in a large bowl with scallions, peppers, garlic and cilantro. Chop potatoes into small dice the size of the vegetables and mix in, adding the cumin and vegetable seasoning. Stir well and set aside.

Cover your stock of wrappers with a damp cloth to keep them moist as you assemble the sambusas. In a shallow bowl, combine 1/4 cup flour and add a little water at a time until you have a smooth paste. Set aside.

Lay a wrapper on a clean surface and fold the bottom up to meet the top edge, forming a rectangle. Fold the bottom right corner up to the center of the top to form a triangle. Press down on all sides to smooth the pastry. Take the top right corner and fold over the middle seam to connect with the top left corner of the wrapper. Now the wrapper should consist of two folded triangles that together make a small square.

Dip a finger in the flour paste and smear it over the entire square, concentrating on the sides. Take the bottom left corner of the wrapper and fold it up to the top right corner, covering the other triangle. Press down on the sides and smooth the edges. Lift the wrapper off the work surface. Turn the triangle slightly clockwise to reveal the side seam. Brush more flour paste over that seam and press to ensure a good seal.

Now you are ready to stuff your sambusa. Hold the wrapper loosely in the palm of your hand and let it open to form a cone. Fill the cone with about 2 tablespoons of filling, or 3/4 full. Brush more paste over top where you will seal the pastry and fold the extension down to cover the cone opening. All the loose edges will come together to form a triangle. Press and seal all the edges and pinch the corners.

In a heavy pan, like a deep cast iron skillet or a deep fryer, add enough oil to cover a layer of sambusas, but don’t add them yet. Heat oil until it begins to sizzle, over high heat. It is important the oil be the right temperature for the sambusas to cook and brown in 8 to 10 minutes. When oil is hot, turn heat to medium high and test one sambusa. When you cook a batch, leave some space between them, turning if necessary for even browning. Remove sambusas with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve warm, either plain or with a dipping sauce. You can reheat fried sambusa in an oven

Meet The Author

On June 20, author Aimee Zaring will hold a reading of her book Flavors From Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Foods at Carmichael’s bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Avenue, Louisville, Ky, 40106. For more information about the reading, call (502) 896-6950.

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About University Press of Kentucky

The University Press of Kentucky has a dual mission—the publication of books of high scholarly merit in a variety of fields for a largely academic audience and the publication of books about the history and culture of Kentucky, the Ohio Valley region, the Upper South, and Appalachia. The Press is the statewide mandated nonprofit scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, operated as an agency of the University of Kentucky and serving all state institutions of higher learning, plus five private colleges and Kentucky's two major historical societies.

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