Heartwarming: refugee recipes for connection

20 June 2023

Let your tastebuds take you to the kitchen gardens of the West Bank and beyond at an intimate dinner for Refugee Week.

Every dish tells a story that is close to the heart of chef and small business owner Aheda Amro Numan.

As a small child growing up in the kitchen garden surrounding her house in Palestine’s West Bank, Aheda would stay close to her mother, keen to learn and perfect each dish.

“When you cook with love, it gives the food a different flavour. It touches the heart. I remember my mum and my grandmother with every dish I cook.”

The very first dish she ever cooked was a simple salad that she still serves today in her new home in Melbourne, using ingredients from her garden.

If we’re lucky, this salad may even be on the menu at Taste the Difference, an annual dinner held at Melbourne’s Multicultural Hub as part of Refugee Week.

Taste the Difference diners will sample dishes from around the world, prepared by chefs from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

It’s an opportunity for the community to share a meal with people who have come to Australia as refugees, and celebrate the rich contributions they make to local life.

At last year’s Taste the Difference, Aheda served babaganoush and hummus as an entree, then baklava and semolina cake for dessert, as well as a digestive sage tea.

This year, Aheda is cooking the main course.

The evening is organised by AMES Australia and funded by City of Melbourne, with profits from ticket sales supporting vulnerable Melburnians through AMES’ People in Need fund.

A person using a stick blender to prepare food.
Aheda at work. Photo: supplied

A cup full to the brim

When Aheda sought a life of safety and freedom in Australian in 2018, she only had two words of English. ‘Yes’ and ‘no’.  

“For two years, I was very sad. I cried. I was alone. My mum has passed away and I was here, away from her. It is very difficult. I fell down, and I got back up. This is life,” Aheda said.  

“Not all life is happy, but if you can find something good, life is good. Some people just wait. My message is not to wait. This is a country where you can do everything. It is beautiful. I look for the full cup, not the empty cup.” 

With a heart full of traditional recipes and the skilled hand of a chef, Aheda found a way to connect with her new home. 

Now she runs catering business Aheda’s Kitchen. 

Some traditional dishes have been easier than others to adapt to her new environment.  

“I tried once to cook babaganoush in the oven, but only once! The house was so smokey inside and the flavour was different. Now I always use the open wood fire.” 

When she couldn’t find the spices she needed in Melbourne shops, Aheda began to make her own. Just don’t ask her for the recipe: it’s a closely guarded secret. 

Her garden is filled with home-grown seasonal vegetables that fire her memory and inspire her cooking. 

Early winter is time for musakhan, after the olive harvest.  

Aheda hints that this national Palestinian dish might even grace the menu at Taste the Difference.  

“The time is now to press the olives for the oil, and serve it with fresh flat bread,” Aheda said. Along with roasted meats, caramelised onions and sumac. 

“The recipes from the Palestinian kitchen are very old. The feeling is warm. It’s like a warm house. Palestinian food is very close to the land.” 

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