Jess Murphy of Kai in Galway, originally from New Zealand and now a proud Irish citizen, has been a formal high-profile supporter of UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, since 2017, cooking with and collecting recipes from refugees — many of them from Syria — and asylum seekers in Ireland.
From the beginning,” she says, “I felt we needed to start recording immigrants’ cooking stories and styles, because we’ve never really had immigrants like this in Ireland before, and we need to capture this visible change in our food culture, the cooking in exile. I had an idea for a book and approached every publishing house in the country, but they all turned me down and I failed to get it published. I was told Syria was not fashionable any more.”
In 2019, Murphy travelled to Amman in Jordan, where she visited the Azraq refugee camp, and to Lebanon, on a mission to document Syrian food history through displacement. In Beirut, she met the Al Jamous family, who were living in a tiny apartment and had just received the good news that they were about to be relocated to Ireland.
“It was the most heart-warming experience I’ve ever had,” writes Murphy. “My husband, David, managed to get his phone working, and we watched the hurling highlights with their son, Mohamed, who didn’t know where Ireland was.
“We did our best to reassure the family that they were going to be safe and that Sami’s dream of his kids being able to ride a bicycle in the fresh air on the street outside would indeed come true. We promised to come see them, but little did we know that they were going to live just up the road in Co Offaly. It was a humbling experience that showed me how small the world is and how important empathy and understanding are in these situations. Catching the train to Offaly to be reunited and pop in for a cuppa was just magic.”
Fast forward a few years and Kristin Jensen of Blasta Books, who aims to publish books from a more diverse stable of authors than other Irish publishing houses, was more enthusiastic about a book focused on recipes from refugees and immigrants. From cooking with these communities in Ireland, Murphy had come to realise that the one thing each culture had in common was cookies.
“Ask anyone from anywhere in the world,” says co-author Eoin Cluskey of Bread 41 in Dublin, “for a cookie recipe and they’ve got one. I used to make cookies with my nana as a treat, and I still remember that as a warm moment from growing up. There is a child in us all, and when it comes to cookies, we are all still kids. They bring us back.” “Cookies are like sprinkles,” says Murphy. “Everyone loves them.”
And that was the genesis of The United Nations of Cookies, a recipe book intended to raise both awareness and money, with all author proceeds going to UNHCR to support projects such as football clubs, knitting groups, and after-school cooking classes for refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland.
Jody Clarke works in communications with UNHCR and oversaw the project for the organisation. “The concept of the book as presented by Jess and Eoin offered a different way of telling some of the stories of the people who arrive in Ireland as refugees and asylum seekers,” he says.
“We were looking to raise awareness of the different reasons people are forced to flee. And we saw the book as a way of highlighting the positive side of what refugees bring to their new countries.
“We worked to identify people who could contribute to the book, with a variety of experiences and recipes. When you hear about refugees in terms of numbers, those figures are very stark, and you can become inured to them. The individual stories get lost among the numbers. There’s a lot more to each person than the reason they come. We wanted to put their stories front and centre.
“At the moment, there are lots of funds coming in for Ukraine, but there are a lot of refugees from Yemen, Syria and the Great Lakes of Africa, and they struggle to get their stories into the news. In Ireland, food is one of the tools — sport is another — we use to reach out to people who might not otherwise read about them.”
“I saw the book as a way of giving us a chance to talk about the importance of culture and what it means to us — that it’s delicious, it’s exciting and it comes in every colour, shape and size, just like me and you,” says Murphy.
“It would be a way to highlight how deadly it is to be different and unique and to always strive to be your best self and to take pride in where you come from. These cookies are a symbol for the changing face of Ireland, the Ireland that has become a safe haven and home for so many, including myself and my big love for all things Galway, while still keeping the traditional Ireland that we adore close to our hearts.”
Cluskey, whose phenomenally successful bakery opens its second site in Greystones later this year, was motivated to get involved and throw the testing power of his kitchen and team of crack bakers behind the project by his abhorrence for the Direct Provision system in Ireland.
“We should call a spade a spade,” he says. “I believe the situation relating to Direct Provision in Ireland is the mother and baby homes of our generation. I have two kids, four and seven, and I know that Oliver and Sadie will ask me, ‘What did you do? Did you help?’ I don’t want to have to say, ‘Well, no, I stood by and did nothing.’”
Cluskey is a believer in the innate and inspiring power of food. “We share recipes, we bake, then we come together to enjoy the reward of the work we have done,” he writes in the introduction. “There is satisfaction and pride in using our hands to bake something, but specifically in this book, to bake cookies.
“This book has given Jess and I the chance to share recipes from all over the world from extraordinary people. In those conversations exchanging recipes and ideas, we were transported to the places that the people we met called home before they made their new home in Ireland. In this book, my food vision, Jess’s food vision and the vision of the contributors of these recipes come together as one voice. Everyone should have the chance to share their perspective when it comes to food, and what is more universal, more joyful and more celebrated than a simple cookie?”
During lockdown, Murphy and Cluskey worked with a crew provided by UNHCR to film groups of refugees and asylum seekers from a host of different cultures in Ireland. The films were shown at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this month.
“Eoin gave us all his Willy Wonkas, the cookie monsters in his kitchen, to test all the cookies so they didn’t turn out flat and s***e,” says Murphy, “and I interviewed all the people and asked them why their recipe was so special to them.”
Among the contributors to the book are Haifa and Sami Al Jamous, and their three children, 16-year-old Mohamad Habib, 14-year-old Mahmoud and 11-year-old Maria, the family Murphy met in Beirut back in 2019, when they had been selected for resettlement to Ireland. Originally from Da’el near Daraa in southern Syria, the centre of the unrest that led to the beginning of the war there in 2011, they fled to Lebanon in 2013, and in 2019 were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Bir Hassan, in southern Beirut.
Ten years into the Syrian crisis, Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. Roughly half the size of Munster, its population has risen by 1.5 million as Syrians began seeking safety there from the onset of the war. Nine in every 10 Syrian refugees now live in extreme poverty, and half of the refugee population is food-insecure.
Sami, who worked as a florist in Beirut, was looking forward to the opportunity to find peace and for their children to get a good education.
“Sami had said, all I want is the kids to ride a bicycle up and down the street,” Murphy says. “When I visited them in Birr a year or so later, they were on their bikes in their school uniforms. Haifa was baking and their faces had completely changed. They were so happy.”
The Al Jamous family recipe is for Syrian sesame and pistachio cookies — barazek, one of the most traditional Syrian sweets, served as a treat during special events such as Eid al-Fitr after Ramadan and also Eid al-Adha.
“Of course, all these sweets are available to buy from shops,” the Al Jamouses write, “but we preferred to make our own at home, as every family member has a part in making them. One person makes the dough, another shapes the barazek, someone else sets the pieces in special trays, and one is an expert at baking them. We have so many special memories of preparing these biscuits with our families.”
Another contributor is Sara Althabhaney, a forensic science student in GMIT in Galway. She fled the war in Yemen when she was 13 with her mother, sister and brother, seeking safety in Ireland, where they were granted asylum.
After more than six years of conflict, Yemen remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with more than four million people forced to flee their homes inside the country. The decision to leave was not one Althabhaney and her family took lightly. “It’s a question of safety,” she says. “You are travelling to an entirely different continent with the possibility that you will never see your family again.”
While food plays an important role in communities around the world, this is even more so for people forced to flee to other countries. “Having that little bit of home is such a big thing,” says Althabhaney. “My mom really enjoys making food; it makes her proud. Being able to create certain food is very close to your heart, and this is even more so in the Arab world, where people spend hours producing dishes. It is not unusual having to wake at 5am to get something ready for lunch. It’s such a big thing. It holds communities together.”
Althabhaney’s recipe is for Yemeni festive cookies — Ka’ak al-Eid — which are like a cross between brioche and a biscuit and not very sweet. They are traditionally served to guests and only during the Eid (feast) at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Eid al-Adha, and at the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.
“When I was young,” she says, “I enjoyed making them at home with my aunties or at the neighbours’. Each ka’ak is unique — it has to be shaped and the edges twisted by hand, which feels like some kind of artistic skill. Ka’ak al-Eid are home-baked. You can’t find them in shops, cafés or restaurants. These cookies remind me of my childhood in Yemen. As kids, we liked to dip the ka’ak in sweet, fragrant, milky tea.”
As well as recipes from refugees, the book features some from well-known chefs who are also immigrants in Ireland. Mickael Viljanen, of the two-Michelin-starred Chapter One, has a recipe for Finnish spoon cookies (lusikkaleivät) which his mother and grandmother used to make. “I grew up on them,” he says, “I ate them after school dinner on Thursdays, after our pea soup and pancakes.”
Takashi Miyazaki, who has two restaurants in Cork, including the Michelin-starred Ichigo Ichie, offers a recipe for Japanese wasabi cream cheese cookies. “In Japan,” he says, “there are many savoury sweets — think chocolate-covered potato chips. My two boys, Seán and Stephen, don’t eat wasabi, as it is too spicy for kids. But if you use it to make sweets like a cookie, then the spiciness is gone, but the savoury flavour is still in the cookies. My boys love these.”
Ahmet Dede of Dede in Baltimore, where he too holds a Michelin star, shares a recipe for the Turkish coffee cookies his mother often made for his father at the end of the working week. “The smell and taste of these cookies were an important part of growing up,” he remembers. “They remind me of family time together: me, my two brothers, Mam and Dad. I love making these for my own family and friends now.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Murphy’s favourite recipe, supplied by Brad Burgess, New Zealand’s ambassador in Ireland, is for Anzac biscuits (named after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and a Kiwi icon.
“Contrary to popular belief,” says Burgess, “these biscuits didn’t make their way to the World War I battlefields of Gallipoli but were sent to troops on the Western Front and sold at galas, parades and other public events at home to raise funds for the war effort. They are still made every April to commemorate Anzac Day, when Kiwis and Australians come together to remember the Gallipoli campaign and all those who have served and sacrificed in conflict and peacekeeping missions.
For Cluskey, it’s the Venetian butter cookies — buranelli — that restaurateur and wine merchant Enrico Fantasia remembers from his childhood in Venice. “They bring me back to my childhood, to afternoons spent in my granny’s kitchen watching her cooking and baking,” says Fantasia. “It was a feast every time they were on the table, but I particularly loved them for breakfast, dipped in my milk.”
Murphy and Cluskey hope that their book, with its simple recipes, can be used in schools as a tool for sparking conversations about racism and inclusion. “We hope it brings everyone around the table,” says Cluskey. “One thing we realised testing the recipes was that, when it comes to cookies, we are all very similar. There might be a different spice or seed or nut, but the basic recipe is very similar, whether it’s from Venezuela or Holland or Iran.”
“The book shows it’s okay to be different,” says Murphy, “to be a different cookie — that it’s cool to be different colours and different shapes.”
‘The United Nations of Cookies’ by Jess Murphy and Eoin Cluskey (€15) is published by Blasta Books (blastabooks.com). All author proceeds will be donated to UNHCR
https://www.independent.ie/life/food-drink/these-cookies-are-a-symbol-for-the-changing-face-of-ireland-41871714.html ‘These cookies are a symbol for the changing face of Ireland’