YASSMIN ABDEl-MAGIED & ZOHRA KHAKU
Yassmin Abdel-Magied talks to Zohra Khaku about her foodie life.
I was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and my family moved to Australia when I was a child. In Brisbane I went to a Muslim primary school, and then I went to a Christian high school. It wasn’t until I got to the Christian high school that I thought ‘wait, what do white people eat for dinner?’. My family always ate Sudanese food, and I was talking to a white friend and suddenly realised I had no idea what she ate for dinner. My mind was blown!
My family lived in an Asian part of town in Brisbane. Most of the shops didn’t have English signs. I would just point at things and ask if it was pork, and if it wasn’t I would eat it. Sometimes it totally failed – I’d have to ask myself ‘What are the social norms of this food?’. Without someone to guide you about whether you’re supposed to add vinegar to this fish, or cook it in a particular way, it was sometimes a bit baffling.
At primary school everyone was Muslim so there were a lot of cultures there, although there were still things which were uniquely Sudanese. Things like cow tongue. My mum would make it in a stew and boil it with herbs, and it was so delicious. I’d take it to school and say to people ‘Its so good man, you gotta try it!’. I gave a beef tongue sandwich to my friend at school and she really liked it. She asked what it was and I told her, and after the ‘ewwwwwww’ that was the end of her trying any of my lunches.
At school I would oscillate between being really proud of my food, and throwing it away. If it was delicious and I loved it, I’d be really proud. On the other hand, sometimes Dad would pack my lunch and he would make me sandwiches with honey and bread, and I’d get to school and open up my lunch and see two pieces of bread with nothing on them, because the honey had soaked into the bread. I’d think ‘My Dad is useless’ and throw it away.
I used to feel embarrassed because Dad was quite thrifty. Instead of giving us small pre packed yogurt tubs, he’d refill an old container and give it to us. It just looked so unappealing to everybody else, and I didn’t like it enough to fight for it! My family’s line on it was ‘We’re not like everyone else, so you’re going to eat what we give you.’ I didn’t really know anything else.
Sudanese food is not necessary classy because we’re by and large a poorer country. You’ve got the Arab and Mediterranean influence, and the African influence too. Standard Sudanese breakfast is Foul Ta’miya, which is like Sudanese falafel which is flat and round, or Foul Beydh Ta’miya which is the same dish with scrambled eggs. Its all usually eaten with bread.
Staples for the more African Sudanese diet is Kisra, which is like a thin savoury crepe. Its eaten with Mulaah, which is kind of like mince meat stew. Ground Okra is called Wecah, and its added to the stew and makes the texture all stretchy. You eat the Kisra by scooping it up with bread. Mulaah Ahmar is red, and you’ve got white and green versions too. One is tomato based, others are vegetable based.
Mulukhiya is more Egyptian. My Dads family is Egyptian so we had a lot of that influence too. We had a lot of Egyptian food, with Warak Inab (stuffed vine leaves) and Mahshi (stuffed vegetables). These two were the delicacy when my mum was feeling fancy. One of my favourite meals is deep fried cauliflower. I don’t even know if its Sudanese, but oh its delicious.
I probably ate quite badly at university. I was with engineers, and to them food was a function. In my first year we made an eski full of Mee Goreng. An eski is like a giant cooler box. We were hungry, so we made a cooler box full of Mee Goreng. I don’t know if we even washed that eski. It was so unhygienic!
Around that time, there was a lot of Nando’s in my diet. Since there wasn’t much halal food in Australia, there were a lot of us just trying to make do. I remember when the first Nando’s opened in Brisbane, anyone who was Muslim or had anything to do with the community went there. I remember the school principal was there, and the principal’s wife even opened up the store.
I want to say I drank lots of coffee, but I didn’t like it at that point. I drank a lot of Red Bull, which looking back is way too much. I’d drink three or four Red Bulls when an assignment was due. They’d give it out for free at uni, so you’d take heaps and then we’d stack up the cans afterwards.
After university I started working on oil and gas rigs. I was working on land, so the people I was working with weren’t very international, and the food wasn’t halal. I’d often be the only woman. Everyone loved meat, and I couldn’t eat any. Two things happened, I became a de facto vegetarian, and I ate a lot of pasta. I ate it for lunch and dinner and sometimes breakfast, so I put on a lot of weight. Also I started drinking a lot of coffee. I was working night shifts between 6pm to 6am, and drinking coffee was the social thing to do, because you can’t drink on the rigs.
I’m a real foodie, by which I mean I love to eat. In London I had a really good breakfast on Edgware Road. I completely over ordered! I had Foul, Eggs, whatever I could see on the menu. The waitress totally didn’t warn me that it was enough food for an entire family!
My favourite cuisine for dinner is good Turkish or Lebanese. All I need is meat and bread – I love, love, love that. I occasionally flirt with the idea of being vegetarian but I just love meshwi (grilled) meat. In Sudan during Eid Al Adha we take the meat and put it over charcoal barbecue. It’s incredible.
For dinners I like wholesome, send you to sleep kind of food. For breakfast, it’s hipster food – eggs in a little pan thing, some random elderflower concoction. Perth has a great breakfast culture, good coffee and hipster food. Perfect for me.
Read more about Yassmin in her own words in her book Yassmin’s Story available on Amazon here.
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YASSMIN ABDEl-MAGIED & ZOHRA KHAKU