‘Cooking is a way for me to share my love’: recipes from Melbourne public housing residents


Melburnians are very familiar with being locked down. Our state has had four, but some of us have experienced lockdown in such an extreme fashion, it was considered a breach of human rights, according to the Victorian ombudsman.

In July 2020, the Victorian government locked down nine public housing towers, home to 3,000 people, to contain the spread of coronavirus. The decision was based on “patterns of movement, friendship groups [and] family groups”, the premier said at the time.

In a step to recover from the social impacts of that hard lockdown, the residents of the same public housing towers, along with Cohealth (a non-for-profit community health organisation), have published a cookbook, Cooking, Recovery and Connections, which emphasises the strength and resilience within these friendship and family groups.

“The lockdown removed residents’ autonomy, even around cultural practices and food choices. Coming together to create the cookbook has been a beautiful way to re-empower the residents,” says Gabby Creed, community mobilisation lead at Cohealth.

There are recipes, stories and artworks from residents with diverse cultural backgrounds – Somalian, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Indian, Egyptian and South Sudanese. Cooking, Recovery and Connections is free to download, but if you’re able to make a donation to the community via Sisterworks, it is encouraged.

Woven between illustrations and storytelling, the book provides recipes for okra, Eritrean sweet bread, falafel, fatteh and many other dishes that are cooked and shared regularly between the residents in Flemington and North Melbourne.

Kelli Willis, who contributed the recipe for shurbad (a Somalian oat and meat soup, usually eaten during Ramadan) chose to share this dish because “I knew the dish would be popular … I’ve made it for people from West Africa, Morocco and Algeria and they love it. Cooking is a way for me to share my love and gratitude. I made this dish for one of my kid’s friends who passed away when he was really young, and my father-in-law while he was in hospital. That act of giving and the joy it brought them will always be with me when I make this dish.”

Nagat Abdalla, a public housing resident and Cohealth community support officer who was also on the project team for the cookbook, says: “We needed to find new ways to connect due to the pandemic. We realised that recipes and food were something we could share. For our community it’s part of our daily life to share food.”

Willis echoes this sentiment, saying that residents banded together over Facebook during lockdown, offering to pick up ingredients in bulk and dropping them at each other’s doors if they didn’t feel safe to go shopping themselves.

As for how to use the cookbook, Willis laughs and says, “I hope people actually try the recipes. I am guilty of having cookbooks I don’t cook out of. But we are showing people the food we eat often and enjoy eating. I hope they become popular outside of the community.”

Shurbad: Somali oat and meat soup

This particular soup is of Somali origin. It is usually eaten during Ramadan. This soup signifies the month of fasting, the gathering of families and friends and the sharing of food between neighbours during the holy month. I have made and shared this soup with so many people over the years who absolutely love it.

I have shared it with ones I have lost and ones that have left. As the soup is warm, the idea of it gives me the same feeling. Making food for family and friends is how I express my love and gratitude. I hope by sharing this recipe, it will give others the same feelings and joy.

450g lamb or goat curry pieces
4 litres water
¼ cup short grain rice (Calrose rice)
¼ cup pearl barley
3 tomatoes, chopped
2 tbsp Vegeta
3 garlic cloves
3 dried lemons, whole dried lemons are available online and via specialty grocers
1 cup porridge oats
3 tbsp vegetable oil
½ onion, diced
1 tbsp xawaash (see recipe below)
¼ tsp ground black pepper
¼ tsp turmeric powder
2 tbsp white vinegar

Bring meat to the boil using four litres of water. Add the rice, barley, Vegeta, tomatoes, garlic and dried lemons.

Cook on medium heat for one and a half hours. Add the oats and cook for another 30 minutes, stirring to make sure the oats don’t stick to bottom of pot.

Remove any bones from the meat pieces and discard.

In a pan, fry the onion until translucent. Add the xawaash, black pepper and turmeric. Add the toasted spice mix to soup. Add vinegar and mix well.

This soup can be blended for a smoother texture.

For the xawaash
½ cup cumin seeds
½ cup coriander seeds
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp cinnamon bark
1 tbsp cardamom pods
1 tsp cloves (whole)
2 tbsp turmeric powder

Heat whole spices in a dry pan on medium heat until toasted. Blend together until it is powder form. Add turmeric and mix well. Store in an airtight glass jar.

Gajar hawa – Indian carrot pudding

The most popular sweet dish of north India. A winter favourite!

1kg carrots, grated
1 tbsp desi ghee
1 cup dates, chopped
1kg full cream milk
1 cup sugar
100g slivered almonds
100g cashews, chopped
10 pieces green cardamom with shell, semi-powdered
50g raisins

Put the grated carrots in a large pan on medium heat. Add a pure oil, called desi ghee in Indian language – it’s easily available from specialty grocers and some supermarkets.

Let the mixture simmer for a few minutes until the carrots become moist and begin to soften. Add the chopped dates and stir the mixture at short intervals, so it doesn’t stick to bottom of pan.

After 10 minutes add the milk and sugar and turn down the heat. Let the carrots boil in the milk, stirring it occasionally until the carrots and milk form an almost paste-like mixture.

Add the almonds, cashews and cardamom and mix well. Add the raisins and stir on low heat for 10 more minutes, then the pudding is ready to eat.

It can be eaten piping hot, or left to cool to room temperature. It’s a healthy and tasty dish best served in small transparent bowls. A favourite for the cold season!