It all started with the Headspace Youth Reference Group (YRG) I was involved with. We were searching for a new project and I was intent in incorporating an element of culture into the initiative. In that an idea was formed.
I had heard Yvi Henderson, a community organiser who works at the local Multicultural Centre, talk about the upcoming Multicultural Day in March. Every year, locals from different cultures would come together and enjoy food, dance and music. It was almost too perfect.
So I suggested to the YRG that we participate in the festival. We came up with the idea of setting up a stall and selling food that reflected the cultures of those in the group to raise money for our future initiatives.
LEARNING TO COOK
On the Saturday before the event, my friend Andrea and I paired up to find the materials for the dishes we were cooking. I had planned, at my mum’s suggestion, to cook a fried rice dish that we ate a lot at home that my mum would teach me how to make. The dish, originating from meals found in Zimbabwe, did not need a lot of ingredients and my mum assured me that a person with my limited culinary ability would be able to successfully cook up the meal.
Andrea, on the other hand, was preparing her Indian family’s butter chicken curry recipe. I found it to be a different shopping experience to what I was used to, following Andrea while she searched through exotic spices and unusual products covered in words and symbols I couldn’t identify. I got a free class in the world of Indian food, down to the sugar, salt and spices they used at home.
When we had procured all our ingredients, we went our separate ways to cook our dishes. The task to successfully to create something edible and delicious was a bit daunting to me. It wasn’t that I realised how much work I had committed myself to. I was scared that people attending the Multicultural Day wouldn’t like the food I was cooking. I’ve seen the foods I’m used to eating every day laughed at by my friends at school either because of the colours or the look. I did not want that happening on a larger scale.
Mum and I prepared the dishes well into the night. The plan was to cook the ‘base’ of the rice in the night, including ingredients like cabbage, chicken pieces, onion, spices, soy sauce etc., and to make the rice on the day in a portable rice cooker.
As Mum poured the steaming combination of fresh vegetables and chunky chicken pieces into plastic boxes, she ran me through how the rice cooker would work. I was quite unsure when it came to the rice cooking. It was one of the most crucial aspects of my dishes, yet, it was so easy to stuff up.
The next morning there was a setback – the Multicultural Festival was cancelled due to the weather. However, a takeaway food market was being set up indoors at the Auto Club, so at least we’d be able to sell our food.
GOOD FOOD EXPERIENCE
I watched raindrops glide across the surface of the car window we drove to the venue. I was both nervous about and focused on what I had to do for the day. There definitely was a pressure to give people a food experience unlike any other, one that I could tell them that I enjoy on a daily basis. For me, it became less about the fundraising. If no one liked my food at the event, no one would be liking what I eat in my own house, something that is a part of me.
Mum dropped me off with all the equipment I needed. Walking inside the surprisingly large hall, I started to imagine all the people that would be strolling from stall to stall and experiencing the exotic tastes, smells and sights. Andrea and I started to set up rice cookers, pots and slow cookers, scrambling for the rare commodity known as the power plug.
There were so many other stalls being set up. It was comforting to know that they were others who wanted to share their own culture, woven in the vibrant shades of red, green, blue, purple, yellow and orange that filled their bowls. Flags of many foreign countries crowded the walls, as misty smells started to rise from pots and containers. Stall-owners were scurrying around in their efforts to prepare for the people they were unsure would show up.
Once we had our rice ready, I turned my attention to the comings and goings of the festival. Surprisingly, the crowds weren’t anywhere to be seen. It was quite early in the morning, but that did not really settle the anxious tension coursing through my veins. I was nervous that the food would get cold. Nervous that we would be at the stall waiting for people to come.
And that was when I noticed Andrea talking to a smiling man with his young daughter and wife. I watched as he reached for his back pocket with his hand, grasping a ten dollar note and putting it in Andrea’s hand. He must have ordered the butter chicken fried rice combo.
With a large spoon in hand, I filled the right side of the container with rice and handed the container to Andrea. Andrea dished a reasonable amount of curry, so it would not overpower the taste of the fried rice, and offered the man the complete dish.
While Andrea turned towards the stall-owner beside us, I watched the man and his family sit down at a nearby table. I wanted to see if they enjoyed our food. I was so focused on that moment, that it took a few seconds for me to realise that there was a line of people waiting. It seemed that our shortage of customers was not a problem anymore. In fact, soon enough the man came and his family came back for more.
PEOPLE CAME AND ENJOYED
The food was served and entertainment continued throughout the day. In the mass of people, I recognised a variety of schoolmates, parents of friends, teachers and other family friends. Many acts came and went, including riveting Russian dances, animated African drum circles, and Malayalam songs. It was all a blur as I sat in contentment, watching as townspeople who have lived in Cooma their whole lives, eat and celebrate with migrants, whose origins vary from places all over the world.
It was amazing to be among people with so many differences in origin, ethnicity, lifestyle and experiences, and see them enjoying the same food, performances and dances. Smiles and laughter filled the faces of people in a world of stress and division. Foreign foods, dances, music and clothes were not seen as different and weird, but were celebrated and admired. At the end of the day, our stall sold out of our food, and raised $600 for our Headspace group. The team saw the day as a success for the group, but I saw it as a success for culture.
Josh Abrokwah is a Year 10 student at St Patrick’s Parish School, Cooma, NSW and is one of the guest editors of the Spring 2021 edition.