THIRTEEN AFGHAN WOMEN WHO CAME TO PALMERSTON NORTH AS REFUGEES HAVE FORMED CATERING BUSINESS LA LA ZAR (PHOTO: RED CROSS/TASTE OF CULTURES)

How refugees are enriching Aotearoa’s food landscape

Whether making Somali sauces or Nepali dumplings, former refugees are providing income for their families and delicious food for the rest of us.

New Zealanders who have arrived here as refugees make up an ever-increasing part of the food scene in Aotearoa. Thank goodness! Can you imagine eating only the foods of your home culture for the rest of your days?

As a Pākehā New Zealander with Scottish and English heritage, I’d be doomed to a life without rogan josh, tom kha gai, sun-dried tomatoes, éclairs or gyoza, and as much as I enjoy porridge for breakfast, I’m not signing up for the limited diet of my ancestors.

Even ‘English’ fish and chips are gifts from Belgium (the fried potato stick idea) and Portugal (battered fish), so let’s count the culinary blessings of centuries of cross-cultural travel and migration.

As well as bringing new food experiences, several studies have shown that refugees — even when they arrive with nothing — provide a net economic benefit to their new country after only a few years. One of the ways this happens, of course, is through finding employment or even starting their own businesses. In Aotearoa right now, former refugees are in business providing income for their families and delicious food for the rest of us, from Somali sauces to Nepali dumplings.

LA LA ZAR CAN WHIP YOU UP A PLATTER OF BOLANI, PAKORA OR SWEET PASTRIES (PHOTO: RED CROSS/TASTE OF CULTURES)

Early starts are often a part of life when you run a catering business, but if you don’t have to worry about bombs falling from the sky, that makes it easier to knead your dough.

Amina is one of 13 Afghan women who have banded together to form a catering business, La La Zar, in their new home, Palmerston North. “Here, we can go outside and come back in safely. We can go and do shopping without worrying about fighting and bombing. It’s actually a dream come true.”

The La La Zar women all arrived in New Zealand as refugees, and are among the 300 to 400 people Red Cross helps into employment each year through its Pathways to Employment programme.

Most of the La La Zar women never got the chance for a formal education in Afghanistan, but they are talented cooks, and are relishing the freedom of working for themselves. “In Afghanistan, you have to talk with the men. If they agree, it’s OK. If not, you give it up. Here, we do it ourselves. For some of us, this is the first time we’ve been able to make money on our own.”

If you’d like a platter of bolani (stuffed flatbread), pakora or sweet pastries from La La Zar for your next morning tea shout, work lunch or party, drop them a line at lalazar665@gmail.com.

Kanthasuvami Nallathamby, who fled ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, runs Roti Variety in Stokes Valley with his wife Giokilam

If you’re hankering for some Sri Lankan kothuroti or fish malabari, Stokes Valley may be more conveniently located than Colombo — lucky Hutt residents! Kanthasuvami Nallathamby was a chef in Sri Lanka, but had to flee ethnic violence. He spent six years in a refugee camp in Thailand with his family before arriving in New Zealand five years ago. It’s shocking that this makes him one of the lucky ones — the average time in refugee limbo is 17 years before an accredited refugee is resettled in a new home country.

He and his wife Giokilam now work six days a week cooking Sri Lankan and Indian food for their takeaway business, Roti Variety. They do four evenings in the shop, and then take their food caravan to the Hutt Riverbank Market on Saturdays and Johnsonville market on Sundays.

“It makes me happy,” he says. “I love to satisfy people through food and it’s even better if I can make a living out of it.”

Nallathamby is one of the contributors to a Red Cross cookbook, Taste of Cultures, which you can buy here. In it, he gives recipes for Sri Lankan fish rolls, roti canai and vegetable samosas, and here for your cooking pleasure, reprinted with kind permission, is his coconut sambal.

Kanthasuvami Nallathamby’s coconut sambal

COCONUT SAMBAL

From the kitchen of Kanthasuvami Nallathamby
Makes 10 servings

1 teaspoon dried red chillies, crushed
3-4 curry leaves, sautéed
1 small onion
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ cup warm water
2 cups fresh coconut, grated
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lime juice

Place the red chillies, curry leaves, onion, pepper and warm water in a blender and blend for 30 seconds or until smooth.

Remove the mixture from the blender, add the grated coconut, salt and lime juice. Mix by hand until the coconut is well coated.

Serve the freshly made coconut sambal with coconut roti or roti canai.

“It makes me happy,” says Kanthasuvami Nallathamby. “I love to satisfy people through food and it’s even better if I can make a living out of it.” (Photo: Red Cross/Taste of Cultures)

FOOD BUSINESSES OWNED OR STAFFED BY FORMER REFUGEES

Here are some ways to wrap your taste buds around fresh flavours, and support former refugees as they build new lives here.

Eating out

There will be tonnes of restaurants near you that are owned and staffed by recent migrants. Here are some where you can taste the cooking of former refugees, and show them a Kiwi welcome while you’re doing it.

Roti Variety restaurant (Lower Hutt)

Kanthasuvami and Giokilam Nallathamby’s Sri Lankan restaurant in Lower Hutt. You can read more of their story, and some great reviews, here.

HanSan Vietnamese restaurants and Sri Mahkota Malaysian restaurants (throughout Auckland)

There are seven of these Vietnamese and Malaysian restaurants throughout Auckland, owned by the Chin family, who settled in Aotearoa after fleeing the Indochina wars in the 1980s.

Monsoon Poon (Wellington and Auckland)

A regular participant in the Red Cross Pathways to Employment programme, Monsoon Poon specialises in Asian fusion food, and regularly employs former refugees.

You can hear a feature on Naing Naing Tun, who escaped Myanmar at the age of 14, and who was the first former refugee Monsoon Poon employed, on RNZ here.

The Shepherds’ Arms (Wellington)

One of the chefs at The Shepherds’ Arms, Thass, got his start through the Red Cross Pathways to Employment scheme. He was so impressive in the initial work experience period that he got permanent employment there.

Pomegranate Kitchen is a Wellington social enterprise staffed by people from refugee backgrounds (Photo: Supplied)

Catering businesses

If you’re after catering for any event, check out these providers. If you’re in the corporate world, pass their details on to whoever in the office usually books the caterers.

Pomegranate Kitchen (Wellington)

A social enterprise and registered charity, Pomegranate Kitchen is staffed by people from refugee backgrounds, bringing culinary skills from Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

They supply Middle Eastern food for morning teas, lunches, dinners or finger food, and deliver throughout Wellington.

You can hear some of their story here on RNZ.

The Wise Collective (Auckland)

The Wise Collective supports and educates women from refugee backgrounds to gain the skills and confidence to make income for their families.

One of the many businesses that has come out of their work is Wise Collective Catering. You can check out their menus here.

Momo Said (Christchurch)

Here’s the origin story of dumpling business Momo Said, according to its website:

“In 2015, a Nepalese mum and migrant saw a need within Bhutanese and Nepalese communities in New Zealand for employment and training opportunities.

Having listened to his mother’s concerns regarding her people, and seeing the need of support within the refugee and migrant communities, Shreejan Pandey listened to his mum’s ideas and did as she said.  In discussions with friends, community members, and mentors, he began to gather together investors, experienced momo makers, and a few keen volunteers and Momo Said was born – just as his mum had said.”

Dumplings made by former refugees! Available in a bunch of restaurants, or as catering packs and so on. You can read more of their story here.

La La Zar Catering (Palmerston North)

La La Zar is a catering business run by a collective of Afghan women. Contact them at lalazar665@gmail.com.

Cater Plus (nationwide)

Commercial catering company Cater Plus is a Pathways to Employment partner.

Pomegranate Kitchen brings together culinary skills from Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (Photo: Supplied)

Stocking up on sauces

Add a dash of homemade flavour to your meals at home with one of these products, made and sold by former refugees.

For a taste of Ethiopian home cooking, get hold of some Mamia’s sauce. There are some great recipes on their website, too.

You can also buy Momo Said’s secret sauce here.

Stocking up on everything else

Quite a few grocery stores have a commitment to employing people from a refugee background. Here are some, and if you know others, please let us know on Twitter or Facebook.

Commonsense Organics (Wellington and Auckland)

These five lovely grocery shops have a policy of employing a large number of people from refugee and migrant backgrounds.

New World Thorndon (Wellington)

Thorndon New World is a star of the Red Cross Pathways to Employment programme, training and employing people from a refugee background for many years.

If you’re in business (with food or anything else), you can join these employers in welcoming former refugees by signing up with the Red Cross.

Thorndon New World Manager Ashley Drake is a strong supporter of businesses investing in recently arrived New Zealanders. He says, “We are a nation built on immigration and need to encourage people to contribute to society, but need business to give them a hand up. By providing a positive local interaction, they can build a sense of belonging with their new communities.”


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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