The woman had only just arrived on the island from Syria when a man calling himself a Doctors Without Borders volunteer - more likely a reporter - shoved a camera in her face, recording without her permission, desperate to get footage of a refugee. Sobbing, she didn’t even have the strength to ask him to stop. But Eleni Christou did.
“I told him to go away; this woman needed privacy now more than ever. It was the middle of the night; she’d just brought her two young sons in a boat from Syria; she was exhausted. It wasn’t fair. He kept telling me he was a volunteer, but I knew he was a journalist.”
Eventually, Eleni managed to get rid of the persistent reporter, and it earned her a bond with the Syrian woman. “On the day she left to keep going through Europe, I met her at the ferry. She’d brought these biscuits with her - sort of the Arnott’s of Syria - and said, ‘I want you to have these, they’re my favourite biscuits from Syria. I don’t want you to think badly of my country, I don’t want you to think they’re tainted.’” It was the perfect metaphor for what Eleni was doing on the island in the first place - studying the power of everyday food.
When Eleni, the brains behind the Community Kouzina Project, landed on the small island of Kos, Greece - which measures just 40 km wide and has a population of around 30,000 - she had no idea she’d be touching down amidst one of the biggest refugee crises of the modern era. Syrians who had fled their homes in terror went to Kos, the tiny island paradise in the middle of the Mediterranean, en route to Europe. And while for some, this may have posed a problem - locals were already reticent about the strange Australian girl coming into their kitchens, so a refugee crisis might only heighten the issue - Eleni pitched in to help immediately - with food. “There was a grassroots group that set up even before the UN got there,” she says. “We would go down to the beach and hand out beautiful food, really comforting stuff like rice and beans, to these people who had just arrived in the middle of the night.”
The Kouzina Project - which is featuring in the Open Marrickville festival in Sydney, on now - is all about the power of food and cooking - a way for Eleni, who has a Masters in anthropology, to better figure out who we are. “I wanted to show real people in their kitchens, to demonstrate what we really eat and how we really cook.”
Images from the project are being shown in a free exhibition running until Sunday June 26 at the Chrissie Cotter Gallery.
Eleni, who was born in Cyprus and came to Australia with her parents when she was ten, came up with the idea for the project after travelling to her home country in 2015. “I was always really fascinated by the way food says so much about us. I grew up watching my Aunty cook. She was famous for so many recipes, and I started a blog a few years ago about learning them, and then learning other women’s, too.” Upon returning from her trip, Eleni heard about a grant being offered by her local council, in Sydney’s Marrickville, for community projects. “I thought, ‘What about food? What if I could do something similar to the blog? I thought it would be a great way to get to know more of my own culture and heritage.’” When she realised that one of Marrickville’s seven sister cities was Kos, everything started to come together.
The idea? Go into 15 people’s kitchens in both Kos and Marrickville, to see what they cook and how they do it. “A lot of people wondered why I wanted to watch them cook,” she says. “They thought it might be more interesting if I just came at the end and ate the food. But I think the way that we cook says a lot about our personalities and culture. Some people cook very messily, some are really clean. Some people follow recipes to the letter, some people change ingredients or techniques every single time.”
When she arrived on Kos, she didn’t know anyone. The local council helped put the word out that she was looking to interview people in their kitchens, but, she says, the idea was “very foreign.” “I had to keep assuring people that I wasn’t a cook or a reviewer - I wasn’t there to give their dish a score out of ten! All I want to know is what you cook and why. I want to know who taught you, why you cook with certain ingredients.”
As word began to spread, and the locals got a better understanding of the project, Eleni was inundated with offers. “Eventually, I was completely booked out. I met so many amazing people, and I am still so touched by the way they so willingly opened their homes to me.”
There was Maria, a 70-year-old (though Eleni can’t be exactly sure of her age) woman who rides her scooter to a small studio overlooking the sea each day, to work on the 30 loaves of bread she bakes for friends and family each month. She used to make more, says Eleni, but age has forced her to cut back. “The hut she works out of has no electricity or running water - she bakes the bread on a stone oven. She had very little, but made so much with what she had. Even the patterns in the bread - she did them with a razor blade and a hair comb.”
For Eleni, who grew up watching her beloved Aunty cook, food is often a vehicle for nostalgia. “The smells and textures of cooking of my Aunty’s kitchen come back to me all the time, and they’re so powerful. The way she made dolmades, the fruits she used in spoon sweets. In Kos, I met this lovely lady named Josephina who made spoon sweets for me with these incredibly sweet tomatoes. We sat down and as we ate them, she told me about her parents. She was wearing her late mother’s apron, and told me all about how her father was in the Italian army - they had a base in Kos - and he met her mother and they fell in love. Tragically, he died in a plane accident while Josephina’s mother was pregnant. Food is an amazing way for people to open up; it can take you in so many different directions. We were both in tears as she told me this very personal story that came about because we were sharing a meal.”
Back home in Marrickville, Eleni was conscious of featuring people from a variety of backgrounds. “We do have a big Greek population here, but I wanted to show more than that. And I didn’t want to play to the stereotype that Greek people only cook Greek food, or that Vietnamese people only cook Vietnamese food.” And while she never sets guidelines about what to cook, Eleni was pleasantly surprised to find that many of her subjects chose food from outside their own cultures, like the Greek woman from Marrickville who made a Vietnamese-style whole snapper, a dish she usually cooks for her family on Good Friday. “Like us,” says Eleni, “cuisine evolves. When we travel, our ideas and recipes move as well, and pick up different influences from the environment around us and the people we meet.” In Marrickville, she says, there’s a true cross-pollination of cultures and cuisines. “I think it’s great that we can all borrow from each other and evolve. Food is one of the first ways we show how accepting we are of people. It’s very powerful. In that way.”
And while Eleni went into 30 separate kitchens for her project, so far, nobody has seen her cook for her website (she prefers to be behind the camera, rather than in front of it). So what would she make, if the tables were turned? She muses on the question for a second, before replying, “Probably something my aunty taught me, like fakes moutjentra. It’s a Cyprian lentil dish with rice, lentils, bay leaves and caramelised onion. It’s very popular in Cyprus, and it’s a kind of perfect because it’s not quite Turkish and it’s not quite Greek. It really represents that whole ‘melting pot’ thing that’s so cool about food.”