• Left to right: Judy, Vince and Victoria. (Matt Newton)
Liberian refugee Judy Cole says cooking was a happy place for her during the nine years spent at a Guinea camp.
By
Camellia Ling Aebischer

9 Sep 2019 - 4:00 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2019 - 2:25 PM

One ordinary evening in 2004 Judy Cole was met with the surprise of her life.

Cole fled Liberia in 1993, and after spending nine years in a refugee camp in Guinea, estranged from any family, she settled in Tasmania.

Cole had joined a church, and made a group of friends. Life was ticking along well and she was comfortable. “I had lived here for two years and there were no Liberians,” she tells SBS Food.

So when she received a phone call that evening from a friend saying a new family from Liberia had just arrived, she obliged and went along to meet them.

“I said ‘wow are you sure they are Liberian?’ and he said ‘yeah they are’. So they came to pick us up and took us to the family.

“When the door opened and I saw my [cousin] I just started screaming and we both started crying. We couldn’t even talk we were just so happy crying.

Liberian home cook Victoria Zinnah and her daughter Sameria celebrate serving spicy Liberian meat skewers at the Flavour Swap community feast at Mona.

“My oldest daughter said ‘mummy what’s happening?’ I said ‘this is my family’.

“I spent the whole night there I was so happy.”

“When the door opened and I saw my [cousin] I just started screaming and we both started crying. We couldn’t even talk we were just so happy crying."

Cole’s children had never met her cousin Victoria Zinnah as they were separated as teenagers in Liberia. Zinnah had fled to a camp in Ghana and by complete chance, was sent to Tasmania to settle 11 years later.

“You don’t know where you’re going to be, America, Canada, Australia. We had no choices, you just end up there,” Cole explains.

As teenagers in Liberia Cole and Zinnah would cook together, helping all the women in the community prepare traditional meals like fufu, cornbread, cassava leaves and different soups or stews. During her long tenure in the Guinean camp, Cole says cooking was a happy place for her among the sickness and trouble.

She quickly became known for her skill in the kitchen and would offer to cater for any event, whether it was a birthday, wedding, or cultural celebration.

Bowls of freshly cooked cassava are ready to be taken to the table at the Flavour Swap community feast at Mona.

“I said I didn’t mind cooking for everyone because that was my happy place. I would cook for the celebrations, for marriages, birthdays, etc. all my friends knew me for that.

“They’d say why do you like it? And I’d say it helps me a lot – it takes my mind away from the negative space so I’d volunteer myself.

“If I wasn’t cooking when I was in the camp I wouldn’t know who I am today,” she says.

Cole’s journey from Liberia to the camp in Guinea was remarkable, as she made the almost six-month journey mostly on foot.

“It took a long time to get there and there was a lot of tragedy and death. You have to hide yourself. It was a hard life. But you know what, with all that, I came out of the other side happy."

“It took a long time to get there and there was a lot of tragedy and death. You have to hide yourself. It was a hard life. But you know what, with all that, I came out of the other side happy. There is a reason why I went through that and it makes me a better person. I can now appreciate every single person on this planet,” she says.

Now on the other side of the world, Cole and Zinnah cook together once again, which Cole says allows them to feel connected to their Liberian culture.

“We cook together all the time. Sometimes we go to her place or she comes here. [It] helps us to connect us to Liberia.”

Judy's firey chilli sauce
Judy’s extra hot Liberian chilli sauce

Liberian home cook Judy Cole says this volcanic chilli sauce, "will take you to Africa and back again!".

Every now and again the opportunity comes up for Cole and Zinnah to share their Liberian roots with others. Recently the pair cooked for Vince Trim, executive chef at Mona in Tasmania, in a short documentary titled Flavour Swap. They welcomed him into their homes and were able to showcase the flavours of their Liberian cuisine with Trim (including Cole's firey chilli sauce recipe), who then interpreted the Cole and Zinnah’s cooking into a set of upscale dishes for Mona.

Cole believes landing in Tasmania was meant to be, and now enjoys a colourful life with her family in Hobart.

“I love it girl, I’ve been here 17 years,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of Africans but [all kinds of people] live here and it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s just where the lord sent me. There’s a reason he sent me.”

Flavour Swap will show on Sunday 15 September during the SBS Short Film Festival which runs from Friday 13 September until Sunday 15 September at SBS On Demand.

COOK ALONG WITH FLAVOUR SWAP
Spice-crusted fish with oxtail, prawn and cassava

This multi-component dish is perfect for when you feel like getting experimental in the kitchen with flavours, and need a meal that will seriously impress. 

Liberian cassava leaf and meat

A one-pot wonder, this key to this flavourful stew is a homemade African seasoning. 

Judy’s extra hot Liberian chilli sauce

Liberian home cook Judy Cole says this volcanic chilli sauce, "will take you to Africa and back again!".

Cassava taco with seared wallaby

Cassava is a nutty-tasting root vegetable that is high starchy, making it easy to transform into unique taco wraps. In this recipe, they're filled with seared wallaby, spiced butter, and a punchy green salsa.

Corn and fufu fritters

These fritters are just what a fritter should be: crisp and golden on the outside, fluffy and light on the inside. They're perfect served with this green chilli, green tomato and coriander salsa.