• The food offered to homeless communities should have a cultural connection, too. (Murdoch Books)Source: Murdoch Books
Food is about more than filling your stomach. For many people, it’s the only connection to their family and culture.
Alana Schetzer

26 May 2020 - 12:35 PM  UPDATED 1 Jun 2020 - 4:24 PM

In times of uncertainty or trouble, many people turn to comfort foods. These dishes can be favourites from childhood that bring back a sense of comfort and wonder, or meals from cultural or religious holidays. But when someone doesn’t even have a secure roof over their head, access to comfort foods is almost impossible.

Yet a soul-stirring meal that offers more than just nutritional values or stomach-filling fuel could offer great benefits.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, founder and CEO of Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, says that it’s “critical” that vulnerable people have access to culturally appropriate foods.

“When you think about sharing a meal, you’re sharing part of your culture, part of your story, part of your home and [with] people who are already separated from home, family and their community, one of the last remnants they have left [that keeps] that connection to their country and their identity is food,” he says. “The ability to have access to culturally appropriate food is essential when it comes to a sense of self-esteem.”

Less than a third of Australians were born overseas, but in 2016 they made up nearly half of the homeless population (53,606 people), according to data from SBS and Vinnies. This research also shows that most people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds experiencing homelessness are relatively young: they range from 12 to 34 years old.

The Refugee Council of Australia states that asylum seekers and refugees are at high risk of homelessness because they often don’t speak English, have a limited legal right to work and are unlikely to have a safety net.

One study even found that young refugees were six to 10 times more likely to become homeless than young people born in Australia.

They are also at higher risk of not being able to access food, in part because of their traditional diets. The Australian Institute of Family Studies revealed that a lack of nutritious alternatives and a lack of nutritional education about locally available foods are largely responsible for this.

Jenny Smith, CEO of Council to Homeless Persons, says that mainstream food banks often try their best to provide those comforting meals, but due to their limited resources, it can be “really difficult”.

“The ability to have access to culturally appropriate food is essential when it comes to a sense of self-esteem.”

“Food banks and charities often rely on donations of whatever a supermarket or restaurant has too much of or is leftover, so they are not usually well placed to provide culturally appropriate foods that would make life so much richer and enjoyable.”

However, there are a handful of food banks, charities and soup vans that specialise in culturally appropriate food parcels and meals, including Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, StarHealth, The White Coats, Nourish, Whittlesea Food Collective and the multiple Sikh communities across Australia that create traditional meals.

Jim Mullen, CEO of food-rescue organisation SecondBite, says that regardless of someone's cultural background, a plate of memories has a positive effect that goes "beyond that value of the food itself".

“The sense of well-being generated by sitting down to a meal … delivers a warm recollection of your people and your past," he says. "It’s hugely important."

Mullen adds, “it has huge value in terms of community and connectivity. For Indigenous people and some of the migrant communities that have settled here, that has been a gap for them.”

Kate Colvin, policy manager for Council for Homeless Persons, says one of the biggest stresses that homeless people face is not being able to eat what they’re used to, or “getting that simple pleasure from eating something they enjoy”.

“One of the challenges that people face is that it’s much harder to have food choices; you have to make do with what’s available or the cheapest.”

Filthy Rich & Homeless premieres over three consecutive nights – June 9, 10 and 11 – on SBS at 8:30pm. The show will be available at SBS On Demand after the broadcast, including in subtitled Simplified Chinese and Arabic.

Join the conversation #FilthyRichHomeless

Comfort foods and cultural connections
Korean chicken soup

The comforts of chicken soup will never go unnoticed. 

Tofu, soba and greens miso soup

This soup is topped with nori seaweed, which is available from supermarkets and Asian grocers in the form of sheets and flakes. Try sprinkling it over salads and soups, or enjoy it on its own as a snack. 

Black bean soup (caldo de frijoles)

The smell of this takes me back to my mother’s house. This soup is the best thing on a cold winter night!

Venezuelan beef and vegetable soup (sancocho de costilla)

Looking for a one-pot, no fuss meal? The meat is so tender it falls off the bone in this hearty soup. Traditionally we would use ox tail in Venezuela, but I'm using beef short ribs.

Dhal with curry spices

Curries are a playground for spices. Here the chana dhal provides a neutral backdrop to let them play and sing to mellow perfection. 

Jollof rice (Senegalese ceebu jen)

Jollof rice, or ceebu jen as it's known in Senegal, is perhaps the best-known West African dish because it's delicious, colourful and easy to prepare. Think of it like an African paella. It uses "parboiled" rice, which has a different texture to regular white rice.

Taftan (flatbread)

Similar to Indian Naan, just lighter and flakier (and in my opinion yummier), taftan is a hearth-baked flatbread from Persia and Pakistan. It is often flavoured with saffron – as this one is – which gives it a striking golden hue and alluring flavour perfect to serve alongside curries and soups (although don’t discount just nibbling it on its own). 

Nan-e barbari

One of our most dramatic-looking breads is nan-e barbari, a 35 cm oblong. A defining characteristic of the barbari, apart from its shape, is that its surface is spread with roomal, a flour and water paste, before baking, which puts a layer of moisture directly on the bread. This ancient bread-baking technique isn’t seen much anymore, since steam ovens are common in bakeries. This recipe lets you create a bread with a great crust without having to introduce steam into the oven.

Nan-e babari makes a dramatic addition to any cheese plate. I especially like it served with feta, cucumbers and olives. 

Salted fish and peanut congee

This porridge-like dish of rice is popular in many Asian countries for breakfast and for dinner. Congee can be served plain as a side dish, or, as we’ve done here, served with meat to make a more substantial meal.

Matzo ball soup

Matzah, matzoh, matza - there are as many ways of spelling this New York classic as there are ways to cook it: several small balls versus one big ball; dense balls versus light and fluffy ones; vegetables in the broth versus broth only, and the list goes on. This recipe makes 12 medium-sized matzo balls that are light and fluffy, with some carrots and parsnips in the broth for sweetness. Many Jewish New Yorkers serve matzo ball soup at their seder dinner to mark the start of passover. The dish, however, is enjoyed year round at the city's Jewish delis.