• Sarah + her two young sons at an Eid celebration she co-hosted at not-for-profit food based social enterprise Free to Feed. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
As a child, Sarah Al-Neamah from Baghdad, Iraq, dreamed of bringing joy to people through her cooking. Today, she shares how that became reality.
Sarah Al-Neamah

13 Jul 2021 - 3:35 PM  UPDATED 21 Jul 2021 - 9:19 AM

In Iraq in the '90s, all the kids in our neighbourhood would spend the afternoon outside playing different games together. They'd chase each other, ride bikes and play hide and seek, but there was always one little girl collecting leaves and stuffing them with rocks, pretending she was making a 'dolma dish'. This little girl was me.

I also played with toys, but they were toy pans, pots and plates. I used to love playing with my older sister, imagining she was the guest and I was a chef cooking for her.

In my culture, eating food together is very important: We gather for large family lunches every Friday after our prayers, when we visit restaurants, they make you feel like you're visiting a friend's home, and in the evenings, the smell of Iraqi kebab tawa fills the streets, pouring out the open doors and windows as women start making dinner. Iraqi people love food. We love people and we love life.

Sarah loves making dolma and bread for her family.

My cooking instructor has always been my mum and she learnt to cook from her mother. Like all Iraqi mums, she would spend hours in the kitchen, preparing meals all day for our family. I always watched her, pretending to do the same, dreaming of becoming a chef.

I was 12 years old when I cooked my first real dish. My mum was in another city for work, and I remember saying to myself, "This is it, this is the day your dreams will come true." I told my father, "Today I will cook lunch for you." He was surprised because I am the youngest in my family and he was worried this meant there would be no lunch. I told him that I could do it and he trusted me.

I rolled up my sleeves, went into the kitchen, and decided to cook the hardest dish I knew, a dish of stuffed vegetables called mahshi. It takes a long time to prepare and an even longer time to cook. It's a dish we usually reserve for special days. I started to imagine my mum and how she would cook it. This helped me make it myself.

I remember collecting all the vegetables, including eggplant, zucchini, tomato and capsicum, and hollowing them out so I could fill them with rice, meat, pomegranate, parsley, mint and all kinds of spices.

It wasn't until I turned on the stove for the first time and started cooking the onion, that I started to really feel the excitement. I was finally cooking, all by myself. In the end, it was not perfect, but I made it and my father and siblings had their lunch after all. I was so proud. In that moment I felt like a chef, a real chef.

"I was finally cooking, all by myself."

I never gave up on my dream, even after I finished school and became a translator. When I first came to Australia in 2011, I didn't know anyone here so I spent most of my time in the kitchen, cooking dishes from my home country which made me love cooking even more.

Sarah with her family, co-hosting an Eid celebration for the Free to Feed community.

I finally became a certified chef in 2019, after completing my certificate 3 in commercial cooking. However, the dream didn't stop there because to me, dreaming is all about finding yourself, finding your goals and living a life that you don't regret.

If you have a dream, you must fight for it and have the courage to turn it into reality.

You can learn to cook Iraqi food with Sarah at social enterprise Free to Feed, which provides training, employment and professional development programs to asylum seekers and migrants in Melbourne. You can also follow all their food fun and the faces behind their program via their Instagram @freetofeedmelbourne

How Cabramatta provides familiarity and food for city councillor Dai Le
'Don't get in between Dai and food!' Fairfield City councillor Dai Le chats about her journey as a refugee, how Fairfield faired with lockdown, and the dishes and restaurants that bring her warmth all year round.
Nine ways to support our refugee friends through food
Welcoming and assisting our new friends can often be as simple as organising your next meal.
Refugees share the cuisine of their homelands at this new curry house in Sydney
The man behind food-focused social enterprise Parliament On King has a new eatery — Uma Curry & Roti. Its menu is worldly and cooked by refugees.
Sabich is an addictive Iraqi-Jewish breakfast sandwich
A pita filled with fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg, potato, salad and pickle, and slathered in hummus, tahini, amba and zhug. What's not to love?
This community garden is throwing an Iraqi dinner party like no other
There will be plenty of dinner party conversation starters over this shared meal.
Tips: Iraqi
These expert tips will help you achieve the perfect balance of flavours.
About Iraqi food
Iraqi culinary culture is largely defined through religion, with the majority of the population being Muslim. For the majority of Iraqis, pork is forbidden, as is alcohol. Religious ceremonies, such as Ramadan, also dictate many culinary traditions.