Zainab Alradhee paces among the counter, sink and stove in her kitchen in West Buechel.
Along with curried chicken and baba ghanoush, she’s making a Mediterranean treat called Kibbeh. About the size and shape of a golf ball, the deep fried dish is made of ground beef, onions, walnuts and wheat. Alradhee says the Kibbeh doesn’t have to be perfectly round, but she does warn it must be in a good shape: “Because if it’s not good, it will open wide while you’re frying it.”
Cooking is one of Alradhee’s favorite hobbies. Besides feeding her family, food is a connection to home. Five years ago, Alradhee, her husband and two children left Baghdad, resettling as refugees in Kentucky. She says they left because their lives were in danger in Iraq.
“And the threats we received [were] because we worked and cooperate with U.S. Army and U.S. organization,” she says.
When adjusting to a new culture, comfort food is a way for immigrants and refugees to feel at home. The kitchen becomes an emblematic place where they can reconnect to their roots. And as Alradhee and her family have built a life in Louisville, they’ve found a community of people from around the world who like to eat.
She chops, mixes and fries with her friend Aimee Zaring, who used to teach English at Kentucky Refugee Ministries. Zaring remembers occasionally, there would be potlucks where students would share native dishes.
“And in that experience, seeing refugees come together around food, I could really see food serving as a universal language,” says Zaring. “And all those ways we weren’t able to unite in the classroom, we were able to unite around food.”
Zaring started gathering those recipes into a book: Flavors From Home: Refugees in Kentucky Share Their Stories and Comfort Food.
Alradhee’s recipe for Kibbeh isn’t in the book, but her chicken biryani is. In all, about 13 cuisines of the Bluegrass refugee population are represented in the book, including Bosnian, Cuban and Somali.
Zaring says there’s a cuisine she found in the commonwealth that surprised her.
“Definitely Burmese,” she says. “There is a flavor profile in Burmese cuisine that I have never experienced before. There’s a little bit of bitterness, saltiness, sometimes even sweetness kinda all combined, and it’s just this crazy circus in your mouth when you try some of their foods.”
Overall, Alradhee says she feels welcome in the U.S. But when she first arrived, some of her neighbors didn’t appreciate her hobby.
“Once I was surprised with the police people knocking on my door,” she says. “And they said some neighbors called and said ‘you are cooking drugs’ or something. Ok, if you consider the biryani drugs, come on and taste it — this is my drugs.”
Zaring says some in Louisville’s refugee community are teaching others about their culture through food. She says her cookbook has taken on a new relevance in recent months.
“With all the recent politics, I think it’s kind of had a resurgence,” says Zaring. “And people are wanting to know more about refugees and what they have to offer. So, I was very glad to see that, that people want to use this book to open dialogue. And that’s what I think this book does. It’s kind of a foot in the door to have future conversations. And that’s a nice entry point that food provides.”
As for Alradhee, she is taking her citizenship test on Friday. Her older children were born in Iraq, but 1-year-old Yousif was born in the U.S.
“I feel like my roots are here now because I have American baby,” she says.
Alradhee finishes preparing dinner just as her kids and husband come home. Far away from the threats she received in Iraq, her new home offers her a host of opportunities.
“Everyone who tried my food said, ‘why you don’t have an Iraqi restaurant,’” says Alrahdee.