“Let’s Meet!”: Sri Lankan cuisine brings refugees and local community together

Refugees and Estonians are bonding over food this year at a series of interactive, ethnic food workshops.

Marya (from the left), Thangamalar and Siva sharing Sri Lankan flavours with the Estonians. © UNHCR/ Mirjam Matiisen

After a morning of chopping cabbage and onions, the group of culinary students await instructions from Marya—a Tamil refugee—who’s showing them the ropes of Sri Lankan food. Blinded in one eye after surviving a military bullet injury, Marya fled to Estonia eight years ago with her husband and two sons. Now, she works as a sous-chef in a Hilton hotel in Tallinn and shares her warm spirit and exotic spices with Estonians at “Let’s meet!” events.

Today, Marya shows the culinary students from the vocational training centre in Valga how to cook authentic Sri Lankan food. On the lunch menu is a lamb and vegetable curry, cabbage salad and the colourful manna desert called kesari, rounded off with a masala chai tea.

Marya starts by introducing the culinary students to chili leaves– a first for the chefs in training. “These are very, very spicy!” she warns, gesturing dramatically like her mouth were on fire to get her point across. The Estonian students laugh; many of them don’t speak English very well, but today, flavour is the common language.

In Soviet times, nobody ate dishes with chili. Few spices were imported to Estonia besides pepper, cinnamon, cloves and laurel, which is one reason why culinary students are fascinated by the immense variety of international spices. “The curry leaves are very interesting. They remind me a little bit of laurel,” one student says as she smells the fragrant dried herb from Egypt for the first time.

Estonians test their taste buds

Marya isn’t the only sous-chef sharing her heritage here. Her friends Siva and Thangamalar, a married refugee couple who came to Estonia two years ago, also work in restaurants in Tallinn. As Siva stirs the lamb curry in a huge pot, he explains why they fled the country: “My brother had problems with the Sri Lankan army. I don’t know where he is. Too many problems!”

Siva works in an Asian food chain called Chopsticks, balancing his time between restaurants. “Most Estonians like rice and chicken noodles, spring rolls and banana pancakes. But not chili! If the food is too spicy, they cry,” he laughs.

Marya asks the students to test the spices, giving them a spoonful of curry sauce to try. As expected, the spice is full on, although one student bravely says, “I like it, it’s nice!” with a flushed face.  The consensus is unanimous: no more chili in the curry sauce.

Estonian taste buds are put to test. © UNHCR/ Maris Sander


Struggles with finding a home

When they participated in the “Let’s meet!” event in Valga, the two Sri Lankan refugee families had been living together in the same apartment for four months. They couldn’t find an apartment for Siva, Thangamalar and their children in Tallinn. The problem is even more widespread – many quota refugees in Estonia can’t leave their refugee centers because of the same issue with apartment size.

“The refugees usually have big families, so they’re looking for more spacious rentals – already a difficult find in the real estate market,” explains Juhan Saharov, head of support services for refugees in Johannes Mihkelson Centre. “There’s also the language barrier issue, and negative prejudices towards refugees. The renters have high expectations for their new homes as well.”

“Everyone deserves love and well-being”

Over the course of a year and half, refugees and foreigners meet with the local community three times in each county, as part of the 45 “Let’s Meet!” events. The Sri Lankan sous-chef, Marya, is a keen participant in these integration rendezvouz, organized by Johannes Mihkelson Centre and Estonian Refugee Council to help overcome prejudices against refugees and foreigners. “When I cooked for 40 people in Rakvere, everybody really liked the food. They ate and talked about Sri Lanka, and we were very happy. I like it when people are interested in our culture and food!” she says.

Tuuli, a young Estonian vegan cook attending the workshop, likes that the refugees have a chance to share their culture. “It’s a very cool event. We can see that the refugees are talented and hard-working. Estonians often have prejudices towards refugees, because they think they take advantage of the system. I think there should be more events like this that help us understand each other, especially for children. It reminds us that everyone deserves love and well-being.”