Food. At its core, it is a source of life. A necessity. We cannot survive without it.
But food is much more. Food feeds the soul. It is a reflection of our culture and who we are. It is an integral part of our histories, our traditions, our celebrations.
For refugees and immigrants feeling their way in a new country, food becomes even more important. It is a precious link to the past. A way to feel at home in a place that is not home.
This multimedia project, produced by University of Nebraska-Lincoln students in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications Mosaic course, examines the importance of food in the lives of new Americans in Nebraska.
Growing up, Amina Mejdoubi (shown above) used to think she was born in the wrong country. She became fascinated with American culture as a high school student living in Morocco, where she was born and raised. Her dream of living in America came true when she arrived in Wayne, Nebraska, as a 20-year-old college student.
The more time she spent in America, though, the more she grew to appreciate her home culture. But since there was no Moroccan community in Wayne, she had to make her own cultural oasis, which she usually did by making couscous and other comfort foods.
“The smell of food … creates my own culture in my house,” she said. “Then I get outside and see an American flag and (I realize) I’m still here. It smells like couscous, but you are still in Nebraska.”
Her favorite meal is rfissa, a Moroccan lentil and chicken dish that can easily take a day or even a weekend to prepare. Her mother would make it for her whenever she was sick, but Mejdoubi found herself drawn to the dish whenever she started missing home.
“Every time I didn’t feel good, my mom made rfissa because it has a lot of spices,” she said. “It’s literally a comfort food for me. It makes me feel like everything is gonna be OK if I’m homesick.”
Mejdoubi’s story is one often heard among immigrant and refugee populations. Food is a universal way to preserve traditions and bridge cultures, said Pablo Bose, director of global regional studies at the University of Vermont.
One of the reasons for this is food-related traditions are often easier to pass on to another generation than other cultural practices like language, said Bose, who studies international cultures.
Refugee and immigrant populations sometimes find it challenging to get familiar foods, but ethnic grocery stores, restaurants and festivals all provide cultural connections for them.
Specialized grocery stores are an important lifeline to home countries, said Mary Willis, a nutrition professor and anthropologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“In Lincoln, you have grocery stores with specialized food items, with owners who are from the Middle East, Africa (and) Vietnam,” she said. “Different populations try to access food they know best, and that’s one way they try to maintain home.”
Kumar Gurung, a Bhutanese refugee, doesn’t miss his home country’s foods because he brings them to America through his ethnic grocery store in Omaha, Gurung Brothers Retails. He said his family often makes ethnic foods with ingredients from his store.
“We cook rice, vegetables — our favorite is potato — cauliflower, greens, beans, lentils,” he said. “Everything has to be spicy … For me and my family, we have everything that we need in my store.”
The store imports foods from Nepal, India, China, Vietnam and Thailand. Gurung said his business is successful because it carries many foods refugees and immigrants had in their home country, which helps them feel more comfortable in America.
“Food is the main factor that (determines) how people feel,” he said. “If I don’t find what I (want) to eat then I’ll feel very awkward and uncomfortable, and I won’t feel at home in that place.”
Ethnic restaurants provide another portal to home countries. International Cafe, an African restaurant in Omaha, also serves as a cultural center for African communities.
International Cafe was the first African restaurant of any kind in Omaha when it opened in 2004. While there are many other African restaurants in the area now, the cafe is still valued by its customers. South Sudanese community members meet every day to converse and eat injera, a type of flatbread the cafe is most known for.
Nurye Muhe, the son of owner Ahmed Muhe and an employee at International Cafe, said he eats injera a lot more now than when he was in Ethiopia. He was resettled in America in 2008.
“Right now, I eat injera twice a day,” he said. “That way I feel that I’m home.”
The South Sudanese community also sometimes has events in the restaurant. Cultural events are very important in refugee communities, especially for bridging generations, Karen refugee Lotplar Laywah said. A generational gulf can grow as younger age groups adapt faster to American culture, but food is one way to keep people connected.
“When we have a big festival, we all come together … killing the livestock and then cutting it up and we just share with everybody,” he said. “That brings a lot of people (together) and that would definitely be a bridge between everybody in the community.”
Events not only bring together different age groups, but different cultures. Gurung often invites his American friends to Bhutanese festivals and holidays, which is usually their first encounter with Bhutanese foods. This is important to him because Americans have less opportunities to connect with minority cultures than immigrants and refugees do, he said.
“When we know each other’s food, we also know each other,” he said. “Food has played a very, very vital role in unifying and bringing people together.”
Cross-cultural connections are also important for younger and increasingly diverse populations. Mejdoubi teaches an English Second Language (ESL) class at Northwest High School in Omaha that includes students from Afghanistan, Mexico, Russia, Thailand and Syria. She uses food to bring her students together.
One food-related activity Mejdoubi started last year was inspired by a story called “Freaky Food” in the curriculum. Part of a “Global Village” unit, the story teaches students about delicacies worldwide. To bring the lesson to life, Mejdoubi encouraged students to offer their own cultures’ foods to the class. This year, she cooked and shared Moroccan foods like cow stomach and tagine.
Mejdoubi said sharing food is a way for students to stay true to their home countries and connect with others in a way that transcends differences. And on a personal level, food reminds her of childhood memories like making food with her family.
“Food is a non-verbal language because it tells stories,” she said. “When I think about food … I remember (my) mom, grandma, sisters, everyone around making it and enjoying it.
“When I’m here, I’m trying to recreate that (experience) in a way by sharing it with other people and making my own stories through my own food.”
If your favorite recipes call for things like intestines or pig ears, you probably won’t be able to find what you need at Wal-Mart, Hy-Vee or Super Saver.
This is the case among many of the ethnic communities in Nebraska. So ethnic stores and restaurants have formed successful business models based on meeting that demand and serving niche markets.
“We might be the only store in town that has a special section just of Peruvian products,” said Jade Lobo, whose father owns Lobo’s City Mex, a Hispanic convenience store in Lincoln. “People come here just for that.”
Of course, starting a business is never easy, but it’s especially hard for refugees and immigrants who often come into the United States with little money.
But many refugees and immigrants bring with them a knack for business and a desire to succeed that’s withstood far more difficult circumstances.
Tuy Tran and Van Thai, refugees from Vietnam, opened Hong Kong Market in Lincoln in 2004 to bring Asian refugees and immigrants a piece of home.
“I wouldn’t say American food is bad or anything; it’s just that they’re not used to it,” said Angel Tran, Tuy Tran and Thai’s daughter. “And this is the food and this is the culture that they were raised into.”
Some of the market’s most popular items are fresh-cooked meats that are well liked in Asian culture, Angel Tran said. The roast duck and roast pork are especially popular at Thanksgiving.
“People don’t cook turkeys in Asian houses,” she said. “When they get home, they just want a duck, or they just want a roast pork.”
The market sells more fresh-cooked food than other Asian grocery stores in town, which helps it compete with them, according to Angel Tran.
The couple also have Chinese heritage, and the inventory at Hong Kong is a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese products, Angel Tran said. That also helps the market stand out among stores that are otherwise very similar, such as Little Saigon Oriental Market, which markets mainly to Lincoln’s Vietnamese population.
Danny Hui, whose mother, Thuy Hui, owns Little Saigon, said serving refugees and immigrants food from their home countries helps them retain some of their culture in this foreign land.
“I guess it’s an expression of a person, where they came from, what culture they’re from,” he said.
Vegetables native to Asia are especially popular at the market, according to Danny Hui.
“Most American stores only carry the vegetables that are popular,” he said. “We try to carry the ones that people are just looking for but can’t find at the American stores.”
The market is also known for selling meats that are important in many international cuisines, such as goat and whole fish.
Catering to the Vietnamese differentiates Little Saigon from at least some of the other Asian grocery stores, many of which are within walking distance of the market, because Vietnamese food is unique among Asian cuisines.
“Vietnam’s kind of different,” he said. “We were influenced by the French and then the Chinese too.”
At Lobo’s City Mex, the Hispanic convenience store, fresh produce is confined to a small, barely noticeable corner. But it’s very popular among the customers, according to owner Ben Lobo, a Honduran immigrant.
Many vegetables native to Latin America can be found easily at American grocery stores. But the vegetables at Lobo’s are higher-quality, said Lobo’s daughter, Jade Lobo.
“Like for example, if you go to Hy-Vee, their avocados are always really hard and really small,” she said. “I don’t know where they get them; I don’t think that they’re from Mexico. But we get really good quality stuff.”
Lobo’s attracts many non-Hispanic people, so much so that Hispanics are no longer a majority of the customers, Jane Lobo said. That started in the Great Recession, when many people, regardless of ethnicity, came to the store because of its low prices and variety of products.
“He tries to incorporate something for everybody, so that way, everybody has a reason to come here,” she said.
One of the groups Lobo’s caters to is Lincoln’s Peruvian population, which numbered 211, or 0.1 percent of the city’s population, as of the 2010 U.S. census.
“We have all the stuff they need, all their basics,” she said. “And it’s authentic from brands they know.”
A geographic look at some of Lincoln’s ethnic grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants (StoryMap by Riley Bowden):
But before ethnic restaurants and grocery stores can find their niche or specialization, their owners have to find funding. And that can be difficult for refugees and immigrants who grew up in extreme poverty.
Before she came to the U.S. as a teenage refugee during the Vietnam War, Thuy Hui, the owner of Little Saigon, lived in a small hut with her entire family of 12, the poorest family in the village, according to son Danny Hui.
When she decided to open a store in Lincoln, none of her siblings had enough money to give her a loan. So Thuy Hui lived frugally for about six years to save up the $75,000 she needed.
“When I was growing up, we were just eating rice and soy sauce,” Danny Hui said.
Thuy Hui finally opened Little Saigon about 25 years ago at the corner of 27th and Vine streets. Danny Hui said it was a small store with a leaky roof.
“Every time it rained, we’d have to have trash cans out in every aisle,” he said.
But refugees and immigrants are often well equipped to handle these challenges.
In the United States, immigrants and refugees are more likely to be self-employed than native-born Americans, according to the 2006 edition of “Immigrant America,” by sociologists Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut.
The authors compared the rates of self-employment among the foreign-born and native-born, as recorded by the 2000 U.S. census. For every one thousand employed people, 96.96 foreign-born people were self-employed, while 93.4 native-born Americans were self-employed. The U.S. census no longer counts all self-employed people as one group, so these are the most recent data available.
Many newcomers to the U.S. owned businesses in their home countries, according to Portes and Rumbaut, so they bring a wealth of experience with them.
Angel Tran of Hong Kong Market said her family has been in the retail business for generations. And her parents owned a store in Louisiana before moving to Lincoln.
“In Asian cultures, in general, you just work with your family business,” she said.
Other refugees and immigrants don’t have much business experience. But their past difficulties turned them into entrepreneurs.
From the age of 6, Thuy Hui did whatever she could to make money for her family, according to Danny Hui. Every day, she combed the beach for seashells, snails, clams or whatever else she could find and took them to the market, he said.
“So that’s where she gets her selling ambition from.”
From the outside, Hong Kong Market, housed in an unassuming brown brick building on the corner of 27th and Dudley streets in Lincoln, may not catch your eye.
But step inside the store owned by Vietnamese refugees Van Thai and Tuy Tran and you’ll be treated to an explosion of color. Neon green kaffir limes. Plump pink pomegranates. Silver-scaled fish. And a kaleidoscope of a candy aisle capped off with a bubble gum machine.
The people here are also much more than they may appear. That the market exists is a testament the lasting endurance of the American dream, considering the hardships that Thai and Tran overcame to open it — corrupt refugee camps, arduous sea voyages and a hurricane that destroyed their first store in Louisiana.
Yet through it all, one goal pushed them forward: to share a little taste of home with their new country.
And share they have. Their customers include people from many nationalities who shop the market’s colorful aisles to find their own little taste of home.
“My favorite thing about our store and growing up here is just that there’s lots of exposure to different types of people,” said Angel Tran, the couple’s 21-year-old daughter. “It really brings people together from all over the community to come in and shop with us and talk with us. And they become like family to us. We really love them.”
When the family first moved to Lincoln from Louisiana in the 1980s, ethnic-food markets were rare, but there was high demand from an ever-increasing immigrant population for authentic cultural cuisine.
“Back then (in Louisiana) there were more Vietnamese customers, but it’s pretty international now,” Angel Tran said. “Chinese people and Middle Eastern people like our shop because we have the kinds of produce and vegetables that they can only find here.”
Hong Kong Market’s fresh imported produce is a major selling point since most tropical plants can’t be found or grown natively in the Midwest.
“Most of our imported produce is flown in from Mexico and South America where the climate is warmer and wetter,” Angel Tran said. “We get a lot of business from Hispanic people, too, who like to buy things like our papaya, mangoes and guava.”
As she spoke, Angel Tran pointed out some of the produce popular with customers but unfamiliar to many Lincoln residents.
She grabbed a head of water spinach and gently shook the dew off its long, thin leaves. She explained that it only grows in narrow regions near the equator, but makes a tasty snack when chopped up and stir-fried in garlic.
She gestured to a nearby pile of shiny orange pomelos, a type of Asian grapefruit now at the height of its growing season.
She then held up a large bag of longan berries, and laughed as she described how the little fruits were so named in Traditional Chinese for how they resemble dragon eyes when you peel away their shells.
Another major draw for the store is Tuy Tran’s home-cooked, authentic Asian meals. Some nights she stays up late making pho soup, kimchi or pickled peppers to package up into individual servings for sale the next morning. Her tasty to-go treats prove especially popular with the lunch-break crowd who work nearby and want a quick taste of home.
Tuy Tran even offers free cooking lessons to anyone who wants to learn to make the dishes. She said she’s just excited to be able to share her culture with others.
Celebrating diversity, in both people and products, has always been important to the Tuy Tran and Thai as a family of immigrants. Thai, 47, fled Vietnam alone when he was only nine years old to escape the ongoing conflict between North and South. His parents sent him off first with his safety in mind, not knowing that it would be more than a decade before they would find each other again in their new homeland.
Thai’s journey took him four years to complete. But with the help of kind-hearted strangers and fellow refugees, he was able to survive the violence of life in a war zone, near-starvation and even a shipwreck to finally safely reach the United States at age 12.
“There was a time when their boats were robbed.” Angel Tran said, translating for her father who told his story in Vietnamese. “My father’s boat had sunk and he was floating about in the ocean alone for almost a week on scraps of wood from the boat.”
Tuy Tran, 43, was able to go through immigration with her family when she was 18, but both of Angel’s parents spent time stationed at make-shift refugee settlements in Malaysia and Thailand before being allowed to continue on their way to America.
How much time exactly that refugees spent in the camps was dependent on how much money they had. Refugees were forced to remain at the camps and work until they could afford to bribe the guards into releasing them.
“As long as you have the money you can continue your journey,” Angel Tran said. “If you don’t have the money then you can’t continue your journey and you had to stay at the camps for the time being until you could work and collect enough to get by.”
Once Tuy Tran and Thai were settled in the United States, they were able to dedicate their lives to something more than simple survival. But while they were glad to leave behind the struggles of life in Vietnam, they were saddened to leave their familiar culture, traditions and ways of life.
That’s why they decided to share their little taste of home by opening their Asian market in their new country.
The first incarnation of Hong Kong Market, Inc., opened more than 20 years ago in Louisiana in 1996. Back then, the original store was about half the size and not as well stocked as their current location in Lincoln, but Angel Tran said it still served its purpose in bringing the community together. Tragedy struck in 2002, however, when Hurricane Lili devastated the Louisiana coastline, leveling their home and business and making the family refugees for a second time.
This time, the family sought refuge in Nebraska with Tuy Tran’s parents. With a little help from the family to get back on their feet, the couple was able to reopen the store just two years later in 2004 at its much larger current location on 27th Street.
And since the affordability and efficiency of international shipping has improved over the years, so has the quality and quantity of their products.
“It’s a lot easier to get things back and forth around the world now than it was back then when all you had was a telephone and a fax machine,” said Angel Tran.
Even for all the colorful reasons to step inside, she acknowledges that the idea of trying to navigate the unfamiliar aisles of Hong Kong Market alone for the first time might seem overwhelming to some potential customers. But she wants to assure those people that she and her family are always happy to answer questions, make suggestions and see new faces in their store. And, in fact, they’d love nothing more.
“One of our biggest goals right now is just bringing more people in,” she said. “We really want to have even more diverse people to come in here and shop with us.”
Farming is second nature to Waheed Alam. The 36-year-old from Mansehra, Pakistan, grew sweet corn, turnips, spinach, cucumbers and chilies in his village.
Agricultural land was scarce because his village rested on the slopes of nearby mountain ranges, so Alam began researching the types of crops grown in Colorado, which shares a similar climate. Alam wanted to use the research to help increase the income coming into his village.
“I transferred people from traditional crops to green peas, potatoes and tomatoes,” he said. “Within four years, 70 to 80 percent of my village was transformed.”
Now, Alam, coordinator of the Refugee Education and Employment Program at Lutheran Family Services in Omaha, is using those same agricultural skills to help refugees in Omaha adapt to their new homes.
In January 2016, with help from Habitat for Humanity, Alam secured a vacant plot of land at 4546 N. 65th St. for three to four Burmese families to use as a garden.
Community gardens like Alam’s are cropping up all over the United States to provide refugees with a little taste of home. Many refugees, particularly those who are new to the U.S., live in rental housing and don’t have land to garden.
In Lincoln, 125 of the 300 families served by Community Crops are refugees or immigrants, said executive director Ben McShane-Jewell.
“Typically, there are 25 countries represented in our garden program. The most recent refugees that we’ve served came from Burma and communities outside of Iraq, but we’ve also served refugees and immigrants from Nigeria, Cambodia, South Sudan and Latin America.”
Community Crops started in 2003 with one community garden at 23rd and P streets in Lincoln and has grown to 12 garden sites and a six-acre farm to teach gardeners how to become farmers. The nonprofit also offers cooking education classes, a youth garden and a farmers market stand, McShane-Jewell said.
“A lot of refugees in our community come from agricultural backgrounds,” he said. “Our goal is to get people into the program and transition them into a larger scale production system.”
Community gardens offer refugees and immigrants many benefits — from cheaper produce to a sense of independence.
Khudidah Maleko, a 42-year-old Yazidi refugee from Iraq, uses a garden plot from Community Crops to grow food for his family of five. Even though most of the vegetables Maleko grows can be found at the grocery store, he prefers growing food in his garden because of the nutritional value and taste.
“Me and my wife worked more than 20 years on a farm,” he said. “In our country our vegetables are grown organically, and we are familiar with that flavor. Vegetables here are not in season and don’t taste the same.”
Alam wanted to garden for the lower cost and the ability to become independent. He recalled an eye-opening trip to the local Wal-Mart with his host family in 2009.
“I started grabbing red bell peppers, four or five cucumbers and I came to the register,” he said. “The lady started scanning each vegetable and I watched the price go up. I thought these are so expensive over here.”
In Pakistan, the price of vegetables or fruit is charged by the bunch or pound. Alam was shocked to find that the price listed on the tag for vegetables in Wal-Mart was per vegetable, he said.
He asked his host family if he could grow a garden and they agreed. He grew okra, potatoes, carrots and green beans during the first year.
In the second year, he expanded the garden and added a chicken coop. Soon, the garden was fully organic and self-sustaining. He used chicken droppings to fertilize the soil, and after the harvest, fed the chickens leftover vegetables.
Most importantly, though, the small piece of land reminded Alam of home.
“My first Ramadan in the U.S. I picked fresh green beans from the garden,” he said. “It made me feel at home, like I was still living back in my village.”
After moving out of his host family’s home, he began looking for ways he could provide this same experience to refugees within the Omaha area.
While working as a housing director at Lutheran Family Services in 2014, Alam noticed that Burmese families had planted ethnic spices in flower pots outside of their apartment.
“Some brought indigenous seed to grow crops they wanted from their homeland,” he said. “Gardening provides food security, and it’s good they feel a sense of belonging over here.”
The ultimate goals of the Omaha and Lincoln programs are to provide a space where refugees and immigrants can form a sense of belonging within the community and use their agricultural backgrounds to become independent.
But there are other benefits as well, Alam noted.
“It’s good for refugees to be visible outside,” he said. “People will see them and interact. It will help them gain acceptance and assimilate into this culture.”
Everyone has a story about food, whether it narrates details about a favorite meal, recounts a cherished family memory or describes the first taste of a new dish. We asked several new Americans to share their personal reflections about what food means to them.
By Jordan Huesers
Moo Paw Lah, 42, distinctively remembers the smell of chicken curry that filled her childhood home in Myanmar (Burma).
If the food smelled delicious, she knew her father was cooking. Cooking came so naturally to him, she said. He knew exactly which spices to use and how much.
“My mother was not a good cook,” Paw Lah said, laughing.
Her father grew up close to the city, which meant he was exposed to a variety of different rices, vegetables and different cuisines. Her mother, on the other hand, grew up in a village, which limited her exposure to the different foods.
Paw Lah said she takes after her mother when it comes to cooking.
When Paw Lah met her husband, they moved to Thailand for 25 years before deciding to become refugees and move to America.
“I came here because I would like to improve my life and for my kids,” she said.
Her children, ages 10, 14 and 17, attend school in Lincoln and are now able to pursue higher educations.
Paw Lah devotes her life to taking care of her children, husband and parents. She said it’s the most important thing she could do.
She cares for her family just as her mother took care of her.
Paw Lah misses the summer hikes in the mountains in Burma she took with her mother and father. They would hunt for fresh vegetables to cook.
And she said she will never forget the beautiful skylines found in the cities of Thailand.
But living in America is a choice she will never regret.
“Here we have everything we want,” she said. “It’s better than my other countries.”
By Riley Bowden
It took Hussain Al-Musawi half a lifetime in Iraq, four years in Saudi Arabia and another six years in Nebraska before he could open Sinbad’s Restaurant in Lincoln, but he always knew it would happen.
Al-Musawi, a refugee of the first Gulf War, arrived in Nebraska in 1994 after he fled violence in Iraq and spent four years in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, food was the family business.
“I was working here (in Lincoln), and I kept money, kept money and I opened my business,” he said. “Because I was cooking in Iraq, this is my family job.”
Al-Musawi said he didn’t come to America with a lot of money. He worked a variety of jobs to save up for his restaurant – some involved cooking, some didn’t.
When he had saved enough, Al-Musawi decided on a location at 2630 Orchard St. and opened in 2000. Sinbad’s Restaurant, just off 27th Street, is one of many traditional ethnic restaurants in the area.
“I like the job; it’s fun,” he said. “It’s a really good job, and I opened because this is my job. I know what I do.”
Al-Musawi got to cooking traditional Iraqi and Mediterranean dishes and soon built a customer base. He often sees international students, neighborhood regulars and a diverse lunch and dinner crowd. While it isn’t out of the ordinary to hear conversations in Arabic at Sinbad’s, Al-Musawi said 90 percent of his clientele is white.
“They come in and eat because they like the food they try,” he said.
Every meal at Sinbad’s is accompanied by a free cup of Iraqi tea. Food and friendly conversation are central to the success of Sinbad’s.
“It is part of our culture,” he said. “When we have guests, we feed them.”
By Jeff Chesnut
Growing up in a country with the highest mountain on earth, Mount Everest, you might think that cuisine in Namrata Sapkota’s native Nepal would be warm comfort foods.
While the food is certainly comforting, wintry weather is not common. Sapkota hadn’t ever seen the white stuff until she arrived in Omaha.
“Chitwan, Nepal, is like California; we have palm trees, not blizzards like many believe Nepal consists of,” said Sapkota, a caseworker at the Refugee Empowerment Center who also serves as the arts and entrepreneurship coordinator.
The food Sapkota misses most is momo dumplings, which are made with ground chicken or goat and Indian spices, she said.
While Sapkota said the ingredients for making the dumplings can be found in Omaha, the result just isn’t the same — it’s not as authentic or fresh.
Sapkota has learned to love food in her adopted homeland. Her favorites — Mexican food and Alfredo pasta — are unknown in Nepal.
By Michaela Odens
Khanh Nguyen was only 24 when she opened her Vietnamese restaurant Pho Factory in Lincoln four years ago.
“I knew that I wanted to own my own business some day,” she said. “I didn’t know what it was going to be until I saw an opportunity to open a Vietnamese restaurant in town.”
But it makes sense that her first venture was a restaurant.
“Food is life to me,” said Nguyen, who was born to immigrant and refugee parents who left Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. “Especially in my Asian culture, it is a form of expression and a form of a nice gesture when someone offers you food. I love Vietnamese food, especially home-cooked ones from my mother.”
Nguyen’s restaurant, located at 940 N. 26th St., is named after a noodle soup that is a staple of Vietnamese comfort food. The pho broth is cooked for eight to 12 hours to reach a full-bodied flavor and contains ginger, onion, meat, fish sauce, salt and other spices.
Nguyen admitted that maintaining a restaurant can be challenging.
“Operating a restaurant requires a multitude of components that have to work together in order to function smoothly,” she said. “Very rarely does everything go as planned.”
But she’s learning all the time.
“Maintaining a restaurant is much harder than opening a restaurant, is what I have learned,” she said. “Every day there are obstacles, and we just do the best we can so that no one leaves unsatisfied.”
By Jeff Chesnut
Although she’s grown to love American hamburgers, Mary George still prefers her traditional South Sudanese foods. She misses fruits and vegetables the most.
“The fruits and vegetables you buy in the stores here are not as good as back home, they aren’t as fresh,” said George, administrator and interpreter for the Refugee Empowerment Center in Omaha. “Back home we walk straight up to a mango plant in the garden, pick off the freshest one and eat it right there. We don’t store it for later.”
George’s list of missed foods didn’t stop there; she also misses cassava leaf, more specifically the fufu that goes with it.
“If I go three days in a row without eating fufu, I feel sick— it’s just something that I’ve grown up with every day.”
The fufu is the roots of the cassava leaf plant, she said, and Sudanese traditionally smash it into a bread-like base that they eat with other foods.
Although she may not be eating fufu every day and isn’t able to pick fresh fruits and vegetables year round from the garden, she isn’t complaining about life in America.
By Jordan Huesers
Koosha Mooghen, 27, will never forget his favorite time he ate ghormeh sabzi. He grew up eating the herb stew his mother cooked in Iran. But this time, his new wife cooked it for him in their home in America, where they lived as refugees.
It was the first time she cooked it for him, and he said it was the best he’d tasted in his life.
“One day I came home, and I could smell it in the hallway,” he said. “The smell was my favorite food. She is really awesome.”
The stew’s main ingredients are sautéed herbs—mainly spinach, onions and parsley—seasoned with dried fenugreek leaves.
“Some seasoning makes it delicious,” Mooghen said.
Mooghen and his wife, Ghazal, met when they were small children living in Iran. Their families were friends, and the two were inseparable.
However, because of religious oppression, Ghazal’s parents decided to become refugees and come to America.
Mooghen and Ghazal lost touch for 13 years.
Many years later, while Ghazal was visiting some relatives in Iran, she bumped into Mooghen by coincidence.
The two knew instantly they would end up together.
“We were all grown up,” he said. “We talked about us, and we fell in love.”
Mooghen left behind his life in Iran and moved to Turkey to live as a refugee. After two years of living in a refugee camp where he had no money, did not know the language and was not able to work, he arrived in Lincoln.
“I decided to leave my country and fight for our love. We did it, and now she is my wife for 18 months.”
By Jeff Chesnut
Mary Hei grew up in Myanmar, also known as Burma, but her love for food comes from Thailand.
Hei was raised along the border of Thailand and she misses all of the food from home.
“I have found some Thai restaurants in Omaha and some of them are good, but none of them are as authentic as back home,” said Hei, caseworker for the Refugee Empowerment Center. “They try to make it too American-Thai style.”
She can try to recreate dishes at home because most ingredients are available in Omaha ethnic grocery stores that have opened to cater to a large population of Karen refugees. The difficult part is cooking it as authentic as her parents did.
Rice and curry with beef, pork or chicken is the main meal she misses most. The meal also reminds her of family time. Her parents used to make large amounts to attract family members and friends.
Those are the memories she tries to create for her kids in Omaha, she said, but they always ask, “Why doesn’t this taste like grandma and grandpa’s?”
By Rachel Hobbs
Narges Montazer never intended to open her own restaurant.
When she lived in her home country of Iran, she worked as a teacher and school principal. In her free time, however, she passed on recipes to friends and family who loved her cooking. Then, 25 years ago, she moved to the United States so that her husband could pursue a master’s degree.
With more time to devote to cooking, Montazer’s new friends in Lincoln encouraged her to begin selling her foods in farmers markets. After a while, customers began to ask Montazer to cater events. She enjoyed listening to how much customers loved her food, and eventually she opened her own restaurant, Daffodil Catering, to be able to process all the orders.
“I didn’t want to open my restaurant before,” she said “Now, when I go home, I always want to come back.”
Daffodil serves traditional Persian favorites like kabobs, kotlet (a lamb and potato dish) and chicken korma with saffron rice. The entrée menu changes regularly, but Daffodil’s specialty — rose baklava — is available daily.
Montazer devotes a great deal of time and effort to each of the dishes she makes because she loves Nebraskans and wants her customers to enjoy her food.
“I try so hard to keep this business,” she said. “I love Nebraska and I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
By Jordan Huesers
With seven brothers, three sisters, two half-brothers and one half-sister, Kasim Hamo is no stranger to large family gatherings.
They would celebrate weddings, birthdays and have dinners at their parents’ home in the city of Sinjar in northern Iraq.
That’s when he got to eat his favorite food, sawik binakir. He described the Iraqi cuisine to be similar to pizza, but with dough on both sides and stuffed with an assortment of vegetables and meats.
Hamo now lives in the United States as a refugee. And although he occasionally still cooks sawik binakir, he said it’s not the same as enjoying it with his 13 siblings in Iraq.
Up until two weeks ago when one of his younger brothers arrived in America, Hamo lived with distant relatives in Lincoln since 2012.
Hamo is a Yazidi, one of the religious groups that has faced persecution in Iraq. He made the decision to come to America in dreams of pursuing a college education.
He now studies biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
He said at first, it was hard for him to adjust to American food. But he continues to learn how to embrace and enjoy a wide variety of cuisines.
Although he misses eating Iraqi food with his siblings, he enjoys cooking a combination of eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic and onions.
The project was produced by University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students enrolled in the Fall 2016 Mosaic course. Students in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications have been been providing news and information for and about new Americans in Nebraska since 2010.