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Celebrating Culture and Diversity through Food

Across America, refugees and immigrant families are whipping up traditional dishes that bring back memories of home.  As a way of thanking you for your support, USCRI asked our colleagues and refugee clients to share with you their favorite recipes for specialties from their home country or dishes they were introduced to while working overseas. The result: an eclectic selection of mouthwatering delicacies from across the globe sure to turn any dinner occasion into a feast to remember. 


Emily Dahl is guarding an Afghan family secret:  a one-of-a-kind firnee recipe.

“I worked with a man from Afghanistan who gradually revealed to me a number of secret family recipes that put interesting twists on common Afghan desserts, like pistachio cakes, baklava, and my personal favorite, firnee.  After trying this dessert and learning the recipe, I served firnee to my family for Christmas a couple of years ago.  Coming from a strongly Swedish and Norwegian heritage, I was a little nervous to serve it, as my family is much more accustomed to seeing things like lefse and lutefisk on the table—not Afghan custards.  They ended up loving the dish and I was so glad to have the chance to share this tradition with them.  The enclosed recipe differs from my former colleague’s version, but being sworn to secrecy, I can’t say how!” --Emily Dahl

Firnee (Afghan custard)


3 cups whole milk
½ cup cornstarch
¼ cup cold water
1/3 cup white sugar
½ tsp. ground cardamom
¼ cup finely chopped pistachio nuts
½ cup chopped, rinsed-out almonds (can also use walnuts instead of almond)
1½ tsp. saffron thread (or turmeric)


-Combine the cornstarch and half cup of milk in a saucepan.
-Stir constantly until cornstarch and milk are like syrup.
-Pour the remaining milk in the saucepan and heat over medium heat.
-Add white sugar in the saucepan and stir vigorously to prevent clumps.
-Boil the paste, mixing continuously for 3 to 5 minutes until the mixture is like thick custard.
-Sprinkle chopped and rinsed almonds into the saucepan and mix well for 2 minutes.
-Spread the firnee with ground cardamom and saffron and stir until the mixture is consistent.
-To check if custard is ready, take a spoonful and place on a plate.  If the pudding stays firm, it’s good to go.
-If ready, remove from oven and put in the refrigerator for about two hours to cool.

Serving suggestion

When ready to serve, transfer firnee into glass bowls and top with crushed pistachios.  


Ready-made fermented tea leaf salad packets are a staple in Burma.

“I first ate tea leaf salad in the rowdy town of Mae Sot on the Thai-Burma border, where I was working with Karen refugees.  We were in an open-air restaurant decorated with paintings of Aung San Su Kyi on a busy, dusty street.  My friends from Burma described this salad as a uniquely Burmese dish, served as a snack, palate cleanser after meals, or peace offering.” 
--Zoeann Murphy

Lephet (fermented tea leaf salad)


4-5 Tbsp. fermented tea leaves (lephet)
1-2 bird's-eye chili (chili padi)
2-3 Tbsp. dried shrimp, soaked and pounded to powdery form
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced and deep fried until golden brown
2-3 Tbsp. peanuts, roasted
1 Tbsp. sesame seeds, toasted
2 tsp. fish sauce
2 tsp. fresh lime juice
1 Tbsp. peanut oil


-Combine all ingredients in a bowl.
-Mix thoroughly as with a conventional salad.

Serving suggestion

Traditionally, lephet is served in a container with separate compartments for each ingredient. Guests help themselves using the thumb and the first two fingers of the right hand.


Burundian refugee Aline Niyonzima, who now lives in Vermont, loves to recreate
her mother's cooking for her daughter.

“My mother used to make igitoke for me when I was sick back in Africa. Every time I prepare the green banana dish here in America, it makes me remember my mother.” -- Aline Niyonzima

Igitoke (green banana)


5-10 green bananas
3-5 tomatoes
1-2 tsp. salt
1-2 green peppers
1 onion
cooking oil (amount depends on quantity of ingredients used)


-Peel at least 5 green bananas and rinse thoroughly.
- Chop tomatoes, onions, and green peppers.
- Pour the oil into a saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Brown the chopped onion about halfway.
-Add the bananas, tomatoes, and peppers. Stir thoroughly, making sure they do not stick to the bottom.
-Once ingredients begin to change color, add warm water and continue to stir.
-Add salt.
-Cook for 25 minutes.
-Turn the heat on low and cook for another 10 minutes.

Serving suggestion

Enjoy by itself or with any type of meat, fish, or beans.  


Ruth Hailu's family gathers for a traditional Eritrean dinner.

“Eritreans prepare tsebhi doro for guests of honor or on special occasions. Since moving from Eritrea to the United States, my family prepares this spicy chicken dish and roasted chicken for Thanksgiving dinner instead of the traditional roasted turkey.  It’s a fitting blend of cultures for a special occasion.” --Ruth Hailu

Tsebhi doro (chicken dipping sauce)


One chicken, 3 pounds
3 medium sized onions, finely chopped
½ cup berbere (chili paste)
5 Tbsp. butter (traditional spiced butter is best)
1 Tbsp. garlic, chopped
4 large tomatoes, peeled and crushed
6-8 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
Juice of 2 large lemons
1/8 tsp. finely chopped fresh ginger
A dash of cardamom powder
A dash of ground turmeric
Salt and pepper to taste


-Cut the chicken into pieces, wash well, and drain.
-Soak the chicken pieces in salt and lemon juice 30 minutes to an hour.
-Fry the onions in a heavy pot over a low heat until the natural moisture evaporates.
-When the onions turn slightly brown, add the berbere and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Add water as needed to prevent the paste from burning.
-Add the spiced butter and fry this mixture for 10 minutes over low heat.
-Add the tomatoes and garlic and simmer for 20 minutes on a low fire, stirring regularly to prevent sticking.
-Dry the washed chicken pieces with a paper towel and add to the sauce. Add some water and simmer until the chicken is done.
-Shortly before serving, cut two slits in the whole eggs and add the eggs to the sauce. The slits will allow the eggs to absorb the flavor of the sauce.
Serving suggestion

Serve with injera. This crepe-like flatbread with a unique, spongy texture is a staple food in Eritrea and Ethiopia.


This tasty yogurt-spinach combo takes minutes to prepare and doubles as a healthy vegetable dip.

“This is a super easy, super healthy, super quick dish.  My family and I came to the United States from Iran when I was 7, and my mom continued to make the yogurt dish for us. Growing up in America, I used to tell my friends that it was great with chips.  Later I realized that this was an Americanized way to eat the yogurt dish, since chips didn’t exist until recently in Iran!” --Goli Amin

Must a esfanaj (yogurt with spinach)


Your favorite plain yogurt  
Fresh or frozen spinach
1 clove of garlic or garlic salt
Salt and pepper


-Melt down frozen spinach or wilt fresh spinach in a pan.  Let it cool. 
-Add spinach to yogurt.
-Grate in ¼ of a clove of garlic or more to taste. 
-Add salt and pepper.   
-Mix all together. 

Note: Use full fat, reduced, or fat free yogurt, depending on your preference.

Serving suggestion

Works well as a side dish or a dip for flat bread, vegetables, or chips. 


The Iraqi version of a hamburger:  kabob.

Kabob is a very popular Iraqi dish that is usually served at picnics and similar gatherings.  This dish reminds all Iraqis of the good times they shared with friends and family back home.  It is the equivalent of the American Hamburger.” --From USCRI Detroit staff

Iraqi kabob


1 pound ground chuck
1 pound ground lamb
½ cup chopped onions
½ cup of chopped parsley
½ tsp. of ground garlic
1 Tbs. salt
2 Tbs. flour


-Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Cover and store in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
-Take a handful of meat; insert skewer; mold the meat around the length of the skewer. (Wet your hands with cold water to prevent the meat from sticking.)
-Grill on a charcoal grill for five minutes on each side.
-When done, remove the skewers from the grill and sprinkle powered sumac spice over the kabob.
-Grill tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables, if desired.

Use the broiler in your oven if you do not have a charcoal grill.

Serving suggestion

Garnish with fresh basil, parsley, pickles, and sliced tomatoes. Serve with pita bread.


Mango sticky rice tastes as delicious as it looks.

“Mango and sticky rice is one of the most popular deserts in Laos, where I’m from. It’s a delicious and simple after-dinner treat. Everybody loves it. It tastes best in the summer during mango season. But during colder month, when fresh mangos are tough to come by, we use custard or canned fruit instead. That way we can enjoy our family’s favorite desert year-round.” --Davone Silaphet

Mango and sticky rice


2 cups sticky rice
1 cup coconut milk
½ cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
5 yellow mangoes
2 Tbsp. cooked coconut milk


-Cook coconut milk over low heat.  Set aside.
-Soak sticky rice in water for 5- 8 hours.
-Strain rice and cook for 25 minutes or until done.
-In a mixing bowl, dissolve sugar and salt in coconut milk.
-Add the cooked sticky rice and stir until well mixed.
-Cover and let stand for 15 minutes.
-Peel the mangoes and slice.

Serving suggestion

On a serving plate, place the mango slices next to or on top of the sticky rice and top with coconut milk.


Mozambican women cut and clean cassava leaves, the star ingredient in matapa.

“When I was working in Mozambique, my Mozambican friends offered me matapa, an everyday staple made of cassava leaves.  They credit this simple yet protein-rich dish for helping them survive the civil war.  Not only is matapa loaded with healthy nutrients, it actually tastes delicious.  I cook it at home all the time, using spinach in place of the cassava leaves, which are hard to find in the United States.  It’s delicious, nutritious, and my family and friends can’t stop raving about the unique, slightly garlicky taste.” --Nina Keres



2 bunches of spinach (or collard greens)
28 ounces unsweetened coconut milk
1 pound raw peanuts
garlic, chopped fine
salt to taste
1 pound small shrimp, shelled and deveined (save shells)


-Place the shrimp shells in a pot of cold water and boil for 5 minutes. Strain and save the liquid. 
-Wash the spinach, remove stems, and cut into small pieces.
-Purée the spinach in a food processor, then cook in 2 cups of shrimp water with 1 can coconut milk over medium heat for about 30 minutes.
-Cook the shrimp for five minute in boiling water. Strain and save the liquid.
-Grind the peanuts in a food processor until they reach a powdery consistency. 
-Combine peanuts, 2 cups of shrimp water, and 1 can coconut milk in a saucepan and place over medium heat. When it begins to boil, pour the mixture over the spinach.  Add garlic, salt, and shrimp.  Stir, then reduce the heat and simmer for 1½ hours.

If you don’t use shrimp, lightly boil fresh spinach in vegetable stock (or add the vegetable stock in the coconut milk).

Serving suggestion

Serve over white or coconut rice.


A must-have on any Pakistani menu, biryani is sure
to be a hit with your dinner guests.

Biryani is a rice-based dish that very popular in my country. It’s simply addictive. I’m originally from Pakistan and I grew up eating my mother’s biryani. When I start eating it, I just can’t stop. Same goes for the rest of my family.” --Sherjeel Islam



2 pounds mutton or chicken, washed, cleaned, and cut into pieces
1 pound basmati rice, soaked for 15 minutes
4 potatoes, steamed lightly, peeled, and cut into large pieces
6 tomatoes, quartered
4 medium-size onions, finely sliced
1 bunch mint, finely chopped
6 Green chillies (whole)
1½ Tbsp. ginger or garlic paste 
1 cup dried plums, soaked in hot water.
1 Tbsp. red chillies, powdered
2 Tbsp. coriander, powdered
6 peppercorns
4 cloves
6 cardamoms
1 tsp. black cumin seeds
¼ tsp. yellow food color
Salt to taste
1 cup yogurt
1 cup hot milk
1 cup ghee or oil


-Combine mutton or chicken with yogurt, ginger / garlic, red chilli powder and 4 green chillies, coriander, mint, juice of 2 lemons, plums and salt; mix well and set aside for 1/2 hour.
-Heat oil in a pan and fry onions till golden brown. Remove half to absorbent kitchen paper. To the remaining half in the pan add the meat with yogurt and spices.
-Cook on low heat, do not add water, when the liquid evaporates fry a little and remove from heat.
-Deep fry the potatoes and separately fry the tomatoes in a little oil and add both to chicken.
-Boil the rice with a little mint, remaining green chillies, cardamoms, black pepper, cloves and salt. When the rice is 3/4 done drain in a strainer. 

Serving suggestion

To serve, coat the base of a pan with a bit of oil and make a layer of half the rice. Top it with a layer of the prepared mutton or chicken then cover with a second layer of rice.


Megan Bracy is about to savor her favorite Tanzanian dish:  samaki wa nazi.

“The first time a friend from Tanzania made samaki wa nazi for me, I was hooked and I’ve craved the savory Tanzanian fish with coconut milk ever since.  When he’s in town, he knows that this is a MUST DO for me.  I’ve learned a lot from my Tanzanian chef!  I try to incorporate coconut milk into my cuisine, using it to replace water when making rice, or adding it to sauces.  I also add cardamom to enhance the flavors in regular American dishes.” 
--Megan Bracy

Samaki wa nazi
(Coconut fish curry


2 pounds firm fish (e.g. tuna, snapper, salmon)
Salt to taste
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 Tbsp. curry powder
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1-2 red chilies or hot peppers
juice of ½ lemon
1 ½  cups coconut milk
Optional:  Handful of Okra or other green vegetable


-Season fish with salt. Heat the oil in a pan and brown the fish.  Set aside and keep warm.
-In the same oil, fry onion until brown.
-Add the garlic and stir.  Cook for 1 minute and then add curry powder, tomato paste, chilies, and lemon juice. Mix well and keep stirring so the mixture does not burn. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
-Add the coconut milk and stir until it boils.
-Turn the heat down and add the fish.  Simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes to allow the flavors to concentrate and the sauce to thicken to a creamy consistency. 

Serving suggestion

Serve hot over boiled rice.


Jessica Hansen visiting her mother's homeland, Thailand.

“My mother is from Thailand, and every Thanksgiving our family would ask her to make Thai spring rolls.  We would set up an assembly line with my big sister at the beginning (stuffing), me in the middle (rolling and sealing), and my mother at the end (frying, so that my sister and I didn’t burn ourselves).   It was great to have my father’s American side of our family enjoying my mother’s food and it was fun to work together as a team while cooking.” --Jessica Hansen

Po Pia (Thai spring rolls)


3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch of ginger root, grated
2 green onions, sliced into thin 2-inch strips
1 red chili pepper, minced or 1 tsp. cayenne pepper (omit if you prefer non-spicy food)
½ cup cabbage, finely chopped
4 shiitake mushrooms, sliced into thin 2-inch strips
½ cup cooked meat or firm tofu (the meat can be ground turkey or chicken, cooked baby shrimp, etc.)
2 cups bean sprouts
½ cup fresh coriander, chopped
½ cup fresh basil, chopped
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil, plus extra for frying
1 pkg. spring roll wrappers
1 egg, beaten in a small bowl

Sauce: 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
           2 Tbsp. fish sauce
           2 Tbsp. lime juice
           ¼ tsp. sugar


-Prepare all the ingredients and the sauce.
-Preheat 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium or medium high heat.  Add garlic, ginger, green onion, and chili pepper/cayenne.  Stir-fry for about one minute.
-Add cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and meat/tofu.  Stir fry for about one minute. 
-Add sauce mixture and continue to sit fry one to two more minutes, until vegetables have softened.
-Remove pan from heat and add bean sprouts.  Continue stirring.
-Taste mixture and add salt, soy sauce, or fish sauce to your personal preference.
-Using a slotted spoon, put mixture into a bowl.
-Assemble spring rolls by placing a spring roll wrapper onto a clean working surface and place around one heaping Tbsp. of the mixture into the wrapper (adjust depending on the size of your wrappers), spreading it lengthwise in a line near the edge closest to you. Sprinkle with fresh coriander and basil.
-Dip a finger or basting brush into the egg and run it along the edges of the spring roll wrapper.  Fold in the right and left sides of the wrapper, then lift and roll the wrapper around the filling.  Add a little more egg to the closing seam if needed.
-Preheat a wok or deep frying pan with oil (about ½-1 inch deep) over medium high heat.  Wait for bubbles to rise in the oil before cooking spring rolls (you can test by putting a corner of a spring roll wrapper into the oil.  If it sizzles and cooks quickly, then the oil is hot enough.)
-Use tongs to place the spring rolls into the oil and fry them for about one minute per side, turning with the tongs when ready.  The wrappers will turn a light golden brown, letting you know when they are done.
-Place cooked spring rolls onto a plate lined with paper towels to drain off some of the oil.

Serving suggestion

Serve while warm with dipping sauce. Try Thai sweet chili sauce, or mix plum sauce with a little soy sauce and add crushed red pepper to taste.

Read more stories about refugees and immigrants from around the world rebuilding their lives and enriching their new communities in the United States >>

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