Cooking has always been a source of comfort for Manel. Originally from Malaysia, Manel has been seeking asylum in Australia since 2009 and had a hard time settling in initially.

“I was confused and lost,” she says. “I couldn’t speak any English when I came here and there was a lot to learn.” Overwhelmed, all she wanted to do was cook. “When I cook, I have no anxiety,” says Manel. “I don’t have any pain, and I never think about things. It’s just cooking.”

Twelve years later, Manel now has a dream role as a full-time chef at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s social enterprise, ASRC Catering. It’s a role she landed in 2021 after receiving help from the ASRC and working in another area of the not-for-profit, helping people seeking asylum to build a new life in Australia. Learning of Manel’s love of food, the ASRC invited her into their Community Kitchen to help prepare free meals for the people they support. And soon after, she was offered an ongoing role with ASRC Catering.

“Even cutting the vegetables, I was so happy,” she says. “I learned English in the kitchen. Now I can talk, I can read, and when I see the paper, I can understand.” It also helped her make friends and form a community. Now, everyone knows Manel: the bubbly Malaysian-Indian chef. “I just love being in the kitchen,” she says.

Manel’s native Malaysian-Indian cuisine is a product of South Indian migrants moving to Southeast Asia during the colonial era. It’s similar to South Indian food, but traditional dishes like aromatic curries and rice are made creamier and lighter with ingredients like coconut, ghee and green chilli. One of Manel’s favourite Malaysian-Indian ingredients is candlenut. Toxic to eat unless cooked, the skins of these nuts have a high oil content and are ground down and stirred into curries to give them a thicker, creamier texture. “Sometimes it is very hard to find [these] ingredients in Australia,” says Manel. “If I can’t find candlenuts, I use cashews. And if my friends can’t eat nuts, I just use yoghurt.”

Manel’s recipe for crispy spring onion pakodas is one of six she’s gifted for people to cook as part of the ASRC’s annual Feast for Freedom, a community fundraising event that encourages people around Australia to host dinners in their homes or workplaces while cooking recipes provided by refugees. Registered hosts will receive a recipe book and a personalised fundraising page for their feast, and all donations go directly to the ASRC to fund their programs and frontline services that help provide support with things like food, housing, medical care, education and employment.

Manel says her mother taught her to cook the crispy spring onion pakodas when she was growing up in Malaysia. Aromatic with curry leaves and deep fried until crunchy, crispy spring onion pakodas are often sold at street stalls in South India, and are a great way to start a meal.

“Pakodas were my dad’s favourite food,” says Manel. “You mix chickpea flour and rice flour with onion, then you fry them until they turn gold. My father liked it with spring onions so that’s how I make them, but sometimes I add cabbage and carrot.” The rice flour is a small but important addition: it keeps the pakodas crispy, as rice flour absorbs less oil than chickpea flour. Manel likes to serve these with lemon tea and sweet chilli sauce – but be warned, this recipe is hot. Adjust the number of chillies to suit your preference.

Here’s how to make Manel’s crispy spring onion pakodas with sweet chilli sauce at home. Register at Feast for Freedom to access other refugee cook’s recipes.

Crispy spring onion pakodas with sweet chilli sauce
Serves 6 (makes about 20 pieces)
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 15 minutes

Keep some warm water on hand throughout.

3 cups chickpea flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
1 heaped tsp cumin seeds, ground
2 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
10 fresh curry leaves, finely chopped
1 long red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
½ bunch coriander, finely chopped
2 tbsp rice flour
Vegetable oil, for frying

Sweet Chilli Sauce
6 large dried red chillies
4 long fresh red chillies, deseeded and roughly chopped
¼ brown onion, roughly chopped
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp salt
1½ tbsp white sugar

Place the chickpea flour in a large bowl. Using your hands, break up any lumps. Add the salt, sugar, cumin, spring onions, curry leaves, chilli and coriander and mix so that everything is evenly dispersed through the flour.

Pour in 250ml lukewarm water and mix well with your hands until the batter is smooth.

Add rice flour and continue to mix – it should be thick and sticky. Allow to rest for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the sweet chilli sauce. Soak the dried chillies in warm water for 5 minutes. Drain and remove any seeds. Place the soaked chillies, fresh chillies, onion and garlic in a blender and blend. Slowly add in 100ml water and blend well.

Using a small pot on the stove, heat the oil over a low heat and pour in the chilli mix. Simmer for 3-4 minutes until slightly reduced and thickened. Add in the salt and sugar and continue to simmer for 1-2 minutes. Check for sweetness, adding extra sugar if needed. Pour into a small bowl and set aside.

To cook the pakodas, fill a large saucepan ⅓ full with oil and heat to 170˚C. Spoon heaped tablespoons of the rested batter into the hot oil in batches and fry for 2 minutes or until golden. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on absorbent paper. Serve warm with the sweet chilli sauce.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. Find more recipes at Feast for Freedom and register to host a dinner in your home or workplace to help raise support for food, housing, medical care, education and employment.