Photos by Ro Yassin Abdumonab
Last week, a massive fire the size of Grand Central Station ripped through Kutapalong, the world’s largest refugee camp near Cox’s Bazaar in southern Bangladesh, killing at least 15 Rohingya refugees and leaving nearly 50,000 without shelter. For some Rohingya, the fire recalled the trauma of watching the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, burn down their homes as they fled genocide three years ago.
The precise cause of the fire is unknown, but it was fueled by hundreds of cooking gas cylinders that detonated like landmines as strong winds pushed the flames through the densely packed camp. As unlikely as it might seem, those exploding canisters made me think about cooking. More specifically, it brought me back to a meal I had two years ago in the same refugee camp, cooked on one of those gas stoves.
On that day, the force of the rain hitting the tarp roof of Maryam’s shack had been deafening. We were sitting a few feet from each other, but yelling was the only way to communicate. It was like God soaked up the entire Bay of Bengal into a cloth and was wringing out every last drop. No thunder or lightning, just heart-pounding rain.
The jungle around Cox’s Bazaar had been cut down to the root. An undulating city of bamboo-and-tarp shacks covered the red clay hillsides. Maryam’s shack stood at the base of a ravine, among the first built. Dozens of others had been constructed precariously above, stripping away the hillside vegetation and leaving almost nothing to hold the wet soil together.
Maryam leaned forward and angrily switched off the small gas stove. She ordered her girls outside, uphill into a clearing, overlooking the sprawling refugee camp. The rain had made it too dangerous to cook. A landslide on top of a lit gas stove could be explosive. “They didn’t survive the Tatmadaw to die in a landslide,” she told me.
Just before I arrived, Maryam had been given a few cups of emata rice from a relative, also a refugee in the camp. The rice was special: it was the same variety her family had grown in Maungdaw in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where she was born. It was the first time since becoming a refugee that she’d had the ingredients to teach her daughters how to make her famous biriyani, a dish of tender meat and spiced rice. The rice, the biryani’s essential component, had just begun to boil, and stopping now would ruin the dish. She desperately wants her young girls to know its sweet smell: the smell of home.
Maryam and her family have been living in the Kutapalong refugee camp for over three years now, and there is no end in sight. Until last month’s military coup there was at least faint optimism that some refugees could return. But now, with the generals in control—the very people who burned down Maryam’s home and chased her from Myanmar—hope seems naïve. And among the many casualties of Myanmar’s genocide one is often forgotten: food.
Genocide and other forms of protracted violence, like apartheid, occupation, or civil war, can disappear a community’s culinary traditions, which are so often central to their collective history and identity. Violence can also force a community to create new dishes to cope with wartime food scarcity. The Armenian genocide of 1915 vanished entire towns and families along with their ancient food traditions. In 1975, during the Cambodian genocide, the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh, killing not only of its artists and intellectuals, but its chefs, restaurateurs, and records of the country’s urban cuisines. With no mass graves, the culinary aspect of genocide is easy to miss. Rohingya culinary traditions face a glacier-like destructive power in the genocide, slow and catastrophic, not just eroding specific dishes but also the culture and people that make them possible.
From 2013 to 2014, I led the UN’s investigations into the violent crimes carried out against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. I saw up close how genocide is more than mass murder; it also destroys culture, including culinary traditions. Since the 1990s the government in Myanmar has denied entire generations of Rohingya an education, resulting in widespread illiteracy and cultural amnesia. When I asked Sulieman, a Rohingya elder in Sittwe, the Rakhine State capital, how this affected Rohingya culinary heritage, he replied: “There’s no such thing as a Rohingya cookbook. How can there be if we can’t read or write our own history?”
People don’t often think about food as having political significance, the power to unite us across religious and geographic divides. But the Rohingya’s unique biriyani is an example of how it does; its origins reflect a synthesis of diverse surroundings and cultural influences. The Rohingya people have lived along the western edge of the Bay of Bengal, the cultural boundary between South Asia and Southeast Asia, for centuries, and its cuisine reflects the distinctive flavors and cooking techniques of both regions. Biriyani also dates back to Akbar, the sixteenth century Mughal emperor who fostered religious tolerance in India through public dialogue between Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, Jains, Jews and atheists. Food historians point out Akbar’s syncretism extended into the subcontinent’s kitchens, where biryani, the love child of Persian pilaus and Indian spices, was born. In fact, the Rohingyas’ take on the biryani— such as Maryam’s—departs from other biriyanis north and west by incorporating ingredients that reflect Buddhist Southeast Asian cuisine: coconuts, cashews, lemongrass and limes.
But the Rohingya’s biryani is almost unknown outside Rohingya society—and like the people to whom it belongs, it faces an existential threat. Goru ghuso, for example, is a common Rohingya curry made with beef or goat. But over the past forty years, the Tatmadaw has systematically looted Rohingya livestock and confiscated their land after raids to ethnically cleanse Rakhine State. Pocketing the profits, the army sells the livestock at discount to traders who move it out of state. This scam, coupled with bans on butchering cattle aimed at curtailing Islam in Rakhine State, has made meat, goru ghuso’s star ingredient, increasingly hard to come by.
Seafood dishes like isamas salan, a tiger prawn curry, face a similar fate. Rohingya have long been the backbone of Rakhine State’s fishing industry, making fish, like hilsa and prawns, a main feature of Rohingya cuisine. This began to change in 2012 after anti-Rohingya pogroms around Sittwe, the heart of Rakhine’s fishing industry, decimated parts of the community. Aid organizations attempted to rehabilitate the Rohingya fishing industry by providing survivors with new boats and nets. But with so many Rohingya confined to internment camps, and others afraid of being tortured by the Myanmar navy at sea, recovery never took off. In 2017, the Myanmar authorities issued an outright ban on Rohingya fishing across the state, as part of a brutal campaign to stop Rohingya rebels from entering or leaving the country. The ban caused fish shortages and price hikes in Rakhine. For some Rohingya families fish dishes, like isamas salan, have become a rare luxury.
Displacement has compounded this culinary destruction. Today, the majority of the global Rohingya population is dependent on food aid, either in internment camps in Myanmar or refugee camps in Bangladesh. In the summer of 2019, I met with a group of Rohingya school teachers in the Nayapara refugee camp. All were relieved to be safe in Bangladesh, but despondent. One of them, Jamil Ahmed, had survived on grass and leaves for a week during the genocide in 2017, and was grateful to have enough to eat on most days in the camp. But he worried what relying on food assistance long term would mean for Rohingya cuisine:
We’re forgetting the taste of our food in here. At home we didn’t use a lot spices because our food was fresh. The Rohingya people used to catch our own fish, raise our own chicken and cows, grow our own vegetables. The camp food is not fresh and not of our culture. Now we use Bangladeshi spices to make it taste better. There are many very young children here, many without parents. For them this new taste is all they know. I worry they’ll only ever know the names of Rohingya food—but never its true taste.
Food and hospitality form an essential nexus in many cultures. For the Rohingya it is also core to their community’s identity with families deriving great pride in hosting guests and lavishing them with food as a way as showcase cooking skills. Hospitality etiquette is based on Islamic values where providing for a guest is akin to providing for God. Salim, another teacher, slender with bright grey eyes that belied his age, explained children are taught these customs at an early age when cooking for guests is often how special recipes are passed between generations. This aspect of Rohingya culture, however, appears to be weakening as a result of the genocide. In many Rohingya communities, but especially in the refugee camps, where food and money are overstretched, Salim said hosting guests, even for tea, can be a burden.
The story of genocide changing Rohingya cuisine is also the story of Rohingya women and girls. Without exception, they bear the brunt of the genocide’s trauma. Violent conflicts magnify gender inequalities while destroying social networks, which in turn increase their vulnerability to sexual violence and exploitation. For Rohingya women and girls, who are traditionally discouraged from working, marriage is the primary means of obtaining social and economic security. Marriages are often arranged and based on dowries (usually a monetary gift from the bride’s family to the groom’s) and they’re increasingly happening at earlier ages in the camps as a way to prevent girls from being trafficked abroad for marriages or prostitution.
Forced to leave everything behind in Myanmar, and barred from working in Bangladesh, refugee families have almost no wealth to draw on to pay a dowry. But because of marriage’s increased significance among refugees, some Rohingya families appear willing to accept a prospective bride’s cooking skills to compensate for smaller dowries. Sayedah and Mushtaq, a middle-aged couple both from fishing families near Sittwe, told me they couldn’t afford a large dowry for their daughter’s marriage in 2018. Sayedah said:
“Before the nikah [an Islamic law marriage], they [groom’s family] wanted to make sure our daughter understood two things: the Quran and how to cook traditional Rohingya foods. Cooking was very important to them. They asked me to confirm if she could and I said, ‘Yes! of course, I taught her! She is better than me! (Sayedah added later: “Admitting my daughter is a better cook than me was very difficult!”)
Sayedah and Mushtaq, as well as other Rohingyas families I spoke to in Bangladesh and Myanmar, emphasized cooking skills have always been an important attribute for brides, but that they have indeed taken on added importance in the camps. Not just for perceived protection for their girls, but also because Rohingya elders see cooking as a means for younger generations to maintain a connection to their culture.
While other aspects of Rohingya of culture, like poetry, are thriving in the camps, it is in the Rohingya diaspora beyond the camps that Rohingya culinary traditions may have the best chance of survival. Malaysia hosts over 100,000 Rohingya refugees, one of the larger diaspora communities in the world after Bangladesh. In 2017, Sharifah Shakira founded the Rohingya Women’s Development Network (RWDN) in Kuala Lumpur to empower Rohingya women with building an identity beyond marriage through literacy and skills training programs. Sharifah, an organizer, activist and a refugee herself from Buthidaung in northern Rakhine State, told me recently that her father is keeping Rohingya cuisine alive by regularly cooking for his family. “He told me once that food connects people.” That idea led to Shakira publishing the RWDN Cookbook in 2019, which could be the first-ever Rohingya cookbook. Its recipes emphasize the critical role women play in creating and sustaining Rohingya food culture and also how Rohingya cuisine, like the people themselves, remain deeply connected to Rakhine State.
The RWDN Cookbook signals the preservation of Rohingya culture. But it’s only available in English, which many Rohingya can’t speak. Shakira explained that the Rohingya language is written using several different scripts (Arabic, Burmese, English and Hanafi Rohingya). Denied citizenship and progressively marginalized from social and political life, it has been impossible for the Rohingya to develop strong centralized authoritative institutions necessary to forge a popular consensus on a standard written alphabet. Shakirah said without the resources to publish in multiple scripts, RWDN chose English for its cookbook, to avoid favoring one community over another.
As the rain tapered off, Maryam thought out loud about whether to restart her biryani. “We’re suicidal in here,” Maryam’s teenage daughter said abruptly, startling our translator. But Maryam didn’t flinch. After a few long seconds she turned to me, and added, “She meant we’re alive but that we are not surviving. The Rohingya people are not surviving.”
After a few more moments, Maryam offered a solution: Communal kitchens should be built in the camps, so mothers can teach their children how to cook and pass on Rohingya culture without the risk of burning down their shack. That, she said, would help relieve some of the stress of their unchosen lives. In fact, at the time, aid agencies were building communal kitchens for another reason: to prevent the cooking fires Maryam worried about (and which some Rohingya speculate could have been the culprit of last week’s fire).
But Maryam was mostly thinking beyond fire safety. She saw her culture disintegrating, making her family more vulnerable to further exploitation and violence. She noticed a flaw in the global refugee response, that aid agencies define the humanitarian imperative too narrowly. Food, shelter, and clean water are crucial, but the ability to practice one’s culture as fully as possible is also a means to survive.
When it comes to cultural heritage in wartime, donor governments have historically prioritized the restoration, and more recently, criminal accountability, for the destruction of tangible treasures like the Old City of Dubrovnik, shelled by Yugoslav forces in 1991 or the Timbuktu mausoleums, destroyed by jihadists in 2012 over the seemingly more quotidian facets of human culture like oral traditions, preforming arts, and skills and knowledge passed from grandparent to grandchild. This began to shift in 2003, when the UN established processes for defining and protecting intangible expressions of culture such as customs, traditions and beliefs. Then in 2010 it began listing certain global culinary traditions as worthy of safeguarding. But unlike the framework for protecting physical heritage, the intangible heritage designation doesn’t come with legal protections or robust resources to keep the heritage intact. Nor does it explicitly speak to the risk armed conflict and displacement poses to essential elements of intangible culture, like cuisine.
“There just isn’t a consistent practice or funding to protect and promote culture in humanitarian settings, like refugee camps. The humanitarian mandate is focused on providing essential services, food, water, shelter, and protection,” said Lesley Bourns, the former Chief of Policy Analysis and Innovation at the UN’s Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “From what I have seen, the extent to which culture is even considered varies widely among humanitarian actors. Many of them don’t even think to draw on the local culture when designing aid interventions. This has been a critique of international humanitarian assistance for far too long.”
Changing the global humanitarian order could take years that the Rohingya don’t have. But Bourns, who is now the Vice President for Humanitarian Programs at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that runs the children’s TV show Sesame Street, startled me with the suggestion that the Muppets might be a model for the protection of culture in humanitarian settings.
In December 2020, Sesame Workshop, unveiled Aziz and Noor, two new Rohingya-speaking puppets to join Sesame’s Streets other iconic characters in educational and cultural programming for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Bourns explained that the non-profit designed the puppets based on factors that inform identity and culture for displaced Rohingya families, to ensure Rohingya children could see themselves and their experiences in Aziz and Noor.
With the right support, it’s not hard to see a Rohingya organization like RWDN undertaking a similar effort centered on food, one that inventoried culinary knowledge and traditions—recipes, cooking techniques, local botany—threatened by the violence to ensure the Rohingya continue to see themselves in their cuisine. Like the people who produce them, cuisines are alive, and they are fragile, demanding as much attention and protection from global institutions as other forms of cultural property. Its crucial relief agencies keep this in mind as they rush to help Rohingya families recover from last week’s fire. The world owes it to Maryam and her children that their dinner table reflects Rohingya culture, not the Tatmadaw’s.