Cooking with refugees: Biryani with the Al Janabi's

Community Kouzina brings us powerful stories from people with refugee backgrounds, of new beginnings and maintaining strong cultural ties through cooking.

“We learned on the way. After we left Iraq, we lived in Syria for seven and a half years and then Turkey for two and a half years. We learnt to keep starting over. To work in, and adapt to new places”. Aiman

Four members of the Al Janabi family smiling
© Eleni Christou/Community Kouzina

A reflection of their geographic journey, the Al Janabi’s catering business is both a culinary homage to the countries of their path, and symbolic of their perseverance, ability to reinvent and flourish in a new environment. Founded in Australia, the fourth country the family have resided in over a 15 year period, the Al Janabi’s Family Food offers a catering repertoire that includes dishes of Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish origin.

Family Food utilises the Al Janabi family’s vast experience in the food and hospitality sector, past and present. Each with their own role and specialty dishes, Family Food is comprised of Mr and Mrs Al Janabi, and their three children; Aiman, Vivien and Matheel. “My mother is the head cook. She can cook anything. Sometimes we have such big orders we all work together at the same time. I cook the filling, my mother cooks the rice, Aiman cooks the chicken. Vivien makes the sweets. And my brother and father cook and often make the deliveries,” Matheel explains.

A new journey

Drawing on the experience of Mr Al Janabi, who owned a restaurant in Baghdad for over twenty years, Family Food also benefits from local insight and knowledge through working with Sydney based cafe and social enterprise; Parliament on King. Vivien, Matheel and Aiman gained unique exposure to the Australian hospitality industry, and cafe scene by working in the cafe, and providing catering for Parliament on King special events.

Constantly evolving, the Al Janabi family are shortly embarking on a new journey. Soon to be renamed Heart of Baghdad the family plan to focus and celebrate the cuisine of their region in Iraq. “Iraqi people don’t care if they have money for tomorrow, as long as they have food” smiles Matheel.

The Al Janabi’s Biryani

A plate of Biryani with side dishes of vegetables
© Eleni Christou/Community Kouzina


  • 3 cups of rice soaked in water for 30-60 minutes, drained and set aside
  • 2 cups of egg noodles broken in 2-3cm pieces
  • 2 teaspoons each of: Cinnamon, Biryani Spice, Black Pepper, Cardamom and Salt
  • 1 onion finely chopped
  • 1.5 cups mix of: chopped carrot, peas and boiled corn
  • Half a cup of slivered almonds – lightly toasted in a pan


  1. Boil the soaked rice with 3 cups of water with all the spices
  2. Fry onion with a sprinkle of salt
  3. In a separate pan fry egg noodles with cinnamon and few tablespoons of water until soft and brown
  4. Add the noodles and mixed vegetables to the onion and lightly fry until fragrant
  5. Once the rice is fully cooked, combine the vegetables and rice together
  6. Top with toasted almonds and serve

Story and photos by Community Kouzina, in collaboration with the New Beginnings Festival for Refugee Week 2017, a series of creative events showcasing the artistic talents and cultural heritage of people from refugee background. Hosted by 107 in Redfern between 21 June and 2 July, the New Beginnings Festival is an initiative of Settlement Services International and is part of the broader New Beginnings: Refugee Arts & Culture Festival 2017.