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A Turkish migrant shares her early experiences – and struggles – with food in Australia

Growing up in Turkey, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that other people around the world ate quite differently from what I knew and loved.

My diet was typical for someone of my background. For breakfast, it was feta, olives, sliced ​​tomatoes and cucumber with crusty bread and a side of black tea, while lunch and dinner were quite similar: green beans braised in olive oil with rice or vegetables stuffed with mince, rice and herbs. There wasn’t a culture of fast food, ready-packaged food or eating out – not back then, anyway.

When I moved to Australia in 1970, I was afraid of a lot of things. I was worried about how I was going to learn English and get a job when I had a three-month-old and a five-year-old to take care of. I was worried about how I was going to fit in, make friends and pondered how often I would be able to see my family back home. The food that was served to me on the plane on the way over should have been my first clue that eating was going to be a struggle also (I couldn’t recognize a thing that was placed before me), but it wasn’t until we landed in Perth and I made my way to a supermarket that the magnitude of the situation became apparent.

Wandering the aisles for the first time, I remember being overcome with a sense of shock. Not only could I not work out what so many of the foods were, but I also couldn’t read the labels and because I was in the first wave of Turkish migrants who came to Perth, I had no one I could ask either. I would blindly purchase things and hope it would all turn out for the best, but there were so many dietary disasters in those early years that we often took to just buying a whole animal from the butcher and putting it in deep freeze to serve nightly with whatever vegetables were available (mostly potatoes, carrots and little else). Any other variation stressed me too much and I couldn’t understand the concept of cereal or eating things from cans.

From those early years, I have recollections of some of my fellow Turks who came over with me on the first plane, pleading with shop assistants for olives. Some would turn up with pictures they had drawn and others played charades at the registers, but it was to no avail; not one had heard of olives back then. I missed our staple food items, too, but my biggest issues occurred whenever a kindly neighbor invited me round for tea. I didn’t have the vocabulary to tell them I didn’t take milk in my tea (I’d never seen that done before), so I would try hard not to vomit as I sipped, the taste made me so sick.

I would blindly purchase things and hope it would all turn out for the best, but there were so many dietary disasters in those early years.

It was a struggle for many years; when you’re so used to eating a particular way, it’s tough to break out of your habits. In the mid-’70s, we moved to Sydney and things were a little better because by then. Some cuisines – Greek and Italian, for example – were readily available and some of those dishes were less foreign to me.

That said, it was only in the late ’70s and early ’80s when Turkish stores began opening – their shelves filled with goods imported from the homeland. Finally, I could buy all the foods I’d been longing for and I can’t even begin to tell you what a difference it made to our lives. I could finally enjoy the new life we’d made in Australia with all its beauty and freedoms, but I could start my day with my plate full of olives, feta and crusty bread.

Last year, I embraced 50 years in the country and of course there’s nowhere else I’d rather be but I’ll tell you this: I still don’t understand why anyone would want to start the day with cereal.

Seeking familiar flavors


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