To tell Ellie Kisyombe’s story, you would need a book rather than a one-page article. If it were a book, the newest chapter would be about her new range of hot sauces.
These sauces were born out of a love of her Malawian heritage, a need to fuse her first home country with the country she now calls home – to express a creativity that was suppressed during years living in direct provision.
The Road to Ireland
To Ellie, they taste of her childhood. Raised in Malawi, Ellie describes her childhood as privileged. She had an affluent upbringing and her father was the head of the country’s agricultural development body. However, life changed when her father died in what Ellie believes were suspicious circumstances, and later when the political and civil situation in her country became unsafe. She was forced to flee with her 10-year-old twins.
She arrived in Ireland in 2010. The first place she stayed was Ballyhaunis in Co Cavan and for the next decade of her life, she and her family lived in direct provision.
“My mother was from a farm and she was always cooking, as was I from a young age. So to end up in direct provision, where you have lost that control, it’s heart breaking. You can’t go to the market, buy fresh ingredients and prepare them at home. You can’t break bread and enjoy a meal around a lively table with your family. Being from the culture and heritage I am from, it was such a loss. There is real comfort in food and that was gone.”
Life in direct provision
Instead, in direct provision you are tied to a strict daily schedule, where meals are served at certain times of the day and if you miss that slot, then you go hungry.
“The direct provision I came to is different to what it is now. It was like an open prison, so you were not able to argue with the chefs or the people in the centres. Everything was total control, you had no say in what was happening, no control over your food.”
In fact, the situation was so bad, people in direct provision would live off €38.80 per an adult a week. With that money, they would save up for a rice cooker or a hot plate, but the ingredients had to be prepared in the toilet.
“Toilet sinks were being used as kitchen sinks. I remember one time a friend made a hot chicken dish from home and I was so hungry and I missed the food so much that I ate it. But afterwards when it hit me it was prepared in the toilet I ended up being sick.”
These experiences led Ellie to start up Our Table, which she co-founded in 2015 with food writer and owner of Dublin’s The Cake Cafe, Michelle Darmody.
“Our Table is a non-profit social enterprise which helps create a connected and inclusive community through food. So we ran pop-up restaurants to give people in direct provision the opportunity to get back cooking – not just for their own meals, but to encourage them to look at the food industry as a potential avenue to develop their culinary skills, to give them experience to get a job in the food industry or even give them the confidence to develop their own food business. It is an avenue to help people leave the disempowering asylum system and get their independence and freedom back.”
Running Our Table also brought Ellie to the attention of Darina Allen, who invited her to Ballymaloe to do the 12-week cookery course. It was there that her own idea for a food business was born.
“I found myself again in Ballymaloe. After years of living in stifling direct provision accommodation, to be on the farm, to milk the cows, to prepare food using natural ingredients – it reminded me of home.
“We used to own a bakery, my aunt ran a big catering company and my mother made lots of homemade sauces, so going to Ballymaloe brought back all these memories and recipes. I started to remember again being a child, cooking with my mother and aunt, learning in detail about the complexities of blending chillies and spices. So I started making those sauces again, all with a Malawian influence, but using Irish ingredients. I started thinking of Our Table, where we were encouraging people to pursue their own ideas and thought 'I really should be doing it myself.'”
Ellie worked hard on a plan to secure funding and develop her recipes. Now Ellie’s Kitchen Home Edition product range is being produced in the Newmarket Kitchen space for food start-ups in Bray, Co Wicklow. The range includes extra hot chilli sauce, a smoky lemon hot sauce, a mild lemon herb hot sauce, along with three pasta sauces (roast vegetable, chicken flavoured, beef and mushroom). A peanut butter and peanut butter snack is also on the way.
“I hope these sauces will be enjoyed by lots of Irish people who will experience a taste of my culture, but I also want them to be enjoyed by those who are in direct provision, to give them a taste of home. More than that though, I want this venture to inspire people.
"I have worked hard – for many years volunteering, as I couldn’t work while in direct provision. Now I have my own home and Irish residency, both my twins are college students. Hopefully, this will inspire people – not just those in direct provision, but anybody who is in a dark space either physically or mentally – you can get out, there is a light, allow yourself to dream. That’s why I have my face on the bottle, to remind them of the journey I have come on.”
For stockists and to buy online, log onto www.ellieskitchenhomeedition.com. Products range in price from €5.50 to €6 and 10% of sales go towards supporting people in direct provision.