Dimensions of Food in Canada: East meets West

When we think of Canada what comes to your mind? For myself, it is the abundance of natural resources including having vast amounts of land, water a plethora of relatively cheap energy. I also think about something that is near and dear to my heart: Food. Yes as Dicken's character Oliver Twist would sing "...food wonderful food", is at the heart and core of who I am. Food transcends countries and brings people together. If we are lucky enough to have a family and home we may also be equally blessed enough to be able to sit and chat about our day over a beautifully prepared meal.

I was born and raised in Ottawa, also known as the Nation's Capital, where I was eventually exposed to many different cultures. It was the early 1980's and a decade before this the Trudeau Sr. administration had opened the floodgates to immigration from countries other than Europe and the Commonwealth. Trudeau's vision, and that of many academics was to envision a country where all people from all walks of life could live together in harmony. Canada also sought to lure some of the best minds around the world which included immigrants from South Asia, Africa and South America and the Commonwealth. Some would argue that it was a meant as an "...antidote to nationalism and the dominance of Canada’s two dominant solitude: English and French " (Macleans 2013) and a manufactured ethnocentric voting scheme but this is a debate for another time.

Common spices used in East Indian cuisine
It was April of 1980 when I was born in Ottawa at what has now been transformed into a long term Marco Polo sought on his mission to conquer the spice route among other treasures. The Indian ocean is home to two nations that Polo may have sought to find, the first being the island nation of Zanzibar which produces some of the most exotic spices, and India. Polo may not have found India but the Indians (from India) found Europe and North America during the 1960's with immigration to both continents. Finding Indian spices in Ottawa would be a chore with only a few stores to choose from. When my parents immigrated from the United Kingdom my father found a small store called "India Food Centre" where he met some of the first Sikhs in Ottawa. There was no Sikh temple at the time, which now serves traditional Punjabi food to anyone, and temple service would be held in local high schools with each family bringing chapatis and or a vegetarian curry to share.
care facility known as "Grace Manor". Growing up in Ottawa was not easy. While having a diplomatic community from all nations around the world and many different types of cuisine to soon follow I was one of a handful of "different" children in my community. The heart of Indian cooking rests in the use of, MASALA, a combination of spices that

Little India at Night- Gerard Street East - Toronto(Photo Courtesy Torontoist)

When we visited friends in Toronto, this was an excellent time to stock up on traditional foods.
Toronto's Gerard Street East, now referred to as Little India, had developed in the 1960's with many Indians in neighbourhoods nearby. One of the first Sikh temples in Ontario, Pape Sikh Temple, was nearby so it was not uncommon for parishioners to venture and shop at the local stores.  Singh farms would grow traditional ethnic foods and distribute them to local food vendors and shop owners. Okra, fenugreek and specific gourds, which were unheard of to most Canadians and now are featured at local large scale grocers, were expensive and only available at certain times of the year. Of course on the other side of the country in British Columbia, farmers had been growing these exotic vegetables for decades. In farming towns such as Abbotsford and the Okanagan Punjabi's had been growing and even exporting vegetables for years. The temperate climate was even better than that of Southern Ontario and there were far more East Indians in the lower mainland of Vancouver than in Brampton Ontario.

Being called garlic in class, ironically by two Chinese students, and being harassed about smelling like curry by schoolchildren I would come home and ask my mother what spices she actually used in her cooking. Her spice drawer reminded me of the C.S. Lewis book "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" where the characters opened a large door and were transported to another world known as Narnia. Of course when my mother opened her spice drawer and the world she created was thousands of miles away in her native country of India. Luckily my mother spoke fluent enough English to explain to our neighbours and family friends, who were not East Indian, about the spices and immersed us into the world of Indian food. She was even called to the local high school to demonstrate how to make curry. The "Canadian" students loved it while a few south Asian students in class, feeling embarrassed for being who they were, shunned it.

It was the 1980's a tumultuous time for many Sikh families, and I encountered many problems especially after the Air India bombing. Being told at school that I was responsible for the bombing and that my people should go back to Punjab was an understatement. Instead of reasoning with these children, I instead made friends with those students who wanted to know about me and where I came from. These students would come over and play with me and sometimes even be able to experience my mothers cooking. What you don't know is that my mother also prepared many traditional "English" dishes for when my Canadian friends would come over. Roast chicken with garlic and chive potatoes with gravy and creamed vegetables au gratin. Many were shocked to find out that my mother was actually raised in the United Kingdom in Yorkshire, the home of the Bronte sisters. She was so lucky to experience some of the last "Markets" where food was bought and sold on a daily basis by actual farmers and butchers. To this day the Leeds Markets are envied by so many other cities for still being in existence. Some friends would get to taste her samosas and curries and soon they became an instant hit. Gradual immersion to Indian food was a strategy that worked.

Middle and High School was where I got to experience diversity for the first time. Bake sales where students would sell cakes, would also result in the selling of samosas for great causes such as the United Way. While the cafeteria would sell complete junk food, many students would exchange foods in the hallways and or warm up food in the cafeteria which included of course curry and many other exotic foods. Yes, the occasional teenager would ask "what is that smell", and sometimes I would even ask the same question as I did not know what cultures the aromas came from. Many new restaurants and entrepreneurs were setting up in Ottawa including some of the first truly "Ethnic Food Stores" which carried foods from the "homeland". With this entrepreneurship also came many aunties and uncles from the local community asking my mother for her recipes. In fact when we visited a local restaurant my mother tried one of the dishes and was dismayed to learn one of her friends sold her recipe. En tous cas, this is what happens when you share a recipe...

Stay Tuned for Part II... Dimensions of Food in Canada: East Indian Food goes Mainstream