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Shahi paneer – curd cheese in a tomato-based curry – is normally served on special occasions.
Shahi paneer – curd cheese in a tomato-based curry – is normally served on special occasions.

Crossings

Why young immigrants aren’t giving up cultural foods for burgers and fries Add to ...

This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings.

When immigrant youth reach for pizza or doughnuts, dietitians go into a tizzy. After all, North American junk food is the root of nutritional evils: excess sugar, salt, low-quality fats, processed carbs. Study after study has shown surges in obesity, diabetes and heart disease in newcomers to Canada who stop eating traditional foods.

But given the choice, are immigrant kids as eager to ditch their parents’ home cooking as nutritionists fear?

Jennifer Sarkar, a 27-year-old Vancouverite born in Bangladesh, doesn’t think so. She hears a lot about food as the creative director of Beats Magazine, a Vancouver-based publication created by and for immigrant and refugee youth. For children raised on traditional foods, she said, “Food is a part of you – it identifies you.”

Sure, they enjoy eating out with their friends, but at the end of the day – “we prefer a home-cooked meal.” Their parents may lack the time or money to cook like they used to, but that doesn’t mean they’re buying frozen dinners. Many end up preparing simplified versions of traditional foods for everyday meals, Sarkar said.

She added that immigrant kids, especially in high school, may face peer pressure to buy fast food instead of bringing lunch from home. But they aren’t necessarily replacing homemade curries with burgers and fries – at least, not all the time. In culturally diverse cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, lunch is just as likely to be a fast-food version of another culture’s food, such as sushi, burrito or falafel.

The Globe caught up with three young immigrants in the Vancouver area who have attended youth groups offered by Mosaic, a non-profit organization that helps newcomers settle. They described what it’s like to live in a mash-up of culinary worlds.

Saeed Refat, 16

Birth country: Afghanistan

Current residence: New Westminster, B.C.

Arrival to Canada: Refat came to Canada in 2012, settling with his family in New Westminster. He lived in Iran from the age of six months until he was 12 years old “because,” he said, “it wasn’t safe in Afghanistan – there were a lot of wars.”

Favourite Afghan dish: Ashak – dumplings filled with vegetables such as scallions, spinach or leeks, and topped with yogurt or a meat or oil-based sauce. “It’s delicious but it takes a long time to make – you have to do it by hand,” Refat said.

Afghan food is his passion, Refat said, adding that he has tried Afghan restaurants in Vancouver, but “I always prefer my mom’s cooking – it always tastes better.”

Favourite non-Afghan foods: “I like Greek food, and donair, because Afghanistan makes it, too.” Refat said he has tried birthday cake, chips and soda pop at parties in Canada, but has never had a meal at a Canadian friend’s house. He isn’t a fan of McDonald’s – “I get the feeling of guilt because I don’t think it’s healthy” – and said he is more likely to go for a submarine sandwich.

Everyday meals: Refat packs his own lunch on weekdays, usually a ham, sausage or tuna sandwich. At home, “we eat rice pretty much every day.” He has dinner with his mother or father, depending on who is working the night shift that day, and says his mom often prepares a meal in advance for his father to heat up – “something that you can make easily.”

Simran Sarwara, 18

Birth country: India, Punjab region

Current residence: Burnaby, B.C.

Arrival to Canada: Sarwara moved from India to Burnaby when she was four. “It was only in Grade 2, in the hot lunch program, that I remember being exposed to new foods other than our cultural dishes at home,” she said. “We had students from many different backgrounds and would try other ethnic foods, such as Chinese, Middle Eastern or South American.”

Favourite Punjabi food: Shahi paneer – curd cheese in a tomato-based curry flavoured with onions, garlic, cashew nuts and spices, including cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom, cinnamon, mustard seed, turmeric, red chili powder and garam masala. Normally served on special occasions, this dish is time consuming to prepare, Sarwara said. “But my mom knows it’s my favourite, so whenever I ask, I can have some made. It does remind me of birthdays growing up.”

Favourite non-Indian foods: “I’ve come to love perogies, and I tried omelette with cheese for the first time two weeks ago.”

Everyday meals: About 80 per cent of her diet consists of home-cooked foods, Sarwara said, adding that her mom does most of the cooking. Sarwara usually packs leftovers to take with her to Capilano University in North Vancouver, where she is studying global stewardship. A typical weekday meal is rice with pressure-cooked lentils and fried vegetables. “We’ve developed a routine of making lighter dishes during the week and more labour-intensive meals on weekends.”

Sali Dawood, 16

Birth country: Iraq

Current residence: New Westminster, B.C.

Arrival to Canada: Dawood moved to New Westminster three years ago. Before that, she lived with her family in Greece from the age of 1 to 13.

Favourite home-cooked meal: Dolma, an Iraqi dish similar to the stuffed vine leaves eaten in Greece. Dawood’s mother combines rice and ground meat with seasonings including parsley, dill, mint and tomato sauce. The mixture is stuffed into eggplants, onions, tomatoes and zucchinis, arranged into a pot, covered with broth and simmered for more than an hour.

“It has lots of olive oil and tastes really good,” said Dawood, who lives alone with her mother. The dish reminds her of meals with her two grown-up siblings and father, who still live in Europe. “We used to eat it when all of us were all together,” she said.

Favourite new foods: “It’s probably the chicken burger from McDonald’s,” she said. “I like sushi, and when I go out for dinner with my cousin, who is vegan, we order a Vietnamese noodle soup with vegetables. It’s, like, the best. I want to try Mexican food, but my mom doesn’t like trying new things.”

Everyday meals: “I usually buy my lunch – a spicy chicken wrap from the school cafeteria or chicken strips with fries … ” said Dawood. She normally eats dinner at home – on weeknights, her mom cooks “simple stuff” such as rice with steak or chicken, or Greek-style potatoes. “I think my mom is really good at cooking so I like whatever she makes,” Dawood said. “She doesn’t buy frozen stuff.”

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