Christmas wasn’t a holiday Smita Chandra and her husband celebrated before emigrating to North America 27 years ago. But once they began raising children in Canada, the Mississauga, Ont., couple decided to adopt some Yuletide traditions of their own.
“Christmas became part of our family celebrations too … along with Diwali and all that stuff,” Chandra says. “You want your children to feel a part of the society, you want them to belong. I mean, this is such a big festival … that if you don’t join in and participate in some way, then your kids are going to feel left out.”
The family started out with a tree and presents in the early 1990s, and gradually introduced Christmas feasts to their festivities as well. But even though Chandra, who is a cooking instructor at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and has three Indian cookbooks to her name, is skilled at making dishes from her home country, she found the idea of roasting an entire turkey daunting. So instead of the typical stuffed bird and trimmings, Chandra cooks a hybrid feast, combining Indian flavours with Western ingredients and preparations, such as tandoori-style turkey, turmeric Brussels sprouts, and ham and cheese puff pastry twists, laced with garam masala.
“It’s not all Indian and it’s not all Canadian,” she says. “It’s a good mix of everything.”
In a country of immigrants, it’s difficult to define what constitutes a “traditional” Canadian Christmas dinner, since so many families incorporate elements of their own cuisines. While the term “fusion” these days is often met with disdain by gourmands – thanks to oddball restaurant mash-ups, like wonton tacos or guacamole spring rolls – the kind of intermingling of culinary customs that occurs in immigrants’ homes represents fusion in its most natural form. It emerges from a desire to embrace the culture of one’s new home, without letting go of the familiar – and such sentiments are often best expressed through hybrid holiday meals.
As newcomers to Canada, my own Hong Kong and Taiwanese parents were initially unaccustomed to the taste of bread stuffing and gravy, yet they loved the sense of abundance and conviviality associated with roasting a whole bird. So for Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners, they prepared their turkeys with five-spice powder and stuffed them with sticky rice, Chinese sausage, shiitake mushrooms and chestnuts, which better suited their Asian palates. (Some Chinatown restaurants are known to cook up Chinese-style barbecue turkeys during the holidays for customers to take home.)
Tapping her Jamaican roots, Rebecca Akrasi-Sarpong, who was born in Canada but whose family is from the island country, found herself hankering for turkey this Thanksgiving, but she didn’t find the idea of merely seasoning it with salt and pepper appetizing. Instead, she decided to give it a spicy twist.
Akrasi-Sarpong, a student of Lakehead University’s Orillia, Ont., campus, slathered some turkey drumsticks with her mother’s homemade jerk seasoning. Turkey is not traditionally served in Jamaica, where Christmas feasts often include spicy goat head soup, rice and peas and curried goat, Akrasi-Sarpong explains. But when she visits her relatives in Jamaica for Christmas, she says she’s hoping she can introduce them to her hybrid dish.
“I would definitely let my family in on the jerk turkey,” she says. “It’s really good.”