There’s a strange comfort in receiving a yogurt container from my mom. Inside, it most certainly isn’t yogurt but one of her many signature dishes filled to the brim. For me, this dabba, or container, is a symbol of home. Its aromas evoke all the people, places and occasions that keep me holding onto it until the lid cracks.
When I was a kid, there was no better discovery than finding a row of dabbas filled with halva at the back of the fridge. The Indian dessert was always served before birthday cake – and my mom and grandma would whip it up with mathematical precision. Don’t ask either of them for a recipe though. Their muscles just know how to make it. While my version has the markings of my mom’s halva, it still isn’t as good as hers. How could it be?
For Mother’s Day, The Globe reached out to readers to ask them about their “halvas”, the one dish they love that always reminds them of their mom or the mom-figure in their lives. Below is a collection of their favourites, along with tributes to the women they came from.
Jan Caruana, 47, Toronto
Qaqocc Mimli/Maltese Stuffed Artichokes
Qaqocc mimli is a steamed artichoke stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, anchovies, garlic, parsley, capers and olives. Maltese cuisine is influenced by many cultures: Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, African, British, because they were occupied by so many countries. Pinning down a uniquely Maltese food can be tricky, but the ingredients of this dish are all found on the island.
My mom would make this every Good Friday, and my family would scrape the “meat” from the leaves, and eat the centre with gusto, until there were just empty plates and a pile of leaves in the center of the table, like discarded playing cards. Except for me. I didn’t like them.
Since my dad died and my mom has gotten older, a lot of the “occasion” cooking has fallen to me. So when I wanted to make this traditional dish for my mom, getting directions from her proved tricky. Measurements were “a big jar” or “small tin.” When I pressed for more specifics, I would simply get “you know... the kind I would buy from Dominion.” (Never mind Dominion hasn’t existed for decades.) So I had to eyeball it and try to piece her recipe together from the scraps that she remembered. It’s a lot of work for a dish I don’t even like, but these little projects make me feel closer to my mom.
Jasmine Marianayagam, 30, Yellowknife
Rice and Curry
I don’t know how my mom does not use recipes to prepare the various curries she feeds us. She says “she just knows” how much of each ingredient to put in. Mom’s curry techniques hail from the Colombo region of Sri Lanka, where my parents lived before planting roots in Canada in the 1980s. My favourites are okra (first and foremost), shrimp, mushroom, green beans, beetroot and bitter gourd. I love a good combo of all of them, and my mom knows exactly which curries go well together.
When we were little, she would mix the rice and curry by hand and make them into little balls for us and put them on our plate so we could eat “one ball at a time.” Even to this day she offers to hand-mix our rice and curry for us. I always say yes because it somehow tastes better after she does!
For my 28th birthday, my mom cargo shipped a 4-cubic-square-foot box of her homemade rice and curry from Toronto to Yellowknife. Best gift ever! One summer I asked my mom for an exact recipe. She did her best, but really, I can’t match what she makes. I have resorted to the Instant Pot versions I find online and I will use an electric chopper (sorry, mom!) rather than hand-cutting all the vegetables.
Natasha Acuba-Bailey, 39, Burnaby, B.C.
My grandma and mother’s adobo flakes recipe started in the Philippines forever ago. It’s a fully cooked meat product made with chicken or pork, and braised for six hours in a skillet until the meat breaks down and becomes crispy. We only use three other ingredients: garlic, salt and a secret blend of Filipino seasonings. The flakes can be used as a crunchy topping on a variety of savoury dishes, like mac and cheese or baked potatoes. It is the love child of beef jerky and pulled pork but with the signature Filipino adobo flavour.
Now that it has been passed down to me, I’ve made a business out of it here in Vancouver. My family and I moved to B.C. in 2003, but I started my business from home in December, 2020, during the pandemic. I learned how to make our family delicacy through video calls with my mom. We actually started the business because my grandma suffered a stroke and needed financial help. We send our earnings from our flakes to help out a bit since medical care in the Philippines is expensive. We are now making our flakes in a commissary kitchen in Burnaby and my mom and grandma couldn’t be prouder that their recipe – a twist on the national Filipino dish – is being sold in the Lower Mainland.
Jennifer Hammersmark, 58, Salmo, B.C.
Chicken Paprikash with Galuska/Hungarian Dumplings
My Eastern European origins are fraught with stories of communism, poverty and fear – and great food. I am primarily a mix of Hungarian and Ukrainian. It was not necessarily common to identify exactly where you might have been from due to border changes, wars and the political climate. My grandmother had to flee Hungary during the Revolution in 1956. Although she could not take people or worldly possessions with her, she brought her recipes she had known so well from within. Chicken paprikash is one of those recipes.
My mom has also made it for years (people constantly beg and plead with her to provide this wonderful delicacy), and so do I. Although I would say it is never quite like grandma’s, my mom’s version is delicious, and mine isn’t too bad either. The paprika itself is very important. When I visited Hungary and went to the grocery store, I could not believe how many varieties of paprika there were: hot, sweet, sour, you name it, and all grown locally. My grandparents would visit a special Hungarian deli in Calgary where they lived after I was born just to get the right type of paprika.
The sauce is also very unique. It has a bit of cream in it, but I wouldn’t even call it creamy. Just a bit of sour cream or whipped cream for some colour and texture, but thin in consistency. Then paprikash meets galuska, a simple dumpling made with flour, salt and water. In the background, the chicken would be cooking for so long throughout the day – it basically fell off the bone while you were eating it.
Brian Trinh, 32, Toronto
Bánh Bao/Vietnamese Steamed Pork Buns
It starts off with Rooster-brand bánh bao pre-mixed dough. My mom then adds warm water with a bit of neutral oil to form the dough and mixes it by hand. While her dough rests, she prepares the filling (if it hasn’t already been made in advance the night before). Her version features a quail egg, a slice or two of Chinese sausages, half a rehydrated shiitake mushroom, and a golf-ball-sized portion of a ground-pork mixture seasoned with shallots and green onion.
In terms of technique, she rolls out each ball of dough into a quarter-inch thick circle and assembles the filling before stretching and pinching the dough to enrobe the meat. Each bun is lined with a sheet of parchment paper measuring 5cm by 5cm on its bottom and placed in a steamer filled with about 2 cups of water. The buns are then cooked for about 12 minutes or until the filling is no longer pink in the middle.
My mom can be thrifty when she wants to be but this recipe puts that quality on full display. For as long as I can remember, she would always save the plastic lining from our breakfast cereals and use them as a non-stick layer to roll out the bao dough. In an era of TikToks and reels promoting cooking “hacks,” I just find it funny that my mom has been pulling this off for years and keeping it close to her chest.
I live alone so the idea of making a dozen bánh baos for just myself sounds both delicious and dangerous. That said, I try to visit my parents regularly on weekends and end up making the dish with her about four times a year.
Shen Walji, 48, Toronto
Kuku Paka/Chicken and Coconut Curry
Kuku in Swahili means “chicken” and paka means “to spread.” Kuku paka is popular in the East African coastal region among the Indian communities living in Kenya and Tanzania. This curry requires a lot of TLC with only my mom’s special touch. She spent hours marinating the chicken, and getting the right flavour and consistency of coconut milk. When I was a kid, Indian music would be playing on a Sunday afternoon while mom cooked and I did the chores. My mom would always take out a second portion of the chicken curry as an offering to members of our Ismaili community at our local mosque in Ottawa. Offering food there is a common ritual that moms in our community cherish. Everyone knew my mom’s kuku paka, and families would barter with other dishes so they could get their hands on my mom’s curry. I can still smell the coconut!
Fiona Wright, 36, Ottawa
My mom has made this cake countless times in my life. It’s always made in the same rectangular pan (or a heart-shaped pan for Valentine’s Day). Every time, we declare that it is her best version yet! Despite having made this cake for the past 35+ years, she continues to need a recipe card. Now that she lives between Toronto and Wakefield, Que., the recipe is often misplaced and she will send panicked emails to me and my sister for the recipe in the days leading up to a special occasion. She always pulls it off though, even when we’re on holidays in a different place! Now that my siblings and I have “grown up,” we take turns making this cake for mom over the years. I remember on the first Mother’s Day I attempted it, I did not pay the closest attention to what I was doing, and some ingredients were doubled, while others were definitely not. The cake was not a success! I leave it to her (or my sister) now.
Hana Shafi, 29, Toronto
Mawa is not a dish per-se, but rather a very unique condiment specific to my maternal grandmother’s roots in Southern Iran. It’s a pickled anchovy sauce with an assortment of spices blended in. It doesn’t sound appetizing, and frankly doesn’t look that appetizing either, but we’d often eat it on toast or traditionally on flatbread with butter. The taste and smell of it reminds me of family.
The preparation takes a long time, and the technique has been passed on from my grandmother to my mother. It takes weeks to prepare, the anchovies have to be dried, the spices must be toasted and everything must be ground together into a sauce. The sauce is then left in a jar outside in the sun sometimes for weeks to ferment. I’ve eaten this sauce so many times over breakfast.
Recently, my mom and I traveled to visit my grandmother, who lives in Dubai. I got to watch her dry the anchovies, and later mix the sauce in the sun. My grandma is old now and has limited mobility, but watching her still able to skillfully prepare mawa with my mom next to her felt really special.
I’m not a fan of cooking, and I certainly don’t have the patience or dedication to make a dish like this. But others in my family do, so I know it will be carried on in that way! For now, I’m relying on my mom and grandma for it.
Ilona Daniel, 40, Charlottetown
Almas Pite/Hungarian Apple Cake
This pastry holds a special place in my heart. Almas pite is a classic Hungarian dessert that can best be described as sheet tray apple pie. I will say, however, pie doesn’t quite accurately conjure the proper image of the dish. Apple pie is juicy, chunky, and delightfully gooey, while pite is delicate, slightly tart, judiciously sweet, and never served with ice cream. Sour cream, on the other hand, is dolloped generously in the production of the pastry dough.
My mom had always used a rolling pin from the “old country,” and she said that full fat sour cream was the only way to make this dough properly. I can still picture her hands covered in grated apple as she would squeeze the excess moisture out of the apples to prevent a soggy pite. When I was a kid, I remember sitting at the kitchen table helping mom peel the apples and squeezing the excess liquid out of the apples. I remember feeling like I was a grown up because I got to stay up later than normal waiting for the pite to come out of the oven. Whenever I prepare almas these days, I am instantly transported to my childhood. Fiddling about with the recipe would only detract from it. A classic is a classic for a reason!
Michelle Rubin, 29, Montreal
Chicken Soup with Matzah Balls
To make this soup, my mom is in the kitchen for hours, to nobody’s surprise, boiling a variety of vegetables and beef bones. Mom always makes extra and rations it out for my siblings and I, no matter where we’re living. Of course, we eat it during the holidays, but it is also known as Jewish penicillin. So whenever I’ve lived far away, I’ve had to play a bit of a mental calculus to determine if I’m sick enough to ask for a homemade soup delivery. If it was a common cold, I could make my own or order in. I had to save my request for when I felt really sick. I try to make it sometimes, but it never tastes just right.
Brennan Bempong, 25, Mississauga, Ont.
Jollof is a rice dish from West Africa, which usually consists of tomatoes, onions, spices, vegetables and meat in a single pot, although its ingredients and preparation methods vary across different regions. Jollof immediately takes me back to my childhood, eating it after soccer games. I think back to coming home from university to home-cooked meals (after month after month of a diet of oatmeal and ground beef). Jollof reminds me that no matter where I am in life, my mom will always be looking out for me, even if it does not always feel that way.
Co-produced by Ming Wong
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