My friend Arndis decided to reclaim her ancestry – through Jell-O. She comes from a small farming town in Saskatchewan called Foam Lake and until she moved to Ontario for university, she considered herself simply Canadian (she's white, obviously). So it was embarrassing and infuriating to be immediately pigeonholed as "rural" and a "Westerner," someone many urbanites automatically considered culturally unsophisticated.
She decided to shake it off by throwing a dinner party, inviting friends to partake in her traditional food. "I'm sick of you guys getting to show off your fancy 'ethnic' foods," she said, by which I think she meant our friend Gina's unbelievable Afghan feasts, and, perhaps, my Trinidadian pepper sauce, which requires seeking out an aromatic herb called bandania.
Just as thoughtfully, Arndis sourced the right boxes of Jell-O, and spent all day crafting various Foam Lakeian foods (that stuff takes all day to set). The pièce de résistance was a kaleidoscopic "salad" – a layer of green Jell-O on top of a layer of orange, the first cradling chopped cabbage and the second suspending shreds of carrot. "That was a staple of all holiday meals," she said. The wobbly dinner was very, very, sweet, but so was the whole experience. It was a perfect example of food as a cultural bridge, made and eaten with mutual affection.
It's Canada Day, when we attempt to articulate our country's enigmatic identity, searching for a phrase more eloquent than "not American, and not British; often cold, and with a lot of immigrants." Because this is such a sprawling, hard-to-define place, we often seize on the immigrant part, touting Canada as a teenage nation still finding its place in the world. But immigration is a thorny subject, and holiday barbecues aren't usually where people like to debate Pierre Trudeau's legacy and immigration detention centres.
Instead, we shift focus to a more delicious result – the globe-tripping potluck on the picnic table, and how eating together creates understanding and harmony. New York, London and Hong Kong might like to brag, we say, but Canada is truly where intercultural harmony is achieved through wide-ranging menus.
Which is sort of true. Food is absolutely one of the most enjoyable ways to experience other cultures, and Canadians get to do that a whole lot. It feels sophisticated to turn over the lid of an empty teapot to get a fresh pour while at dim sum, and cool when the Thai takeout place doesn't question your requested spice level. It also feels Canadian – both of my brothers have moved to the United States, and every visit home is a whirlwind of eating a slate of international foods they can't get, despite living in Chicago and San Francisco, which also tout themselves as multicultural eating hot spots.
We learn intimate things about each other at mealtimes. I first used chopsticks in a Japanese restaurant, tutored by a Chinese friend who denies now that she was embarrassed by my lack of skills (she asked if I wanted a fork). A Jewish friend tells me that his WASP ex-girlfriend was startled by his family dinners, which are conducted as noisy free-for-alls; hers were polite gatherings. Eating is about keeping ourselves alive, and so eating together is about vulnerability and awkwardness (which is why lunch meetings are the worst). They're about realizing how we grew up, and who we want to be.
But too often the eating of many foods becomes a substitute for truly grappling with cultural plurality. Many multicultural food moments are transactional in nature, whether it's at a restaurant or a specialty grocer. This limits our discussions with the people whose cultures we're consuming to a prescripted set of phrases about allergies, ripeness or available high chairs. Perhaps even because Canada is so ethnically diverse, it's easy to eat an international diet without ever having to question our own values or make ourselves vulnerable.
Khalil Akhtar is CBC Radio's national food columnist, and the child of Pakistani immigrants. He grew up in Moncton, and has fond memories of introducing Maritime friends to South Asian food. "I had to teach them how to actually eat – maybe picking things up with their hands," says Akhtar, who now lives in Victoria. Akhtar isn't a fan of food trends in general, especially those that lionize certain foods while ignoring others that are just as delicious (but perhaps not as beautiful). "These days, everyone is into ramen, but if we go forward a day, I don't see fermented roti coming around," he says.
Trendiness, he says, also results in the mass-production and dumbing down of a once-specialized product: Think Starbucks™ Oprah™ Chai Tea (by the way, "chai" just means "tea"). "The adoption of certain South Asian things in cheap ways devalues the food that I love," says Akhtar. "Trying to appeal to the masses, something is lost in terms of quality." Buying a bottle of President's Choice "Memories of Bangkok" kneecapped sauce means dinner can sort of have a foreign flavour without sacrificing your kitchen to the lingering smell of fish sauce.
In Halifax, Mary Nkrumah runs three successful businesses selling African food: a catering company, a soccer-themed café called Kicks and a food stall at the historic Seaport Farmers' Market. Like many non-European Canadians, Nkrumah sometimes finds herself boxed in by the "ethnic" food label. Last spring, she was one of a number of food vendors moved off the Seaport market's busy main floor to a lower-traffic upstairs space as part of a controversial decision by management that some say was to keep the showpiece space "authentically" Maritime.
The Ghanaian immigrant prefers not to discuss her ongoing negotiations about space in the market, but her husband, Jonathan Roberts, has a lot to say about Nkrumah's place in the Halifax food scene. "The local food movement has within it a xenophobia, or a cultural chauvinism," said Roberts, a historian who met his wife while researching African medicine in Ghana. Nkrumah buys all of her meat directly from local farmers, and her eggs and vegetables right at the market, but she isn't always seen as a member of the foodie club. Every year, the city's annual African festival is run by caterers who don't cook African food regularly. Instead of hiring Nkrumah as a chef or consultant, Roberts said, "They said 'just give us your recipes.'" Nkrumah said no.
Western foodies' rush to claim ownership is another fly in the soup – take North American food critics' recent crush on suburban holes-in-the-wall, the kinds of places that have amazing, regionally specific foods, and absolutely no atmosphere. To be fair, it's sort of a no-win situation, since it's annoying when reviewers don't leave their downtown comfort zones, yet equally irritating when white critics deem some long-popular Uighur spot worthy of the attention of their peers. (This practice is known as "Columbusing," or discovering something that's already well populated, thank you very much.) Again, this becomes simply a transaction, allowing their followers to buy a dish of cultural cred, checkmark a box and never return.
Which brings me back to Arndis and her Jell-O, which while perhaps not the most delicious ethnic meal I've ever had (sorry!) was one of the most authentic. I've decided that the most truly bridging meals, the ones where we really get to know each other, happen in people's homes. It's not easy to get invited, for one thing – which means it usually comes after the awkward, vulnerable work of getting to know someone and their language, food and customs.
A meal at someone's home makes it impossible to treat the food or the people who make and serve it as wallpaper to our everyday lives. Instead, we have to focus on the full, immersive experience, with all of its contradictions and personal touches. It means acknowledging that the adrenalin-drivers of spicy and savoury often come with an undertone of bittersweet, the most complicated flavour of them all.
Culinary secrets of overlooked cultures
Johnne Phinehas, chef, Saffron Spice Kitchen, Toronto
While Sri Lankan Tamils are line cooks in many high-end Toronto restaurants, they own few restaurants outside the suburbs. Last year, Johnne Phinehas opened his downtown South Asian fusion spot. The specialty is kothu roti – a Sri Lankan street food of meats, roti and vegetables, shredded on a sizzling plate and served with curry leaves and lemon.
What should Canadians know about the food you serve?
There's a lot of Indian food in Canada, but not a lot of Sri Lankan. We use different spices, like fresh tamarind and fresh ground coconut. It's not as sweet.
How does the food you serve differ from what you eat at home?
"We have a laid-back culture – at the end of the day, the whole family gets together and put[s] out the rice and all the different curries," says Phinehas's wife, Priya. "Those big meals can make you tired, but downtown, everyone is on the go. We try and keep our food light."
Why do you think there aren't many restaurants serving these foods outside Sri Lankan neighbourhoods?
The food industry is tough – I haven't taken a day off in two years. Downtown, the rent is much more expensive. Those people in [the suburbs] don't want to take a risk and come downtown, where it's hard to survive.
Mary Nkrumah, chef, Mary's African Cuisine, Seaport Farmers' Market, Halifax
Seven years ago, Mary Nkrumah moved to Canada from Ghana "for love," as she says. Now she runs three food businesses – including her stall at the Halifax farmers' market, a catering company and a new soccer-themed restaurant, Kicks, in the Soccer Nova Scotia Training Centre.
What should Canadians know about the food you serve?
Some of my stews have a lot of tomatoes, which makes them red. People see the redness and they think the food is too spicy for them. African food is not as spicy as people think. It's spicy with flavour – once you have a taste, you want to go back for more.
Is it hard to find the ingredients you're looking for?
I can find most of the stuff here at the Indian grocery, as fresh as I want it. The only thing I have changed is one pie. Back home we use the leaves of the taro root. Here, I can't find it, but I find that spinach works perfectly.
Is African food popular in Halifax?
When I moved here, there weren't really any other food establishments. I met one Ghanaian and asked if there was any place and he said no.… The Nigerians here were desperate. Now I make West African food and East African food; I'm open to all of Africa. The white Canadians get very excited.
Inez Cook, co-owner, Salmon n' Bannock Bistro, Vancouver
Indigenous food is an exciting part of the Canadian restaurant scene, with young chefs riffing on the fresh and local movement to remind us who ate here first. Inez Cook belongs to the Nuxalk Nation, and opened her pretty restaurant during the Vancouver Olympics.
What should Canadians know about the food you serve?
Indigenous food means getting food from the land, hunting and fishing. Bologna is not an indigenous food. Bannock has become an indigenous food, a powwow food … – Indian tacos almost have to be on our menu. But basically, the Europeans taught the First Nations how to turn wheat into flour.
What's most popular on your menu?
Well, we're sold out of caribou. We serve elk, bison and wild boar – we celebrate foods from across Canada, depending on what's available on the West Coast. Fishing is so prevalent here.
How can food bring different cultures together?
Last month Jane Fonda was in here and went crazy for our smoked oolichan, a fish from up north. People come here because we get good reviews and they don't really understand that we're doing First Nations food. I love to open their eyes.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.