‘It’s up to me to preserve it’: How Canadians are keeping cooking traditions alive

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WATCH: How some Canadians are preserving their families' recipes – Apr 26, 2019

In a heated pan of cumin seeds and kidney beans, Smita Modi mixes turmeric, red chili powder and coriander powder. She’s making rajma, a popular curry that is made in variations depending on where you live in India (and abroad). This version is Gujarati.

Smita’s daughter Shetu is filming her for a YouTube series she started a few years ago; it details Smita’s vegetarian Indian recipes, and was originally conceptualized by her father.

“He’s always worried about the art of Indian cooking being lost outside of India,” Shetu Modi told Global News. “Also, lots of people love my mom’s cooking and we thought it would be a good idea to share her recipes with family and friends, and hopefully others.”

Gujarati people can be found in cities like Toronto and Montreal, but the food isn’t often seen in Indian restaurants.

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“While some of the recipes are common in Gujarati homes, no one makes them exactly like my mom does,” Shetu explained.

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“I’ve never had some of the dishes outside of home like the fusion dishes of kidney bean and corn pasta and spicy macaroni. Those meals would be completely lost if we didn’t document how they’re made.”

She and other children of immigrants not only enjoy eating home-cooked meals from their parents’ countries, but also fear that one day these dishes may be lost in a culture of fusion. Some, like Shetu, have decided to make videos of their moms’ best dishes so they can remember how to make them, while others have attempted to recreate these recipes themselves. 

Fear of losing culture

For Salima Jivraj, editor-in-chief of Halal Foodie, there is a legitimate fear of losing the Indian and East African recipes in her family. The Toronto-based woman, who also founded the Halal Food Festival, added there aren’t many restaurants in the city that cater to this type of cuisine.

“It’s up to me to preserve it in my own home. With my parents living in another province, it’s really all on me,” she said. “I want my kids to have the same values and experiences I did growing up. The easiest way is through my mother’s cooking.”

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Jivraj’s aunt owned a restaurant in Vancouver called Zeenaz that served this type of cuisine.

“She did most of the cooking as well and all recipes were her’s that she learned from her parents and in-laws growing up in Tanzania and Kenya,” she said. “My cousin saw her mother getting older and had the realization that once she passes, aside from losing her mother, she’s losing a part of her identity of being East African/South Asian. We all feel that way now that we’re parents ourselves.”

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To honour her culture and the dishes that come with it, Jivraj is set to release a 150-page cookbook full of her aunt’s recipes, a collection that was put together years ago. The cookbook includes recipes like makai paka (a coconut corn curry) and ugali (an African cornmeal).

“Because my aunt was aging and her daughter is also busy, it fell off their list of priorities… boxes of [recipes] are literally collecting dust in storage,” she explained. “This cookbook is the only way I can preserve some of my culture. I also want my kids to carry some of this on as well, understanding that the teachings will continue to get diluted.”

How generations cling to food

Camille Hernandez-Ramdwar, academic coordinator of Caribbean studies and associate professor in the department of sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto, said food is very important to people’s identities, but not everyone attaches themselves to it right away.

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“What I found is that the second generation sometimes wants to distance themselves from the food of their parents and that’s in particular if you’re living in a place like Toronto; there’s the world in food available here,” she said.

So even though these children grow up eating whatever their mothers or grandmothers are cooking in the kitchen, they also have an interest in trying foods from other cuisines, especially being in diverse classrooms.

But when this generation has children, they want their kids to have the same meals they did growing up.

And that’s when they might seek out how to cook them or try to procure the ingredients that they need for certain kinds of traditional foods.”

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For Jennifer Francis-Smikle of Markham, Ont., there is a fear that her eight-month-old daughter will not be able to eat the same meals she did growing up. 

“It will be important for my daughter to learn because once her elders are gone, who will be there to teach her authentic Jamaican cooking?” she continued. 

Francis-Smikle wants to eventually film her family members cooking staples because for her, food is a reminder of home. 

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“I remember being sick and my mom making Jamaican pumpkin soup… it’s full of chicken, pumpkin, flour dumplings and noodles,” she said. “If I were to make that for my daughter, I’d be lost.”

When you don’t live in a large city like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, not only are you limited in diverse takeout options, but it can be hard to find certain ingredients as well.

“That could limit your ability to continue culinary traditions,” Francis-Smikle said.

How to preserve these dishes

Hernandez-Ramdwar said there’s good news: it’s getting trendy to cook again, and more second-generation Canadians are finding ways to cook these meals themselves. This could mean watching YouTube videos, getting lessons from their parents or even experimenting on their own.

And if you don’t want to cook from scratch, there’s also the option to cook these meals faster — you can buy curry “sauces” in jars or even microwave a frozen meal or boil ready-made dumplings.

She added in some countries, with an older generation dying out, young people are changing the way they eat.

“We have to start preserving the recipes from a generation, even a generation ago or two generations ago, because you know in a moment nobody is going to remember how to cook this dish,” she said.

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But how do we do this? In 20 years from now, a typical Gujarati dinner that Shetu’s mother Smita is cooking in 2019 may not be the same dish. As much as second-generation Canadians can preserve on their own, Hernandez-Ramdwar added it’s also about creating new staples for generations in the future to enjoy.

“The track has been fusion,” she explained. “When you take a place like Toronto, where there’s so many different ethnicities and so many different cuisines, the trend is to blend and mix and mould and create these different fusions.”

And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Just like what happens with language. We’re going to end up with these new dishes and only, like, food experts or, like, food sociologists are going to be able to give you the genealogy of food,” she explained. “Maybe [they will be able to] trace food back to where it came from but maybe [they] won’t. It is really an important project to preserve the original recipes.”

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