April 13, 2017

Growing Organically: A Story of Finding Food Sovereignty

We can strive for and attain food sovereignty in our own neighborhoods. The short video below enlightens us on food sovereignty, and growing foods that are ecologically sound using inexpensive yet sustainable methods.

An ECVOntario Production  - 2017.
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February 19, 2017

Somali cuisines in Nairobi

Please enjoy this video . It presents a glimpse into the taste and preferences of Somalis living in Nairobi, Kenya. They have a lot in common with the Somalis in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

ECVOntario, University of Guelph.
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January 30, 2017

Little Mogadishu in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)

I stood in the washroom with my two scarves, a burgundy scarf with gold thread weaved into it and a leopard print scarf. I contemplated how I wanted to wrap my scarves. I tried the first method, and it was too loose. I tried it the second time, and it was too tight. The third time was a charm- I tied it the third time and it was just right. The scarves gave me a different look, my facial features became more profound, and I spent the day with my hair covered.

It was a chilly, grey day and the aroma of the spice-saturated foods greeted us. Stepping closer, the fragrant pull to the restaurant grew in strength. As our steps quickened, I took a quick notice of the Khanda, the Sikh symbol, placed on a building next to the restaurant. We entered the restaurant, Salaama Hut, and the atmosphere was warm, and we got enveloped with an even more heightened smell of the food. It was quiet, and there were small clusters of people dispersed around in the restaurant. At the back of the room, there was a woman with beautiful, curly, ebony black hair that shone uncovered, a rare and uncommon sight in this environment. She sat opposite her friend who wrapped herself in a soft burgundy shawl. We took our seat in the corner beside a make believe fire place. The ambience was very mellow and understated. With shades of browns and burgundies colouring the walls. The space was dimly lit and took on the personality of someone who just woke up- a slow, measured pace.

Conversations bounced around in the room, and the whooshing of the tea maker made its announcement now and then. Still garbed in our winter attire, we couldn't wait to warm our cold hands and bodies with a fresh cup of Somali tea. We approached the counter to order our tea, and like most point of sale stations, there was a box for donations. The charity box was labelled with the name: Khalid bin al-Walid mosque. The cashier greeted the Somali customers with ‘As-Salaam-Alaikum’, meaning ‘Peace be unto you’ in Arabic, and responded to customers both in the Somali language (subah wanaagsan or iska waran?) and in English depending on their preference. She greeted us in English. We made our order and headed back to our seats with our cup of tea that warmed our hands and tingled our nostrils with the smell of ginger spiciness. We also ordered a pastry called Mahamri. I hadn't eaten anything all morning, so I was starving. I had the first bite of Mahamri, and I gobbled up it up within minutes. It was a mildly sweet, somewhat crunchy, bread like ‘doughnuty’ pastry. Very delicious. It reminded me somewhat of the Ghanaian Bofrot, or the Nigerian Puff-Puff and the waitress pointed out that in Kenya, the pastry was referred to as Mandanzi. I’ve eaten both the Bofrot and the Puff-puff, and although it shared a similarity in taste, crunchiness, and being deep fried, the Mahamri was different as it was filled with air and left you wanting more. After my first serving, I went and ordered two more pieces.

I followed up with the tea, and it tasted spicy and sweet. My tongue felt awakened, and my throat warmed up in unison. Towards the end of the cup, I could feel the pulp from the ginger. Being Nigerian and coming from a culture where tea isn’t as ingrained, I learnt a lot about from my conversations with my team and the chef at the restaurant. We talked about how ‘Chai’ means tea in Arabic, Amharic, Swahili, Russian (Chay- same pronunciation), Hindi (Chaay- same pronunciation) and Somali. To me, ‘Chai tea’ was a variety of tea, a flavour. Meanwhile, it was just tea. All tea is chai in those languages. Another interesting discovery I made was that it mattered how the tea was made. I love tea, but because it doesn’t have a cultural meaning to me, I just pour some water into a mug, put in my tea bag, and place the cup in the microwave for one or two minutes depending on how rushed I am. However, I learnt that the tea making process is somewhat intricate and important in the Somali culture. The water is first boiled, then the ginger is added, then the spices and peppers are added, then the tea leaves are added lastly. Essentially, tea is just a base of black tea with different spices added to it.

After our tea time, we ordered our breakfasts. We got served the Anjero and the Chapati. The Anjero was a spongy flat bread with the moon like texture- covered in holes of various sizes. It was coloured with several shades of creams and browns forming spiral lines across the bread. The bread cheerfully soaked up the deep brown sauce served alongside. We ordered the liver sauce (Beer in Somali) and the kidney sauce (Kilyo in Somali). Both sauces left a curry coloured oily tracing as they dripped down our plates and they were mixed with onions and tomatoes. Beholding the heap of food before us, we were told by the chef that back in Somalia, pregnant women ate an abundance of kidney for its iron content and other nutritional benefits. I took a bite of the kidney, and it wasn't chewy- the spicing was well balanced, and the kidneys had a goat like after taste. I tore a piece from the Anjero, and it tasted like pancakes, except it was less fluffy. I also ventured into the Chapati, and it tasted like Nigerian meat pie crust. Although the Chapati is famously identified with the Indian culture, the Somali’s enjoy this flatbread in their daily meals because of the old trade through the Indian Ocean which the Somali horn juts into. Together, these foods formed a rich harmony.

As I chewed on the food, my eyes wandered across the room and landed on the pictures on the walls. Looking up, I noticed pictures that hanged haphazardly in the upper corners across the entire stretch of the wall. One photo, in particular, caught my attention. It was an image of a woman writing Arabic on a wooden slate- they are verses from the Quran, the chef explained. Our tummies ached from over eating, but our tongues begged to keep eating. Soon enough, we noticed the quiet atmosphere; we were among the few left around. It was 1 pm, and most of the restaurant patrons had left for the afternoon prayer. The chef gave us a bag of Somali cookies as a departing gift, and we shared our gratitude. We left with more than the taste of the mouth-watering Somali foods. We left with a taste of the Somali hospitality. Little Mogadishu in the GTA- Salaama Hut.

Olaitan Ayomide Ogunnote, URA, ECVOntario, University of Guelph
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January 15, 2017

My Cultural Food and Settlement Experience

As we encounter each other, we see our diversity- of background, race, ethnicity, belief -and how we handle that diversity will have much to say about whether we still in the end to rise successfully to the great challenges we face today” (Dan Smith, The States of the World Atlas).

Clearly, immigration is a very significant event in one’s life. Each person is the summation of his/her experiences. Looking back at my experience, after I moved to Canada, the importance of finding one’s personally preferred food, stands out. I migrated to Canada in 2012, nervous about how I would launch my career and integrate to an unfamiliar terrain. I did not know I would need to look for food that I love as part of my new experience in Canada. It did not cross my mind that the term” Ethno-Cultural” food even existed. Since the fall 2012 our family has been living in Guelph. We have spent a significant amount of time looking for Jordanian food as we settle down.

Cultural food and Ethnic Grocery stores 

 Like many other immigrants, I’m from a culture that values our own foods because of the uniqueness of the food. But it was a challenge finding my own food in Canada. The face of immigration to Canada has changed to the point where now a significant part of it is Asian, especially including South Asian, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, West Asian in addition to Arabic (Condon, 2013). Remarkably, these visible minorities are changing grocery sales in Canada to a great extent, as these ethnic shoppers bring with them the traditions and cultures of their homelands. That’s why instead of shopping at mainstream Canadian grocery stores, they try to find out local stores operated by their own ethnic groups.

These stores sell their familiar brands and scarce items not carried by most Canadian stores. In these ethnic stores I was able to find items such as Freekeh, which is roasted green wheat. In Arabic Freekeh means “what is rubbed”, referring to the rubbing technique necessary to process it. Freekeh is low in fat and high in protein and fiber. Bulgur, another favourite,  is a cracked wheat which is a rich source of nutrients and vitamins. It is low in fat, and high in fiber. Olive oil, my essential ingredient, is a fat obtained from the Olive (the fruit of Olea Europaea; family Oleaceae), a traditional tree crop of the Mediterranean Basin. It is recognized as one of the healthiest edible oils since it contains very little saturated fat. And Semolina, made from durum wheat, keeps you full for a longer period of time and prevents you from overeating. It is used in making pasta, and couscous. Finally, Spice Cardamom is regarded as the Queen of spices and is found in the form of a small pod with black seeds inside. The black seeds are added to deserts and tea.

Middle Eastern Key Ingredients 

 The culinary art of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine took shape centuries ago as different cultures flowed through the Middle East, and left traces of their foods. Historically, wheat based cuisines such as Freekeh and Bulgur are our staple foods. Even though Freekeh and Bulgur are prepared differently they are still produced in an ancient way in our small villages. Bulgur production starts once farmers boil the wheat in huge pots (sometimes for days) until they are thoroughly cooked. Then they remove the cooked wheat and spread it out on their flat rooftops to dry in the sun. Afterwards, the hardened kernels are cracked into coarse pieces and sieved into different sizes. Freekeh production starts early in the spring, when the leaves of wheat turn yellow and the seeds are still soft and milky. The wheat stalks are harvested, dried in the sun, and carefully set on fire to burn the straw and chaff. The seeds do not burn due to their high moisture content. Once cooled, the wheat undergoes a rubbing process that cracks the seed and separates the chaff.

Jordanian and Somali food 

 Building on my personal experiences, and being a researcher for ECV Ontario has helped me find answers to questions which were revolving in my mind. Moreover, interviewing Somali women in Toronto and learning about their food preferences helped me and I now appreciate the value of cultural food in enhancing settlement and integration of refugees and immigrants in the Canadian context. In addition, I learned that we have so much in common. Even though some of my food seems to be similar to Somali food my first impression was that Somalis eat my own food. Similarities, include using certain spices in cooking such as Cardamom, cloves and sage, having liver for breakfast, and using Semolina as an ingredient in preparing certain types of food such as Hareesa sweet is also similar to what Jordanians like to eat.

We also share similar preparation and consumption of Sambusa which is a triangular snack stuffed with meat, and usually eaten during the (Iftar) month of Ramadan. Moreover, the desire to consume halal meat is shared between us, and we also transfer this knowledge to our kids. Furthermore, I was lucky enough to join the Somali community in Toronto for the Eid Al-Adha celebration, where I discovered that we have the same way of celebrating and eating kidney meat on that day. Based on my personal and learning experiences using the Canadian context, I am truly convinced that our cultural food makes a huge impact in enhancing immigrants’ and refugees’ settlement in their new countries. Therefore, I advise anyone who is planning to migrate or who has recently immigrated to explore the possibilities of keeping their own cuisines and learning from other cultures.


Condon, G. (2013, April, 1). “Yes, you should pay attention to ethnic grocers”. Retrieved from http://www.canadiangrocer.com/top-stories/yes-you-should-pay-attention-to-ethnic-grocers-8663

Smith, D. (2017), The States of the World Atlas. Retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/migration

Rana Telfah, Graduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario, UoG, Guelph.
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January 4, 2017

Lessons From Finding Common Ground

I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a truck that takes a right turn into a laneway with a small sign announcing we’ve just arrived at Common Ground Farm.  I survey the fields we pass by. I’ve watched them drastically transform over the past eight months from blank canvases in the damp chill of spring to their bountiful growth in the sweltering summer heat and then their slow, browning decline as frost and snow settled in. I’ve also seen myself change from a soft handed academic studying food and agriculture to a tanned skinned and bleached haired farmer, learning by digging my now calloused hands into the soil.

            Since the beginning of May I have been one of three interns at Common Ground. Not only have I learned how to grow food, I learned what food sovereignty can look like. Running out to the field, I harvest something for supper. I make a meal using only the CSA share we brought home from the farm. Friday night dinners on the farm include pork chops from the pigs we fed our scraps all summer long. There has been nothing more rewarding than consuming what I seeded and helped nurture earlier in the season.
            Over time, staying late on the CSA pick up night and working at the Farmers’ Market, I started to recognize the regulars who  strive for food sovereignty by valuing local, organically produced food grown by farms like ours. Common Ground is also a place of learning and connecting people to food. This was true not only for us interns (and everyone who works on the farm) who purposely spent months on the farm learning, but also our market customers, CSA members and different groups of students that would come tour our farm- ranging from young home schooled kids, to high school students, to college culinary students.
            As an intern part of CRAFT (a network of farms that offer internships on their organic farms) I was also able to learn from other farms beyond Common Ground. Once a month my fellow interns, both from my farm and other CRAFT farms, and I would visit various farms in the network.  We were able to see the inner workings of our own farms, but also able to see the approaches and philosophies of other farmers too.
            While Common Ground has been operating for six years we visited farms that have been operating for 25 years or more. Farms such as Orchard Hill run by Ken and Martha Laing and Meeting Place operated by Tony and Fran McQuail are both pioneering organic farms I had learned about in university. These people started growing organically with only a vision of how they wanted their food to be grown, and through trial and error, made it to where they are today. Over the course of the last three decades these farms have moved towards sustainability in all areas, including their homes and horse-powered machinery. They have perfected how they grow food and now experiment and research new ways for organic farmers to improve soil health.
            While one can learn a lot about sustainability from these older farms, one of my favourite farms we visited was a relatively new urban farm in Hamilton called Backyard Harvest. It is a farm that uses people’s backyards the way rural farms use their different fields and they bike or walk between the properties. The owner, Russ Ohrt, said something that stuck with me: urban farming is more like social work.  He knew not only the property owners well, but each one of their neighbours by name. Urban farming brings people closer to their own food production.
            On the same day we visited another urban farm in Hamilton that looked vastly different. It was a project funded by the city in one of the lowest income areas of the Hamilton that transformed a public park into a farm. Again, this project was more about the social work involved in encouraging people to join them or ask questions, and making healthy, local food affordable to the people in the area.
            I reflect on everything I’ve learned from this internship as we pull up to our usual parking spot near the house and we’re greeted by the two farm dogs as we jump out of the truck. I’ve experienced food sovereignty first hand and I’ve realized the way to food sovereignty can look different, I’ve seen what it means to have a sustainable farm, and I’ve witnessed farms working to connect next-door neighbours to their food sources. I smile as slip on my rubber boots and I’m ready for another day of hard work; long talks in the field about food, agriculture, and life; and learning by doing. There aren’t too many days left before Christmas comes and I’m on my way back home, so I’m going to take every moment of this experience in.

Morgan Sage, Research Assistant, ECVOntario, University of Guelph.
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December 7, 2016

How technology can help nations navigate the difficult path to food sovereignty

This insightful article presents how nations can manage their food sovereignty in a globalized world.

ECVOntario, University of Guelph. 
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October 24, 2016

Culture and Food: A Summer in Vancouver

For the summer of 2015 I found myself living in Vancouver, partly looking for a change in my own life and partly looking for new experiences to build upon what I already learned. What amazed me the most was how everything I discovered as a research assistant shaped the way I saw Vancouver. Each time I turned a corner I saw something related to food security and culture. By the end of my summer three things stuck out to me about Vancouver’s foodscape:
1)    Community and home gardens seemed to be everywhere

            There are community gardens scattered across Vancouver.  According to the City of Vancouver there were over 75 community gardens in Vancouver in 2013 (City of Vancouver, 2013). I was surprised to see that a few of these gardens were in the midst of downtown’s hustle and bustle on Davie Street and another on Hastings. In my neighbourhood, the East Side, I regularly walked by six community gardens on my way to the market or the skytrain station. ‘Unusable land- such as plots beside train tracks, underneath the skytrain tracks, or on little slivers of land at sharp intersections- were used to produce food. The dedication to growing local food was not only shown through community gardens, but also by the immense popularity of home gardens. Home gardens of varying sizes were everywhere, whether it be growing Swiss chard and peppers in planters on their front step, or dedicating every inch of their free lawn space to growing food.

2)    There were resources easily accessible to learn about food production

            Before going to Vancouver I heard about the Burnaby Village Museum. The museum’s main attraction is its 1920s village.  However, the museum also has vegetable gardens, and runs several food-related educational programs and workshops. Their main gardens are a series of raised beds that contain mainstream vegetables such as varieties of tomatoes, zucchini, radishes, mixed in with several ethnic vegetables including bitter melon, winter melon, menthe, shiso, suyo long cucumbers, saag, mustard greens, black gram, garlic chives, tromboncio squash, chayote, long beans, etc. For each of the vegetables grown in the garden there is a plaque describing where and how the vegetable is used.  This garden shows just how successfully ethnic vegetables can be grown in Canada. Their workshops are on a variety of topics such as container gardening (growing plants in small containers at home), low sugar jam making, pickling, harvesting, winter gardening, seasonal eating, and more. These programs encourage local food security through local production, seasonal eating, and preserving foods. They teach people how to grow their own food and provide hands on experiences.
            Another interesting resource I came across was University of British Columbia (UBC’s)  Botanical Garden and Centre for Plant Research. The Gardens are a living museum of plants from around the world- everything from local rainforests, to a garden dedicated to plants historically used for medicinal purposes. There is also a food garden full of a variety of fruits and vegetables including kiwis, grapes, gooseberries, tomatoes, carrots, eggplant, swiss chard, etc. Again, this food garden is an excellent resource to teach people about food production and the variety of crops that can be grown in Canada.
            Even though these are the only educational resources I visited, I learned that Vancouver has dozens of other resources to learn about local food and agriculture.  For instance, there is an Urban Farming society that holds workshops and provides resources to the public. There is also an organization called Farm Folk City Folk that has a website that provides lists upon lists of farming resources, including contact information/websites for urban farms, gardening and composting resources, community gardens, and garden support. The resources available to the people of Vancouver are astounding and the very fact that they exist shows how the people of Vancouver value local food and food security.

3)    There was a high availability and exchange of ethnic foods

            Vancouver is a city that celebrates diversity and culture, with cultural festivals happening most weekends in the summer. With the vast array of ethnicities and cultural expressions, it is clear why the foodscape of Vancouver is so diverse. There is also an enormous cross-over and exchange between ethnic groups through backyards, restaurants, and grocery stores.  For example, the Burnaby Village Museum highlighted that there is an exchange of seeds, recipes, and gardening tips between neighbours of different origins. There are also ethnic restaurants everywhere in Vancouver- everything from Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Caribbean, Malaysian, Jewish, etc.- that are filled with people from all different backgrounds. Some restaurants embrace this cross-over and exchange by featuring fusion foods, such as Chinese-Indian fusion food, or fusions of various Middle Eastern and South Asian dishes. Even in grocery stores, particularly independently run grocery stores, there is a large selection of relatively well priced ethnic vegetables. However, the availability of ethnic food is a function of the neighbourhood.

Vancouver is a fascinating city full of culture and food. During my adventure in Vancouver I found community and home gardens around every corner, stumbled upon numerous resources for local food production, and witnessed exchanges between cultures. To say I found experiences that built upon everything I have learned with the ECV Ontario project would be an understatement. Now that my summer in Vancouver has long since passed I’m left wondering how much I missed while I was there- What other intersections between cultures and food exist? What are their food sovereignty initiatives? Maybe someday I’ll find myself back in Vancouver trying to find the answers to those questions.

City of Vancouver. (2013, Dec 16). Join a community garden in your neighbourhood. http://vancouver.ca/people-programs/community-gardens.aspx

Morgan Sage, ECVOntario, Guelph, Canada. 
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