December 12, 2011

ECV ever present at OFT

Ontario Food Terminal (OFT) is easily Toronto’s vegetable and fruit hub. This hub is strategically adjacent to the 401 on the south-eastern rim of the city. It is a contemporary marketplace pulling buyers and sellers of fresh produce, which provides the city and province with a yearlong supply of fruits and vegetables. Every day it receives fresh produce from all over the world, which is then distributed nationwide.

The terminal is strictly a wholesale market and it has every facility to handle efficient operations. OFT is thorough in its operations, strictly observing health and safety procedures at all times. Regular inspections are carried out to make sure safe foods arrive at the market. All the sanitary measures and correct temperatures are maintained to preserve the fresh produce. Records of every consignment sold and received are also well kept. Some of the wholesalers have integrated backwards or/and forwards in the supply chain and have diversified their businesses. For instance, some have their own farms, storage, processing and packing facilities including transportation logistics, outside the terminal.

OFT is home to many large-scale fruit and vegetable importers as well as local suppliers. There are 21 large-scale warehouse tenants and 50 office tenants who are engaged in the wholesale of fresh vegetables and fruits. The average daily volume of fresh produce traded in this facility is about 5.1 million pounds per day. The average imported produce at the OFT varies from 65-75%, where local produce varies from 25-35% yearly. In summer months, there is a rise in the traded volume of local produce.

OFT is compromised of two major sections, the warehouse and the farmers market. The warehouse includes tenants who are registered wholesalers that import and source locally.  The farmers’ market on the other hand houses Ontario farmers, who sell their produce to retailers. Wholesalers operate year round selling large quantities of fresh produce, whilst the farmers market is open in the spring, summer and early part of fall. The local produce sold at the market mainly comes from Ontario and Quebec.

The farmers market is just as outfitted as the wholesale tenants. However, selling imported produce is a serious offence. There are more than 550 spaces allotted to farmers based on lease agreements. Currently there about 400 farmers registered at the OFT farmers market.

Retailers, the buyers at the OFT, provide a critical role in the foods market by bridging the gap between farmers, wholesalers and consumers. There are more than 5000 registered local buyers at OFT, which include supermarket chains and ethnic stores all over Canada, but mainly in Ontario. Buyers are provided with the opportunity to see and compare both local and imported vegetables and fruits before the purchase of any produce.  OFT is opened for 24 hours to the registered buyers, it is not opened to general public, because of the large volumes traded.

Most of the fruits and vegetables, including ECV imported to Canada, are from the United States, largely California, and Central and South America. Nations such as Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru, Guatemala and Colombia, contribute the bulk of Latin Americas produce.  There are also products from Europe and Asia and even as far as New Zealand. The sourcing process depends on the availability, cost and demand in the global as well as local economy.

During the last two decades there has been an increasing trend of more ECV in the OFT. According to a senior officer, changes in the demographic makeup of the GTA could be seen through the produce available and the buyers at OFT. In earlier years, Italian traders were the anomaly but as time passed they became the norm. As other cultures such as the Chinese, Korean, Iraqis, and South Asian integrates into the GTA landscape, there seems to be a need for ECV at the OFT.

According to the senior manager, local ECV growers sell their produce at the farmers market, in a special section called the “Chinese row”. Farmers have the opportunity to sell and compete with imported ECV produce in terms of price and quality. These Ontario growers have the advantage of proximity to market.  Most of the farmer’s that sell at the OFT are medium/large-scale farmers with experience and haggling is also allowed at the farmers market.

Similarly buyers have the freedom to choose their suppliers. Competition remains the highest in the summer time, which is the peak supply season. During spring, flowers and planting materials are also sold. Products vary from one season to the next. On any given day, farmers from different ethnic backgrounds can be observed, carefully negotiating, selecting and ordering produce, to cater to a growing nation rich in ethnic and cultural diversity.

By Steven Gitu & Yasantha Nawaratne  
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November 19, 2011

Farmers Markets As Exclusionary Spaces

 This semester, as part of my work with ECVOntario, I have been analyzing the data I gathered in summer on the availability of ECV at farmers markets. In addition to this work, I have also been reviewing related literature. As the research evolves, I have come to focus on the question: what determines what is sold at farmers’ markets. Although some external factors such as climate or rules imposed by farmers’ markets play partial roles in shaping what is sold at markets, in general, it can be assumed that the types of vegetables sold at farmers markets are determined by farmers’ choices. Although extensive literature exists to explain farmers’ choices, as of yet, little or no literature exists to explain farmers’ choices for what products to sell at farmers’ markets. Considering that farmers selling at farmers’ markets are in direct contact with consumers, one important factor influencing farmers decisions is likely consumer demand.
As indicated by my previous blog Farmers Markets: Are they for the Upper-Crust?, through my research, I found a very limited availability of ECV at farmers’ markets. One factor of interest that has come up through my research, which may, in part, explain the relative lack of ECV being sold at farmers markets, is the demand for particular crops. An emergent literature has started to explore the prevalent whiteness of alternative food movements such as farmers markets (Alkon & McCullen, 2011; Guthman 2008a, Guthman 2008b; and Slocum 2007). 
Through their studies of different alternative food movements and farmers’ markets, these authors have uncovered a number of ways in which the discourses of these movements may be working to exclude people from certain cultural groups. Alkon and McCullen (2011), for example, conducted an ethnographic study at two farmers’ markets in northern California. Their study sought to understand how whiteness is both performed and perpetuated at farmers’ markets. From their study, Alkon and McCullen (2011) identified a number of ways they saw whiteness working in the farmers markets’ they studied. To start, Alkon and McCullen (2011) identified the “romantic imagery surrounding small farmers as well as the imperative to buy directly from them” (p. 950). The article challenged this imagery and asserted that it ignored the historical role of race in American agriculture and “leads us to believe that the whites we see selling at the farmers market, rather than their mostly Latino/a employees, are those who presently grow our food” (p. 950). An additional way in which Alkon and McCullen (2011) perceive alternative food movements to be perpetuating whiteness is through discourses, which “paint alternative food choice as a moral rather than economic decision and normalizes affluence.” (p. 950).
Guthman (2008b), in a study of farmers’ market and community shared agriculture (CSA) managers,  identified similar ways in which discourses of alternative agricultural movements may be responsible for the prevalent whiteness of such movements. Guthman (2008b) found that the language used by several managers interviewed provided important examples of two manifestations of whiteness. The first is that for many managers interviewed, “color blindness or the absence of racial identifiers in language are seen as nonracist” (Guthman, 2008b, p. 390). As Guthman (2008b) asserts, this colour blindness “does its own violence by erasing the violence that the social construct of race has wrought in the form of racism” (p. 391). The second manifestation of whiteness identified by the study is universalism. For Guthman (2008), this universalism is represented by the assumption that values held predominantly by white people are the standard and it demonizes or downplays values held by others (Guthman, 2008b). This can be seen in discourses, which support farmers markets and alternative food movements unwaveringly and disregard anyone who may not find the same value from the movement. The aforementioned authors are careful to emphasize that they are not asserting that particular foods or alternative food practices are inherently white. That being said, these studies do indicate that there are a number of practices, which exclude non-white individuals from participating or wanting to participate in farmers’ markets and other alternative food movements. As I certainly cannot hope to do these authors justice in a short blog I recommend that anyone interested in this topic take a look at these important papers.
Frances Dietrich-O’Connor, MSc Candidate
SEDRD, University of Guelph
Alkon, A.H. & McCullen, C. G. (2011). Whiteness and Farmers Markets: Performances, Perpetuations . . . Contestations? Antipode, 43(4) 937–959. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2010.00818.x
Guthman, J. (2008a). Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies 15 p. 431-447. doi: 10.1177/1474474008094315
Guthman J. (2008b) “If They Only Knew”: Color Blindness and Universalism in California Alternative Food Institutions. The Professional Geographer, 60(3) 387-297 DOI: 10.1080/00330120802013679
Slocum, R. (2007). Whiteness, space and alternative food practice Geoforum, 38, 520–533. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.10.006
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November 5, 2011

atguelph article on ECV

A key component of knowledge translation and transfer is the creation of awareness. Atguelph just created public awareness about the fact that the demand for ECV exceeds supply: .

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October 12, 2011

Acculturation and Consumption............

People of Afro-Caribbean descent in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are willing to substitute other closely related varieties for their ethnic vegetables when they are scarce. Their acculturation level also indicates that these Canadians assimilate and accept the values of other ethnic groups while they retain their own identity. As consumption of ethnocultural vegetables is part of their identity, among GTA Afro-Caribbean Canadians there is a very large unmet demand for ethnocultural vegetables, which is likely to be true throughout the country.

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August 8, 2011

Bitter Melon - No Ordinary Vegetable

            Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) plant, also known as bitter gourd or balsam pear is a vine that grows in tropical areas and produces edible vegetables, recognized for being one of if not the most bitter vegetable found anywhere on Earth. To those unfamiliar with bitter melon, as I was before joining the ECVOntario research team this summer, this blog is for you.
            When I first encountered bitter melon, it was completely alien and new to me. I had no idea where it came from, what it uses were, or how to prepare it. I asked myself why anyone would want to consume a bitter vegetable, and especially one that looked like a small cucumber covered in warts. But, I thought surely this vegetable must have some redeeming qualities that I had yet to discover. After doing a little research, I learned that bitter melon has been consumed as food for centuries in tropical places like Asia, Africa, and South America, due to its wide-ranging medicinal properties, which distinguish it from most vegetables. For instance, bitter melon has been found to be effective in preventing and treating type I and type II diabetes, which is a major health concern right now in North America. Moreover, it has proven beneficial as a preventative measure and treatment against respiratory illnesses like asthma and bronchitis, digestive disorders, even cancers, and possibly HIV/AIDS. The list goes on and on.
A few days ago, I decided to give bitter melon a try and went looking for some in my home town of Guelph, Ontario. I searched the produce sections of the local Zehrs, No Frills, and Foods Basics, and was disappointed to find that not one of these supermarkets carried a bitter melon. Finally, as luck would have it, I was able to locate a few of the Indian variety from a small Indian food store in town. I brought them home and began searching for recipes. Irrespective of the variety one uses, there are several recipes for bitter melon. Since the melons that I grabbed were of the Indian kind (known as karella), that made narrowing down my decision a little easier. Finally, I decided on a simple Indian recipe I had discovered earlier while searching the internet. The photo below shows the end result of that recipe.

After great anticipation I finally got to taste the bitter melon. The bitterness was quite evident on my first bite, but I think the spices and salt did a pretty good job of masking the bitterness. One thing I forgot to do was remove the seeds, which should further help in alleviating the bitterness, so I’ll remember to do that the next time. What I can say about bitter melon is that it’s an acquired taste. If you are someone who has difficulty trying new foods, bitter melon probably isn’t for you. If however you are someone looking to expand your taste pallet and eat healthier, then I definitely recommend trying bitter melon. If anything, at least your body will thank you for incorporating this healthy vegetable into your diet. 

Andrew Filson – Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario team 2011, University of Guelph

For other bitter melon recipes, check out the links below:
Indian Deep Fried Bitter Gourd Recipe:
Chinese Stir Fried Bitter Melon Recipe:

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Farmers Markets : Are they for the Upper-Crust?

In past decade, farmers markets have grown significantly both in number of markets and consumer attendance. Many factors have caused this growth, however some main causes include growth in consumer interest in local, sustainable and/or organic foods, an effort to directly support local producers and a growth in appreciation of the community connection, which grows out of farmers markets and our relation to food.
Recognizing the growing importance of farmers markets as sources of food for many consumers, this summer I have had the opportunity to visit a number of farmers markets on behalf of ECV Ontario. Through these visits I have gained insight into the availability and feasibility of ethno-cultural vegetables (ECV) production for farmers markets. During my visits to the farmers markets, I looked at the availability of 26 preferred ethno-cultural vegetables (ECV) as well as a number of ECV that were identified by Growing International: Exploring the Demand for Culturally Appropriate Foods, as often lacking in availability.
During these visits, I found that most of the vegetables available at the markets I visited were mainstream vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, potatoes, corn, etc. The only somewhat uncommon ECV that I found regularly at the markets I visited was bok choy, which may reflect the growing mainstream popularity of the vegetable. Interestingly enough, during my visits to the markets I regularly found one of the vegetables (snowpeas), which an ECV survey found to be “often lacking in availability.”
Through conversations with farmers, I found that some of them had grown more ECV in the past. However, now a number of barriers have led them to scale back their production. The biggest challenge seemed to be access to markets. For the farmers I spoke to, the farmers markets did not provide sufficient demand to sell ECV at a profit. One farmer, for example, told me that he used to sell amaranth but he found that to sell on a larger scale it was a very difficult market to get into, and that at the price point it was difficult to make a profit. It is worth noting that, from my observations, the farmers markets I visited did not seem to be attended by large numbers of ethnic minorities, which may limit the demand for ECV at these markets.
For now it seems that the market for ECV at farmers markets is more driven by mainstream demand for new, healthy or different vegetables and less by large demand from ethno-cultural communities. That being said, the natural progression seems to be towards greater integration of different vegetables into the Canadian diet. As mainstream interest in ECV grows, probably so will the market and potentially the profit margin for local farmers.

Frances Dietrich-O’Connor, MSc Candidate
SEDRD, University of Guelph
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August 4, 2011

Ontario Food Terminal: A Place to Explore

Ontario Food Terminal (OFT) is a structure that some stakeholders in the fruits and vegetables market  are skeptical about it's contribution to the marketing and distribution of locally produced crops. The video below shows that the OFT can be instrumental to reducing the challenges in the ECV market.

 Eat Local, Taste Global!

ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph.
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July 22, 2011

An African Eggplant Exposition

               “I have never seen these before in my life!” I myself have uttered these words several times in reference to new vegetables I’m encountering through ECV research but today it is Patricia Amegashie who is perplexed by the small, smooth fruits I’ve just produced from my bag. What is slightly ironic about this situation is that Patricia is not the student in this scenario; she is the teacher! We stare at the dozen green African eggplants sitting on the counter, exchange confused looks, and burst into laughter. It’s not the most confidence-inducing start to a cooking lesson when neither instructor nor student recognizes the lesson’s central ingredient. “Well… let’s just go ahead as planned and see what happens,” Patricia suggests. This sounds good to me. If there’s one thing I can say for sure about learning to prepare new foods it’s that uncertainty in the process is half of what makes it fun! 

                So how is it that I have gotten myself into a situation where I am learning to prepare a variety of African eggplant that neither I nor Patricia have ever seen? So far during my research in Guelph grocery stores I have yet to find African eggplants available. As a result, while I was aware that African eggplants have been identified as a highly preferred vegetable amoungst Afro-Caribbean Canadians I was not entirely sure what these eggplants looked like. Patricia, who is originally from Ghana, had generously agreed to teach me how to prepare a Ghanaian recipe using African eggplant if I were able to locate it. On a trip to Toronto one of the ECVOntario team members found the eggplants in a Chinese grocery store. Although they were being sold under the label ‘Thai eggplants’ my coworker recognized and confirmed that this variety of eggplant is also consumed throughout Nigeria. Differential labeling of ethno-cultural vegetables (ECVs) is often evidence of cross-cultural vegetable preferences. However, while my Nigerian colleagues identified these eggplants as ‘African eggplants’, my Ghanaian hostess was expecting me to procure a much different variety. While the eggplants I brought to Patricia’s were green and looked like smaller versions of miniature pumpkins she was envisioning the cream-colored, oval ‘garden eggs’ common to Ghana. I was reminded, not for the first time, how easy and how erroneous it is to underestimate African diversity and was grateful that Patricia wanted to forge on with our lesson in spite of this initial mishap.

                For our eggplant cooking lesson that afternoon Patricia suggested that we make two versions of a popular stew: one using the African eggplants and more traditional Ghanaian ingredients and a ‘Canadianized’ version using ingredients more readily available in local stores. She had already prepared the smoked mackerel we would be using by placing the fish, whole, on a baking sheet lined with paper towel and baking it in the oven heated to 350° for an hour. This was done to remove excess oil from the fish in order to improve its taste and texture for our stew. She had also pre-prepared a seasoning paste made of several cloves of garlic, a two inch slice of ginger root, dried Ghanaian chili peppers and several chopped shallots which have been combined in a blender. Having collected together all of the necessary ingredients we were ready to prepare the stews.

                 We began preparing the Ghanian eggplant stew by preparing the eggplants themselves. Patricia explained that she would be using the dozen small African eggplants I brought along in one stew and about half a dozen fist-sized dark purple Indian eggplants in the other. Indian eggplants are easily accessible locally and are therefore often used in substitution for African varieties. The limited availability of several ECVs preferred by Afro-Caribbean Canadians often results in a greater acculturation of this population’s food choices compared to other Canadian immigrant populations. We washed the eggplants, quartered them and set them to boil in pots of water on the stovetop for about 10 minutes until they were soft. While they boiled, Patricia placed two large frying pans on burners heated on medium heat. To one she added enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan. To the other she added the same amount of palm oil for a more authentic preparation of our stew. Into both pans she added two sliced shallots, frying for several minutes before adding two pureed tomatoes and a heaping teaspoon of tomato paste to thicken the base of our stew. Both pans also received a generous ladling of the spicy paste Patricia had already blended together. As the tomato base started to bubble and thicken Patricia stirred in shredded pieces of smoked mackerel into one pan and added a smoked fish head into the other. Sensing my apprehension about the fish Patricia reassured me that I would not be eating the fish head and that it will be removed once it’s smoky, salty flavor is released into the stew. I’m now starting to recognize, correctly, that this stew is a different regional variation of the egusi stew I learned to make with Rosetta. Patricia confirmed this as she added about a cup of group egusi seed paste to our fish head stew. 

                No stranger to culinary multi-tasking, Patricia left the tomato mixture to simmer and switched her attention back to the eggplants. I assisted her to peel the outer skin off both varieties of eggplant by hand after they had been drained and cooled. It was immediately apparent that the fleshier Indian eggplants would add a much different texture to our stew than the seedier African eggplant variety. Patricia explained that an earthenware tool similar to a large pestle and mortar is used throughout Ghana to mash the eggplants into a thick paste for this dish. She let me try my hand at this mashing technique on the Indian eggplant in her own earthenware but suggested we use a blender for the seedy African variety so that our stew would not taste gritty. 
In spite of its granular texture the African eggplant was slightly sweet and pleasant tasting I discover after sneaking a sample. We added the mashed Indian eggplant to the shredded mackerel pan and the African eggplant to the pan with the fish head.  Patricia sprinkled a crumbled Maggi cube into the pan without egusi but our other pan has been well seasoned by the fish head and does not require additional flavouring. After removing the fish head and any accompanying bones from the pan we spooned the stew onto a plate of rice. Lunch is served!

Although both versions of our stew are seasoned with fish I wouldn’t describe either version as ‘fishy’. The eggplant and tomato mixture absorbs a smoky, salty flavor which is punctuated with a pepper-y heat from the chili and garlic seasoning paste. I am grateful to Patricia for showing me how to prepare this dish and am equally appreciative  that she has answered my many inquiries as to where she is able to access the traditional ingredients for Ghanaian dishes. Similar to other Afro-Canadians whom I have spoken with, Patricia pointed out that it is often difficult to find quality African produce even in specialty Afro-Caribbean groceries. The long distances that produce such as African eggplants typically travels before reaching grocery stores negatively impacts the freshness of these products. For as long as new Canadians continue to cook traditional dishes which incorporate global tastes there will exist many opportunities for Canadian producers to attend to these diverse preferences with fresh, locally grown produce. 

Stacie Irwin - ECVOntario Research Assistant, University of Guelph. 2011
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July 11, 2011

Okra: Many Names, Many Uses

            Whether you call it bhindi, lady fingers, bamya, gumbo or okra, the edible green seed pods increasingly available in Canadian grocery stores have as many different uses as they do names. Although many Canadian consumers have had little exposure to okra it has been consumed widely in warmer regions of the world for centuries. Believed to have originated in Ethiopia, initial okra cultivation began in Egypt and soon spread throughout Africa, the Middle East and Southern Asia. This warm weather loving crop made its way to the Americas in the 1700s during the slave trade and it has since become a staple in Cajun and Louisiana Creole cooking throughout the Southern United States. Fortunately, recipes to prepare okra are as diverse as the cultural groups who regularly incorporate this vegetable into their diets.  
                Admittedly, most of the Canadians I know are a little perplexed by okra. As it is a tender crop that requires hot temperatures and an absence of frost okra is not widely cultivated in Canada. Covered in tiny hairs and full of small, white seeds it is often not immediately appealing to those without experience preparing it. Its allure tends to decrease further still once it is learned that the okra secretes ‘slime’ when cooked in with water.  ‘Sliminess’, prized by some, tends not to be an endearing quality for a vegetable to have by most Canadians' standards. Yet okra is a nutritious, low calorie source of dietary fiber, foliate, as well as vitamins A, C and B6. In addition to these nutritional benefits it is a highly versatile cooking ingredient. It is only in recent years that okra has become more widely available in mainstream supermarkets in Canada spurred by demand from South Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Fortunately for an inexperienced okra consumer like myself there are a plethora of recipes and cooking techniques available to either minimize or capitalize on okra’s unique gelatinous properties.   
                Common methods of preparing okra include stir-frying, deep-frying or adding to curries or stews. African preparations of okra vary between these main forms of cooking, often incorporating combinations of tomatoes, onions and spices. Deep fried okra that has been sliced and battered in cornmeal is popular throughout the Southern United States, though okra is also well known as an ingredient in gumbo stew to which it lends its name.[1] Okra’s gelatinous properties act as thickening agents in stews such as gumbo and its mild flavour is said to compliment various seafood ingredients.[2] Conversely, stir-frying okra can minimize its internal gumminess. For my first okra-preparation experience I have enlisted the assistance of friend whose Indian family has shared a simple okra stir-fry recipe with me.

                While the appearance of okra in mainstream Canadian supermarkets may not have caused much of a stir among Canadians of European decent, you can bet that Indian-Canadians have noticed this change. As one of the most highly preferred vegetables consumed by the South Asian population okra’s increasing availability is seen as a small triumph for new Canadians of South Asian descent who remember a time just a few years ago that it was very difficult to access this key ingredient. “I still remember the day my dad called me a couple of years ago just to tell me that they were selling okra in the produce section of our local grocery store” my friend laughed as we chatted about popular Indian okra dishes. She suggested I try an easy okra stir fry recipe that her mom frequently prepares. Her instructions went as follows:
Okra Fry (Serves 4)

- Cooking Oil
- 2 red onions, finely diced
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 2 tbsp ginger, finely grated
- green chili: amount according to personal taste
- 2 gloves of garlic
- 2 pounds of okra
- salt to taste

1. Add 1 tbsp cumin in cooking oil in frying pan set on medium heat. When the cumin begins to turn red add the diced garlic, ginger and green chili to the pan. As the garlic is turning red add diced onions.

2. Once the onions become translucent add okra that has been cut in half inch rounds. Stir and add 1/2 a tsp of masala powder and salt to taste.

3. Remove from heat when the okra has softened. Serve!

                Not only was this recipe quick and simple to prepare, I was also pleasantly surprised by its taste. As I had never eaten okra before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I took my first bite. The okra slices were slightly crisp and spicy, far from the slimy mess that I had assumed they might turn into. With so many opportunities to prepare okra incorporating global tastes it is unfortunate that there are so few opportunities to eat fresh okra that is produced locally. Canadian okra production at present is generally limited to small scale producers who bring their knowledge of okra production with them to Canada. As the South Asian population in cities such as Brampton continues to grow, Ontario horticultural producers should explore the new marketing opportunities that increased demand for okra and other ECV crops present. Personally, with so many other okra recipes out there to try, I am certain that my relationship with okra has just begun! 

Stacie Irwin - Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario team 2011

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June 27, 2011

“A-goose-ee?” – From West Africa to South-Western Ontario

            “I’m not so sure about this Rosetta. I’m just a beginner Nigerian!” Peering into a pot of simmering beef, cow rind, fish and prawns that is soon to become egusi soup, I’m feeling both incredibly fortunate to have such a good cooking instructor and a little nervous about the meal we’re in the process of making. Let me back up for a moment. As a member of a multi-cultural research team I’ve been blessed with the chance to learn more about the experiences of Chinese, South Asian and Afro-Caribbean Canadians through one of the most central components of culture: food! Since many of the vegetables that the ECVOntario team is investigating are unfamiliar to me I’ve begun a personal exploration to learn how to prepare them and incorporate them into my own diet. On this particular afternoon I’m standing in Rosetta Johnson’s kitchen learning how to make one of many Nigerian versions of egusi soup. 

            Egusi refers to protein-rich melon seeds obtained from several different melons common to Western Africa.[1] Egusi soup is a common Central and West African stew-like meal made from regional variations of meats and vegetables and thickened with ground egusi seeds. Rosetta is an Ijaw, a river-side ethnic group in south-south Nigeria, and she is teaching me how to make a version of egusi soup she is familiar with that incorporates seafood. She has rinsed and soaked kanda (cow rinds) and dried stock fish (cod) overnight in order to soften them for our meal this afternoon. The pre-soaked kanda and stockfish are added to a large sauce pot on the stove-top set at medium-high temperature. Rosetta adds just enough water to cover the ingredients and covers the pot, leaving it to boil for about half an hour until the fish is soft and breaking apart. In another pot on medium-high temperature she begins to cook chucks of bone-in stewing beef that she has rinsed. To this she adds half a diced onion, a sprinkling of salt to taste and enough water to fill the pot with about an inch of water to help cook the meat. She seasons the beef once it is cooked, breaking apart Knorr soup stalk cubes (which she calls Maggi cubes[2]) and sprinkles them on to the meat. The beef is then fried in another sauce pot to which she has added several inches of vegetable oil and heated on high temperature. She explains to me that frying the beef adds flavour but that she herself often does not fry the meat to make a healthier-version of this commonly-eaten meal. Adding these fried beef chucks to the drained stockfish and kanda mixture Rosetta sets the meat aside and turns to preparing the egusi seeds. 

            Egusi seeds look very similar to dried pumpkin seeds. Rosetta has purchased a 250g bag of them from the Afro-Caribbean grocery in Guelph and shows me how to get them ready to add to our stew. She rinses the seeds and removes any pieces of husk she finds floating in the rinse water then drains them and puts them into her blender. Adding just enough fresh water to cover the seeds, she blends the egusi into a paste. Now it’s time to begin preparing the remaining seafood ingredients: dried catfish and smoked prawns. I admit, it’s at this stage in the processes I’m starting to get a bit nervous. Having been raised in a rural-Canadian family with a general aversion to all things fishy I confess my appreciation for seafood is slim to none. Rosetta, unlike I, is well-versed in smoked seafood and begins to explain to me how prawns are smoked and prepared back home in Nigeria as she opens a package of them and pours them into a colander for rinsing. Rosetta briefly boils both the prawns and the smoked catfish in hot water to remove any sand that may have gotten into the fish while drying. After draining and rinsing the catfish and prawns we’re ready to start bringing the egusi soup ingredients together. 

            After placing a large saucepot filled with enough palm oil to coat the bottom of the pan on medium-high Rosetta adds one large diced onion, several large spoonfuls of ground hot pepper, salt to taste, 3 crumbled Knorr cubes and begins to slowly stirs in the egusi paste. Continually stirring the egusi so as not to burn it Rosetta waits for the egusi to begin to thicken. After about 10 minutes of stirring she adds in the prawns, fish and meat mixture until it is evenly coated by the thickened egusi. Finally, she adds several cups of chopped spinach, using it in lieu of smooth amaranth. Smooth amaranth is the preferred vegetable for this dish though it is difficult to find fresh smooth amaranth in groceries and tends to require a trip to Toronto. Spinach is often substituted in its place by most African descendents in Canada. The palm oil has turned the mixture a pale orange colour flecked with green bits of spinach. While traditionally served with garri (eba), a starchy side-dish made from cassava, Rosetta is preparing semolina wheatlets which are more easily available in the Greater Toronto Area. She boils a few cups of water in a small saucepan and adds equal measures of the wheatlets, stirring rapidly as the wheatlets quickly form a thick, sticky ball. Lunch is ready! As Rosetta and I sit down to our bowls of egusi soup (…perhaps more accurately called egusi stew) she shows me how to pinch off pieces of the cooked wheatlets, roll them into small balls and use them to soup up the egusi mixture. She sent me home that evening with a heaping share of stew and a warm ball of wheatlets.

            Several days later, inspired by the first Nigerian cooking lesson, I attempted my own variation of egusi stew. Having yet to conquer my personal distaste for seafood I browsed the internet for an egusi stew recipe sans fish. After finding a recipe[3] that called for ingredients I knew I could easily find I headed to my local grocery store. Unable to find egusi, I substituted in pumpkin seeds and prepared them as Rosetta had shown me. Improvising between the online recipe and Rosetta’s teachings I concocted my own egusi soup-inspired meal served on rice with fried plantains. If there are any lessons to be learned from my first foray into egusi soup preparation they are these:  
1.       Eating with your hands using wheatlet balls as a scoop is much more fun than using utensils.
2.       One habenero pepper adds a lot of kick, one that my Caucasian parents would have appreciated knowing about before they took large spoonfuls of my first egusi stew effort.
3.       In spite of my best efforts, I am still very much just a beginner Nigerian.     

Stacie Irwin - Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario 2011                 
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June 23, 2011

ECV production at the Holland Marsh

The production of culturally appropriate vegetables is possible in Ontario. Please enjoy the video below on the activities of Prof. Mary Ruth McDonald at the Muck Research Station:

ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph.
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June 20, 2011

Bringing Home Baby... Bok Choy

              I’ve seen it several times before. More often than not it is nestled nonchalantly among the other vegetables in my Chinese take-out food container or hidden under cubes of tofu in my Thai pho soup. And yet, while I can easily identify bok choy and enjoy eating it, I must admit that it is not a staple vegetable you would find in my own kitchen. In fact, it has been an item I’ve tended to pass by all together while at the grocery story. 
             Since joining the Ethno-Cultural Vegetable Ontario (ECV) research team as an Undergraduate Research Assistance I’ve started to notice bok choy everywhere! Thanks largely to the demand generated by Chinese Canadians, the largest and fastest growing population of newcomers to Canada, this leafy Brassica rapa subspecies is becoming increasingly accessible to the average Canadian consumer. Consequently, others have begun to take note of this oriental green. Bok choy has gained the attention of health enthusiasts as a lower calorie vegetable rich in beta-carotene and vitamins A, C and K. In fact, in 2009 the Centre for Science in the Public Interest named bok choy a nutritional ‘Superstar’ in its ranking of vegetables commonly consumed in North America.[1] Recognizing the demand for this nutritious, highly-demanded ethno-cultural vegetable, Canadian producers and retailers have begun to take steps towards making bok choy more readily and locally available.
            While not traditionally cultivated in North America, Asian immigration has helped to facilitate increased production of bok choy on Canadian soil. Canadians of Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese backgrounds have historically been the primary Canadian producers of oriental greens such as bok choy, though producers of non-Asian decent are slowly realizing the crop’s marketing opportunities.[2] With many cool season varieties of bok choy seed becoming increasingly available in Canada some Canadian vegetable producers, particularly smaller scale farms, have begun to include bok choy in their crop rotations as a method of season extension. Similarly, Canadian food retailers have caught on to the significant demand for Asian greens and have slowly begun to make these products available in ‘mainstream’ grocery stores.[3] Having noticed that bok choy is regularly available in my local grocery store I did something last week that I’ve never done… I decided to bring it home.
            Standing in front of the produce section I surveyed my options. Shanghai bok choy, pak choy, joi choi – which one should I pick? And what on earth do I do with it once I’ve bought it? These same questions often prevent us from reaching for unfamiliar produce when rushing through the grocery store. Yet, armed with a resolution to taste global and faith in the wondrous resource that is the internet, I set my mind to trying something new. I grabbed what I deemed to be the least intimidating member of my grocery’s oriental greens selection: baby bok choy. After all, how hard could it really be to find a use for such an unimposing veggie?! Wrapping the small white bulb and its dark green leaves in a bag, I headed resolutely to the check out.
              I’m pleased to report that my first baby bok choy purchase made an excellent addition to my stir-fry that evening. It's hard to find a down side to adding a vegetable to my diet that both increases my appreciation for new foods and improves my health. Quick to prepare and easy to incorporate into soups, salads and stir-fries -  I’m out of excuses as to why not to include bok choy in my basket on my next shopping trip!   

Stacie Irwin - Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario team 2011                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

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April 13, 2011

Acceptability of Ethno-Cultural Vegetables Increases.....

Food is an important component of culture. It is a symbol of unity, socialisation, and spirituality.  Even away from home, the nostalgia for ‘home food’ remains very strong; this has resulted in the continued transportation of ethno-cultural foods into Canada.  This is expected because with a diverse culture comes multiplicity in foods and food habits.  The diversity has not remained in the homes but ethnic dishes have joined the main stream food culture with a tremendous boost in familiarity, acceptance and consumption.  The recognition, consumption, and popularity of many of the Ethno-Cultural Vegetables (ECV) have continued to grow and many of these vegetables have been incorporated into the Canadian culture as the influx of immigrants continues to grow.

As more ECV are introduced into the Canadian market, the language spoken is broadened to incorporate them. Today every interested party knows what “bok choy” is, and it would be difficult to say the word is not Canadian. The explosion of immigrant populations coupled with a more health-conscious public and the increased consumer desire for more variety has continued to fuel the expansion of the demand for ECV. Stores have taken advantage of the diverse clientele by having a more robust selection of vegetables, which is seen in the assortment of vegetables sold, to meet the ever increasing clientele diversity. 

For example, Chinese stores sell Chinese vegetables but also have some South Asian vegetables and traditional vegetables.  Direct observation of the clientele base of these ethnic stores shows the beauty of diversity clearly represented as all ethnicities are well represented.  This trend has not remained imminent among the new comers but spread out across even other Canadians. A close look at Chinese stores reveals that a significant percentage of the clientele is actually non-Chinese.  The same is observed in the main stream stores where ECV have increasingly found their way onto the food shelves. 

The growth and diversity of ECV in Canadian culture is also reflected in the wealth of cuisines all with authentic styles and unique tastes and peculiarity shaped by the ingredients available.  The Canadian cuisine is shifting from the more familiar traditional dishes of German, Greek, French, and Scandinavian to a more embracing wider variety of spicy foods, sweet and sour dishes.  People are trying out different foods in their homes as more mixed populations are seen shopping in ECV stores. The culinary circles have not been left behind- walk into any bistro in Toronto and you’ll witness the amalgamation for yourself as we’ve gone ‘exotic vegetable crazy’. The Chefs have done little to disappoint as they fire up grills and woks and create wonderful dishes with ECV just to calm our appetite for these highly healthy and tasty vegetables.

There are also changes in the demographic trends that indicate an adaptability pattern among the clientele.  The ECV market is composed of the young generation eagerly venturing into the new world of ECV and the older ones trying to discover the secret of health embedded in these newly popular vegetables. 

However, the issue of quality vegetables remains a stumbling block as many of these vegetables still have to be transported across thousands of miles into Canada.  This affects their quality and lowers the value obtained by the consumers.  There is good news for ECV lovers, many of the ECV vegetables are highly adaptable to the Canadian climate especially those with short growing periods such as the cabbage family, okra and eggplants.  These can be fast grown or even planted in small gardens in backyards. Many are highly nutritious when eaten raw, fresh or steamed. 

Let us promote our locally grown vegetables as we embrace the benefits of diversity. Next time you are in a supermarket please remember to Eat Local, Taste Global.

Christine Kajumba, MSc Candidate
SEDRD, University of Guelph

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