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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