December 22, 2017

The Culture Knot: Interpreting Somali and European Cuisine in Canada

Figure 1: A Canadian garden. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Introduction to food sovereignty
To answer why food is vital to culture may seem simple at first. As the energy of life, food justifies itself to be both indulged and elaborated upon. As people move and resources change, food persists as a constant source of consideration. In turn, cuisine is continually reimagined because food does not exist as a blank slate. Given how fundamental food is to the human experience, it should be no wonder that cuisine follows people as an enduring source of culture.
            It is the relation between cuisine and culture that drew me to explore Somali Canadian food sovereignty. While food sovereignty can encompass many ideas, a general definition holds that food sovereignty is the collective ability of peoples to access culturally discernible food, through socially just and sustainable means (Patel, 2009). Instead of viewing food in a superficial manner, food sovereignty is about empowering peoples’ cultural connections to cuisine (Ambalam, 2014).
Fortunately for Somali Canadian food sovereignty, the aspirations of these goals overlap with other efforts that may not initially seem related to food. By merit of food being fundamental to humanity, many activities link back to food sovereignty issues. The promotion of a socially aware and green economy bolsters the principles of food sovereignty (Ambalam, 2014).

Unravelling Somalia’s cuisine
While I am not Somali myself, I became attracted to Somali food sovereignty because of Somalia’s unique past. Through colonization, several European powers vied for control over Somalia; most notably the nations of Italy and the United Kingdom, but also France to a lesser extent (Zoppi, 2015). After Somalia eventually secured its independence, the regional instabilities from colonization continued to threaten Somalia’s nationhood through disputes over borders and separatist movements. In the time between independence and the 21st century, Somalia had ongoing conflict with Ethiopia, as the side-switching powers of the United States and Soviet Union used Somalia as a stage for proxy warfare (Aalen, 2014). Consequently, observers have cited Somalia as a failed state, but this term can be overly dismissive without further consideration (Elmi, 2014).
Although Somalia has endured much strife, its cuisine has gone through a great fusion (Abdullahi, 2001). Given the prominence of Somalia’s former occupiers, it is hard to ignore the European influence on Somalia’s cuisine. Whether it be Italy’s pastas, the UK’s comfort foods, or France’s pastries, the Somali people have come to reimagine many formerly European techniques (Abdullahi, 2001). Be it war or colonization though, the irony of these national confrontations is that in spite of conflict, the continued interaction between peoples promotes the exchange of culture, which can bring people closer together.

To the west of Somalia, there is the similarly diverse cuisine of Ethiopia. Despite the tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia, these nations share a lot of food between each other. In both countries, the spongy flatbread, known as injera, is incredibly popular. Injera is great for drawing up sauce and eating with other food. In my experience, while Ethiopian injera reminded me of a soft pita, the Somali injera was much more reminiscent of a crepe. Another difference I found between cuisines was that Ethiopian food is noticeably spicier.

Figure 2: East African inspired food, such as injera, in Guelph, Ontario. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Although culture can move around quite easily, not all aspects of cuisine are readily transferable. Given Somalia’s persistent conflict with neighbouring Ethiopia, known as the birthplace of coffee, as well as Somalia’s long colonization under Italy, I had suspected that Somalis would tend to drink coffee regularly (Daniel, 2016; Zoppi, 2015). However, although reliable statistics on beverage consumption in Somalia are difficult to find, it appears that Somalis drink notably more tea than coffee, but this could be changing with rising global coffee consumption (Hassan-Kadle & Musse, 2017). Nevertheless, however infused Somalia’s cuisine has become, it must be remembered that Somalis’ culture is ultimately defined by Somalis (Abdullahi, 2001).

Somalis beyond Somalia’s borders
While the previous section provides some summary of Somali cuisine for those living within the country’s borders, I was curious about the cuisine of Somalis living elsewhere. When I talked to Somalis whose family was from outside of modern day Somalia, they themselves identified as Somali. This was because they considered their homelands different from the formal boundaries of Somalia.
Coincidentally, in addition to Italy and the UK being notable to Somalia’s history, I happen to be British Italian myself. Unlike Somalia’s notion of nationhood, Italy and the UK are cosmopolitan formations of now subnational city-states and countries (MacDougall, 1999). As former empires, Italy and the UK each covered many regions and many peoples. Even for the citizens originally from far outside of these countries, many of these people still primarily identify with Italy and the UK as their nationalities (Innocenti, 2016).
In contrast to western conceptions of nationality, Somalia’s clan system underlies much of its national kinship (Zoppi, 2015). With or without Somalia, Somalis would endure because formalities do not define Somalis’ homelands, especially given the contentious nature of Somalia’s borders. For these reasons, many Somalis live outside of Somalia for generations yet still identify as Somali, first and foremost.

Canada’s national identity
2017 marked a milestone for Canada as the 150th anniversary of Confederation. In defining Canada’s national identity, this can lead to many conclusions: Canada is a cultural mosaic to an American melting pot; a former set of colonies to Franglish colonizers; and an inexplicit home to an underappreciated Indigenous diversity. When people discuss Canada, they describe Canada as being young. In contrast, when people describe Italy, they think of the Renaissance, the Roman Empire, and view Italy as being old, but in the past, people did not think of the competing Italian city-states as a singular entity (MacDougall, 1999). Despite the stark differences, people perceive Ancient Rome under Italy’s banner, yet not so for Canada’s long Indigenous past (Johnston, 1994). Whereas Italy has a collective sense of lineage, Canada’s lineage is fragmented. Similarly, people characterize Somalia as fragmented, yet not by national lineage, but by national conflicts over border disputes, clan lines and regional sovereignty (Zoppi, 2015). In comparison, the difficulty of Canada’s lineage is that it is anything but linear.
Although Canadians often compare ourselves to more populated countries, Canada’s population is larger than 80% of all other countries (United Nations, 2017). Geographically, Canada is well over double the combined size of the European Union, the now leaving UK, and the non-EU countries of Norway and Switzerland (Field Listing, 2017). Furthermore, Canada continues being a staple in sports, academia, arts, entertainment and business (Patel, 2016). The humility of the Canadian identity is that Canada could be the most grandiose country in the world, yet Canadians would still focus more on where we can improve rather than where we already excel.
While modest in person, Canadians’ thirst for national fulfilment has made self-promotion Canada’s battle cry on the world stage (Black, 2015; Cotter, 2017). Even in the Canadian flag, its designers did not choose the maple leaf’s 11 points out of symbolism, like the self-expressive American flag, but instead for excelling in being legible during wind tunnel tests (Matheson, 1980). Ever since, Canada’s flag very much succeeded in becoming among the most recognizable flags, despite having only existed since the 1960s (Cotter, 2017). Canada’s national identity is not obstructed from a lack of national recognition or being too young. Given Canada’s enigmatic past, its resulting identity invites individualistic discussion.

My Canadian identity
Although my family has lived in Canada for several generations, I still hold a sense of being an outsider in a country of outsiders. In reflecting upon the Canadian national identity, immigration is inescapable. Many newcomers are excited to be Canadian but do not yet feel that sense of belonging. For many immigrants, especially Somali Canadians, immigration has occurred in waves (Duff & Becker-Zayas, 2017). This was the case for my own ancestry.
I am half Italian, a quarter Swedish and a quarter from the UK (specifically, England, Scotland and Ireland). Although my Italian born grandparents almost exclusively spoke Italian in Toronto, neither myself nor my brothers learned much Italian. For my cultural connection to my Swedish side, my family’s relationship is further distant, yet we still occasionally eat Swedish cuisine. For my UK ancestry, dating back to the 19th century in Canada, my family has no culturally present connection in our activities, except from some external Canadian influences.

Figure 3: A Canadian landscape in Tiny, Ontario. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Without the active drive or exposure, culture can readily give way to other culture. Further still, many immigrants do not directly immigrate to Canada from one country. Instead, a lot of newcomers have already lived in multiple countries, and so they may feel a different linkage to their place of origin than what others may expect. As a result, culture can be difficult to pinpoint.

Canadian markets
Since 1827, Guelph has been the home to the second longest running farmers’ market in Canada (Basil, 2012). In modern times, Guelph’s Farmers’ Market has become a weekly outlet in which both farmers and resellers have sold produce and other items. Observers have often considered the City of Guelph a mid-sized Southern Ontario city (Census Metropolitan Area: 156,029) (Best, 2013: Statistics Canada, 2017). Guelph is situated an hour’s drive southwest of the Greater Toronto Area, and a twenty-odd minute drive from the over half a million populated Tri-Cities of Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge (Statistics Canada, 2017). While the quaint riverside housing and rural surroundings of Guelph present a small-town charm, the City’s ten-plus storey condos remind by-passers that they are nevertheless within reach of Toronto Land. It is this very juxtaposition of rural and urban that has caused marketing researchers to repeatedly choose Guelph as a representative of Canadians abroad (Cranfield, Henson, & Masakure, 2011).
Having been born and raised in Guelph, I have gone to the Farmers’ Market over the years. While there, you can find a snapshot of farming practices and trends. Onlookers can experience a diversifying market segmentation, emphasized in the popular terms of the day: organic, fair trade, locally grown, GMO free, and so on. As with other western assortments, many of the Market’s crops derive from around the globe. Tomatoes originally came from South America. Corn is from North America. Soya beans are from Asia. Coffee beans are from Africa. However, this is not a wide selection. A very small number of crops dominate western farming. Despite Ontario having more ethnic diversity than much of the rest of Canada, Ontario’s farmers are still predominantly Western European (Smithers & Sethuratnam, 2014).

What is adequate representation?
When shopping for produce beyond the common western options, the question of representation repeatedly occupied my thoughts. In the case of Somalis wanting ingredients and meals in the tradition of Somali cuisine, it can be difficult to tell how much demand there is and how enduring the demand is. Across Canada, farming has experienced aging and diminishing workforces. With proportionately fewer Canadians becoming farmers, it can be difficult to promote domestically grown ethnocultural produce for traditional Somali cuisine (Smithers & Sethuratnam, 2014). Instead, local markets are more likely to grow some of the more prominent crops, like okra. Unfortunately, to only grow a limited selection of traditional Somali ingredients is an incomplete solution.

Figure 4: Somali food in Etobicoke, Ontario. Photo by Stuart Filson.

Excessive importing is bad for the quality of food as well as for social wellbeing. Food presents and individual and communal connection which people cherish. If buying produce was always better, people would have little reason to garden. The various mechanisms of experiencing food highlight the importance of empowering Somali Canadians through different resources. However, rather than seek an all-encompassing solution for Somali Canadian food sovereignty, it is more reasonable to recognize the constraints and work through the priorities to achieve an optimal solution.

Answering Somali Canadian food sovereignty
Few things are as emblematic to culture as cuisine. In Canada, people often treat culture as a recreational experience. Although culture can be very enjoyable, we should take time to reflect on the deeper meanings. Without recognizing the origins of culturally discernible food, we can too easily ignore the value in these activities. By neglecting food sovereignty, we neglect people’s connection to cuisine. In turn, people can quickly turn to the lowest common denominator of an unhealthy, cheap and fast industrialized diet (Ambalam, 2014). In an increasingly globalized world, it is valuable to shift our eating habits away from the unsustainable temptations of the industrialized diet by empowering our relationship with food from the bottom-up (Ambalam, 2014).
From talking to multiple Southern Ontarian individuals that immigrated from not just Somalia, but also Nigeria and Uganda, I heard people express that culture should not be restrictive of cuisine. I had gone in with the assumption that culture was what made traditional Somali food important. However, from these interviews, I became more concerned about other qualities of food: freshness, cost, choice, and more generally, access. Simply put, the people I interviewed wanted the freedom to have food the way they felt. They did not want to be boxed in by either an overly restrictive western selection or a preconceived notion of traditional food.
Without trying to speak for Somali Canadians abroad, I have come to believe that to empower Somali food sovereignty, the word “Somali” should not mean others’ conceptions of Somali culture but should instead represent Somali people and their interests. As I have seen, Somali Canadian food sovereignty is valuable, not simply for cherishing and potentially expanding upon Somali culture. It is through ensuring Somali Canadian food sovereignty that Canadians abroad can benefit from the rich heritage between Somalis and their foods.

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Stuart Filson, Graduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario, SEDRD, University of Guelph
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