Take your Food Traditions to Market

By Veronica Leonard

Canadians have a saying, "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach." For many new Canadians, it’s also the way to the hearts of their new community.

At farmers' markets across Canada, new Canadians are introducing their foods and traditions to the Canadian mainstream... one bite at a time.

Melku Gebrekristos came to Canada from Eritrea nine years ago with her three children. Although she was a trained laboratory technician and had owned a flower shop in her homeland, in Canada she found it hard to find a job whose hours would let her work around the needs of her young family.

Three years ago, she opened Laza Catering with a stall at the Guelph Farmers' Market. Her children help out in the preparation and sales of traditional Eritrean stews and injera, a gluten free flatbread.

"With the market business, I can work at the times and the way I want to and still be available for my kids. It's not only for the income. Guelph is not very diverse so it is a way to encourage the kids to show who they are through their food and traditions and be proud of whom they are."

Melku enjoys making her foods and talking about them with her customers. Although she now has another job, she still holds on to her market stall.

"I can't imagine not going. I'm addicted. It's a nice place with good networking to all different kinds of people. It has helped me learn about Canadian traditions, and connect with the community. I enjoy getting up early in the morning and going there."

Meral Mert runs the Turkish Delights stand at the same market in Guelph. She has had her market stall for eight of her nine years in Canada. She makes Turkish borek - flaky pastry with fillings like cheese, spinach, and ground meat - along with baklava and other Turkish desserts.

An outgoing person, Meral was lonely when she first came to Canada. The market let her practice English and meet people.

"The market was amazing. I now have customers that are coming every week and I have become very good friends with some of the other vendors. I really like the dynamic of it and I feel I am part of the community."

Although the stall only provides a supplementary income, the experience and the networking have been extremely good.

Antonina Durham runs an eclectic stall at the Belleville, Ontario Farmers' Market, with line of Russian comfort foods and crafts. Her specialty is belyash, a sourdough roll stuffed with sauerkraut or jam. She has recently added Eastern European perogies to her menu. A scientist with a PhD in microbiology, Antonina could be considered over-qualified for such work, but she doesn't think so. She finds year-round networking through the market fantastic, helping her as a leader of the Canadian-Russian Cultural Society to support the local Russian-speaking community.

Didier Laurent left his home in Belgium seven months ago when he bought a goat farm in Rexton, New Brunswick. He milks his 150 goats twice a day - except market days - and makes cheeses himself. The farm’s former owners had run a stall at the Fredericton Farmers' Market selling goat cheese, and Didier has added a second stall at the Dieppe Market. New Brunswick is a bilingual province, so although his English is very shaky there are lots of French-speaking people who shop at the market.

Didier also supplies goat cheese to grocery stores and restaurants. "Farmers' Markets are a great way to get your business known," he says.

Although most vendors can't live off their market sales, Betty Lee has found that patience pays off. Now in Canada 49 years, she has been selling Asian foods at the Fredericton Farmers' Market since 1974. She makes spring rolls, wontons, samosas, steamed buns, Mandarin sauce, sushi, crab Rangoon and egg rolls.

Betty was a pioneer in moving the Fredericton Farmers' Market beyond the sale of just meat and vegetables. She was a stay-at-home mother and the market allowed her to cook at home during the week and sell on the weekend. Her stand was a hit from the beginning.

"People used to say my spring rolls were the only reason they got out of bed on Saturday morning. Even the provincial Premier was a regular customer."

She bought her ingredients from other vendors and made friends through the market. Her first customers' children and grandchildren are now regular visitors. Betty Lee's Food Service is now a full time business supplying a number of Chinese restaurants, but the market stall is still her major sales outlet and the way she advertises her products.

Many catering companies, delis and restaurants across the country had their start at a farmers' market stall. Startup costs are not very high, and regulations from the Department of Health for food preparation are clear. Getting space at the crowded markets can be the biggest obstacle to overcome; and the rewards can be far more than just money.

This story is from the "For the Love of Food" InfoBlock. To read more stories on this topic, click here.