Newcomers: The Food Journey
by Teenaz Javat
"I traded my business suit for an apron. And I can proudly say I have no regrets." With this thought, Anita Asli, a supplier of home-cooked meals, narrates her journey from investment banker to cook.
Asli, an amateur gourmet cook, immigrated to Canada with her husband and two children from Karachi, Pakistan 11 years ago. Like most newcomers they settled in an area where public transit was easy to come by. However, her husband found work in Peel region, so they moved to an apartment near Square One, the hub of downtown Mississauga.
Not one to stay at home, Asli worked as a banker for several years until she decided to stay home to cook! "Coming from Karachi we had a culture of eating out. Come Thursday evening (as the weekend was Friday and Saturday), our friends would decide on a place to have food together. Being an Islamic country, public consumption of alcohol was banned, so our social life revolved around food."
"However, in Toronto we knew very few people when we came, so eating at restaurants on Gerrard Street (which caters to the south Asian palate) became a lonely experience. Not just that, it was expensive to eat out on a shoestring budget. But we still went as my girls used to love it," says Asli.
Then Asli discovered an East Indian greengrocer who would sell them everything from speciality vegetables found in south Asia to meats and chicken marinated to suit the spicy south Asian tastes. "I soon realized that for a fraction of the cost, I could recreate restaurant food right here in my kitchen. From Halim which is a mix of six different lentils and meat to Nihari, a slow cooked meat allowed to simmer in its own juices, I could very easily make everything at home. It seemed like we never left Pakistan," she adds.
""Being of South Asian origin, our cooking, if done from scratch, seems to take forever. Most of the meats require slow cooking," she says."It is quite unlike the quick-fix stir-fry you find in most East Asian diets. Plus our food is almost always accompanied with rotis or naan, which is yet another labour-intensive item to prepare."
So a few years ago Asli traded her business suit for an apron and now, it seems she cannot cook quickly enough to satisfy her never-ending line of customers.
Her food is consumed by many – from women who hold down full-time jobs to stay at home mums. They all have one thing in common—they crave food from back home and do not find enough time in the day to prepare it. For large families, paying restaurant prices every night is just not an option.
It’s just like the average Canadian family who sometimes takes in a pizza or a burger meal home for dinner. Instead, in this case, the take-out experience is in the form of tandoori chicken or lamb with naan or biryani (a meat and rice combo) with raita (yoghurt salad).
For Mehra Hansotia bringing up two children (who are now adults), holding a full time job and commuting from Mississauga to Toronto took up the better part of the day.
Hansotia has been in Canada for 15 years and after having experimented with restaurant food and fast foods, settled in on a regular supply of home-cooked meals.
"I cannot imagine what I would have done without people like Anita. I buy a week’s supply of her food. It is pre-cooked, packed neatly in tin foil, labelled and ready to go. One gets tired of eating out all the time and for a fraction of that cost I can get home-cooked meals. Sometimes I find it much more cost effective to buy her food rather than cook it from scratch. My kitchen stays clean, I save time on grocery shopping and all I do is lay the table, heat the food and we are done," says Hansotia.
For Hansotia who sometimes looks after her elderly father, outsourcing meals is a God-sent opportunity, just like it is for many newcomers who live in multi-generation family homes.
"Most afternoons at work we eat in the food court as we like to broaden our taste to the gastronomic delights that Canada has to offer; but for my elderly father having pre-cooked Asian meals for lunch is a blessing. And when my entire family sits down to dinner it is almost always ‘home cooked meals’. The difference is just that they are not cooked at my home." How easy can that be?