Comfort food: how scientists, farmers and new Canadians sire welcoming world crops to Ontario soil.

Author:Van Halem, Emily
 
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TWO SUMMERS AGO, I was on a mission of sorts. I was learning how to authentically cook vegetables I had never heard of from around the world. But instead of travelling to East Asia for gai Ian or the Caribbean for callaloo, I neighbourhood-hopped around Toronto to Chinatown and Little Jamaica.

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Before long, I could name four different ways to make salsa verde, advise others on how to cook okra so it didn't get slimy, and tell the difference between choy sum, yu choy, gal Ian and bok choy (90 per cent of the time). While my newfound passion was rooted in my genuine love for culinary adventure, it was expedited by a fortuitous change in jobs that had me doing cooking demos with culturally diverse vegetables at farmers' markets--where crops like these were increasingly popping up. I was going global but eating local and loving every minute of it. It turns out that I was far from alone.

Canadian food tastes have never been more varied. Living in Toronto, I can peruse a dozen types of kimchi in a Korean supermarket in one moment and, in the next, be taking in the aroma of fresh curry leaves in an Indian variety store. Myriad restaurants offer up the delectable tastes of the planet and every type of fusion under the sun. This incredible range of offerings reflects a changing demographic among newcomers to Canada. About one-fifth of Canada's population is foreign-born, and city centres reach even higher densities--more than 45 per cent of Toronto's population is new to Canada, and nearly 40 per cent of Vancouver's. But it's not just that new Canadians are enjoying the flavours of their homeland; the eating habits of both new and established Canadians are increasingly cross-cultural.

The global food system and its complex transit web enables North American eaters to have access to pretty much any food at all times of the year. Canada's citrus- and banana-laden trade routes to Latin America and the Caribbean are well established and have made tropical fruits household staples. And now, with a recent influx of newcomers to Canada from Asia and Africa, it's not unusual to find bitter melon, cassava and okra lining grocery store shelves. This is great news for both the culinary-curious and those who use these crops as daily staples. Food, after all, is the core of culture and identity, and having access to the tastes of 'back home' can help ease the transition to a new land.

Yet local-food advocates have been wondering if some of these worldly crops could save themselves a trip around the world and be grown in Canada instead. Of course, tropical perennials like the banana don't stand a chance in Canadian winters without a heated greenhouse. But heat-loving vegetables are perfect candidates for what, in economic terms, is called import substitution.

Wouldn't it be great if Canada's cultural diversity could be reflected in the soil as well as in our cities? There may be no better way to make the local food movement more inclusive to those who find greater delight in callaloo than carrots.

To be fair, foods from around the world have long been cultivated in Canadian soils. In fact, most of what grocery stores offer today originally hailed from abroad and came to Canada with earlier immigrant waves. In a similar vein, the more recent waves of immigrants have brought their own crops too. A trip to one of Toronto's many community gardens will prove that culturally diverse vegetables have already set roots here. It is the commercialization of these vegetables that is just starting to sprout. Until recently, unless you grew bottle gourd in your backyard or community garden, you'd be hard-pressed to find it sourced locally at the grocery store.

But that's about to change thanks to the trailblazing work of several Ontario-based institutions. The University of Guelph, FarmStart and the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre have been investigating the potential of growing and selling various Asian, African, Caribbean and Latin American vegetables in Ontario and beyond. These crops don't easily fit into any singular classification, but are often referred to as "ethnic," "ethno-cultural" or "world" crops.

The University of Guelph's Ethno-Cultural Vegetables Ontario (ECVO) project conducted some initial research with FarmStart to identify the market size for Asian, Caribbean and African vegetables. Their tally pegged the total retail value of these crops entering just the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) at a staggering $732 million annually, primarily from overseas producers. This research not only confirmed that newcomers to Ontario are continuing to consume cultural favourites like okra or Indian eggplant, but also that there is actually a substantial opportunity for local farmers to access a portion of this rapidly expanding market.

Seeing the obvious opportunity for local farmers, Niagara-based Vineland Research and Innovation Centre launched its own research program into the cultivation and market development for world crops. Now in its fourth season, Vineland has studied...

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