Immigrant Tales – Alien food

Toronto skyline with CN Tower (c) Ajesh Sharma
Toronto skyline with CN Tower (c) Ajesh Sharma

I think you all know by now, or should, that I moved countries. In fact, I moved continents. Not physically, no. No, not literally! That’s impossible! I moved myself from one continent to the other nearly 2 decades ago. Whew! I’m glad we got that sorted out. Well, I had a request to write about that experience. Specifically, the issues faced by immigrants in a foreign land. Food wise. For immigrants, read ‘aliens’. Never one to miss an opportunity to write about something, anything, no matter how weird, I jumped at this one. About 5 days ago. I’m currently suspended in mid-air…

A detailed article about the suicide, the murder, the crazy lady, the fire alarms, my crusty neighbour on the other side of the common room etc. is out of scope of this article.

Anyway, back in the summer of 1997 I left Calcutta (modern day Kolkata) bound for Toronto’s Pearson Airport. I came via Bombay (present day, Mumbai), then Delhi (modern day Delhi) and finally Toronto (modern day Chandigarh-Shanghai). I came with 2 suitcases, a passport with a fold out permit and US$ 550 in my pocket. I shall chat about that some other time.  As a penniless immigrant, I took up a room in a high school on Hurontario Street in the city of Mississauga. The school lay behind a funeral parlor and abutted Trillium Hospital, which figures in another couple of stories, to be told later.

Living in the school was a very strange experience. The entire 2nd floor was rented out to an odd collection of immigrants and refugees. The incumbents included young immigrant couples, married but temporarily single men like me, elderly refugees, a very odd single woman 3 doors from me and a crusty old man who had the room next to mine on the other side of the corner common room. The rooms were tiny, with space for a single bed, a built in desk, a cupboard and a sink. I also paid extra for a tiny refrigerator and a phone. It was a very interesting few months in there……

A detailed article about the suicide, the murder, the crazy lady, the fire alarms, my crusty neighbour on the other side of the common room etc. is out of scope of this article.

The bathroom, shared with the other residents, was across the corridor to my right. The large common kitchen was half a floor down. I bought myself a small plastic crate to carry my oils, spices, pots down to the kitchen. I would cook simple meals for myself. In the early days, I didn’t venture into cooking any meats at all. Just stuck to simple daals, okra ( of course 🙂 !! ). I learned to make cauliflower, broccoli, basic potato curries and rice. I would take a book down with me, start up the cooking, then sit legs up on the window sill and read while the food simmered. Not too bad as times go.

Grocery shopping was done on weekends and consisted of basic elements. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, bread, milk, coffee. There were two grocery stores about 500 metres from me. One took credit cards and the other didn’t. I don’t know how to make rotis. I know all about the geometry of rotis – I wrote an article on that once, remember? The art of kneading the dough, the rolling out and the actual making though, is still not one of my few skills.

The choice, therefore , was rice, or a roti substitute. At the time, the closest thing I could find to rotis was tortillas. Not quite the same thing, but not very different either. Then finding fresh okra was difficult. Frozen okra was a challenge and it took a few tries to get it right,so the ice off the okra didn’t make the curry into a sticky coagulated mash. Fresh okra was the gumbo variety not the Indian okra I was used to. Again, close, but not quite there. I had brought with me a round stainless steel container with 7 round bowls inside. I had also brought with me basic spices. Coriander powder, Cumin powder, red chilly powder and turmeric. Salt I could find easily at the grocery, the others were hard to find.

As I got to know the residents of the school, I found a couple of Indians who had been around longer than me. They pointed me to an Indian grocery store just a bit further on, at the corner of Hurontario and Dundas. That store has since expanded and taken over most of the strip mall now. At the time, it was much smaller, carried a few odd Indian vegetables but the main attraction of the store was the Indian spices and lentils which I could not get in the regular grocery stores.

I bought only limited quantities. First, I had no storage in my room. Then, cooking for one person was hard to do at first. Cooking for 2 or 3 people is easier than cooking for one. Many a day, after a long day, spent in public transport and on foot, dressed in a suit, I would come home totally exhausted and barely be able to throw a curry together. When tortillas were not available, I had the curry with slices of bread.

On the beat, looking for a job, I had to make do with cheap sandwiches. I started with McDonalds McFish and McChicken and often ate at small delis in Toronto or tinier convenience stores that carried shrinkwrapped sandwiches with indeterminate deli meat labelled “turkey” or “ham and cheese”. Some days, I was so hot from the walking around that I would stop and grab a small bottle of orange or apple juice. I can happily report that in nearly 2 decades of life in North America, I have not eaten a Big Mac, or a Whopper. Good, no?

It was a far cry from the world I’d left behind. Sandwiches in Calcutta were not the norm. Fruit juices were not available freely, other than Mohun’s Apple Juice, which my mother served to us when we were convalescing from the usual kiddie maladies. Food, especially after marriage, was varied and included raw papaya curry, encho curry, fish, chicken curries, usual daals, rice and fresh rotis. Of all the things, I missed the rotis the most. Tortillas just didn’t cut it. Once I found the Indian grocery store, though, I was able to get packs of naans and kulchas. A step up from tortillas! I learned how to heat up the kulchas / naans on a griddle from my sister-in-law; soak under tap, place on hot griddle, apply butter, flip, apply butter, wait 20 seconds and off. Comes out soft.

As the summer wore on, I was violently sick, carted off to Trillium hospital next door in an ambulance, had my first taste of grapefruit juice and then moved out of the city. First for a 4 week stint in Amherst, NY and Williamsville, NY and finally, Niagara Falls, ON. And the Indian food scenario became even more dire.  More on that in the next instalment.

Damn, I miss fresh rotis! Still!

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  1. ladyofthecakes

    I do love a good food story! 😉 I had wondered how you overcame the Canadian bhindi shortage, especially in the early days…

    1. TheLastWord

      Ok! I shall explore that in depth in the next episode of Immigrant Tales – The Great Okra Crisis.

      Where have you been? And why aren’t you writing? I almost sent you an email asking if you were ok…. Then got distracted by loss of both bathrooms upstairs and construction dust and chaos everywhere!

      1. ladyofthecakes

        All well here, just low on inspiration a the moment. Have some trips coming up shortly, that might kick me back into action 🙂 Can’t wait for your next instalment….

        1. TheLastWord

          Good to know! I myself went through a barren period recently. Just coming out of it.

  2. BellyBytes

    Once you eat a roti you are hooked for life! Whenever I travel abroad, after the first week I long for some daal chawal or roti Danzig. Equally after a week of non stop Indian food back home I make myself a sandwich or some Chinese or Italian food!

    1. TheLastWord

      Yeah, Rice just doesn’t cut it! Especially with okra!

      1. BellyBytes

        You obviously have had it up to here with okra! I really miss Indian veggies like lauki and methi when I’m abroad

        1. TheLastWord

          Oh no! I love okra. I can have okra anytime of the day or night!

  3. Carissa Hickling

    I’m always amused at reverse food tales.

    During my Delhi days of the mid-90s, there were few places to get cake. I remember when Gourmet Affair 1st opened their doors and the precious yummy ‘foreign’ baked treats!! So I made up my own recipes with yoghurt substituting for egg as required by the avid consumers of my ‘western’ cake. A friend just sent me a pic of my writing these made-up recipes with regular variations recently. What a blast to be reminded of 20+ years ago!

    The great thing about most cities in Canada is the items that earlier could only be found in ‘speciality’ stores are now in most mainstream grocery stores. For our late night veggie restaurant, we used to hop on our bicycle to China Town for a particular store that had bulk Thai noodle pouches. We’d throw together all sorts of other fresh ingredients and voila! One of our regulars favourite – hot, spicy, super quick and delicious.

    Looking forward to your next tale!!!

    1. TheLastWord

      Oh yes, You should see the Loblaws now – you get everything from Surati Corn Chevdo to achar! It’s a far cry from ’97. Plus all around me now within walking distance or easy driving distance I can get dosa, dabeli, pau bhaji and anything else I may want.

      How does yogurt replace eggs??? wow!

      1. Carissa Hickling

        Haha! Will be just one more thing to check out next month when back in Canada-land. 🙂 And yes, substituting yoghurt for eggs works!

  4. mrbooks15

    🙂 Reading this I remembered talking to someone (Indian) who’d had bhindi finding troubles when he and his family first moved to Geneva. Things he said, are much better now. And methi- my relatives in the states had to make do with a few leaves to flavour their aloos.

  5. veturisarmaisarma

    Ah…do they make a curry with Papaya? NEver heard of that

    1. TheLastWord

      raw papaya… like an aloo curry almost. thin gravy