Discover YYC’s diverse cultures on your dinner plate

Comber THUMBLiving in Calgary, we are no strangers to the stereotypes that surround our city as the “Heart of the New West.” Country music, pickup trucks and all-things-western abound amongst our historical culture.

Bearing that in mind, as Calgary has evolved over the years and grown from a wooden fort to a bustling metropolis of over 1.15 million people, our city has also seen the addition of many different cultures from around the world.

 According to statistics published by the University of Calgary, in 2010 roughly 30 per cent of Calgary’s population – at the time settling around one million – was due to immigration. The same study estimates that by 2020 Calgary’s immigrant population will be around half a million and that the majority of people immigrating to Calgary are from the Philippines, India and China.

Yet, Calgary’s stereotypical cowboy-culture maintains dominant in the public eye – despite our city’s vibrant multicultural landscape.

Putting Culture on Your Plate

Discovering YYC’s plethora of diverse cultures is as simple as going out for dinner – many of these cultures have chosen to share their traditions and customs within the Calgary community through opening restaurants that showcase unique meals inspired by their heritage.

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Three such restaurants are Mimo, Calgary’s sole Portuguese restaurant, Clay Oven, one of the city’s oldest Indian restaurants and Picaditas Latin Foods, whose menu specializes in Colombian and Mexican dishes.Bal Preet Gill of Clay Oven says that his family’s restaurant keeps his culture alive through the traditional Punjabi food that they prepare.

Photo by Sarah Comber

Carla Da Costa, daughter of Mimo’s owners Isabel and John Da Costa, says that running a restaurant keeps her in touch with her Portuguese roots.

“I have such a patriotic love for the country even though I was born here, I am a Portuguese-Canadian,” says Da Costa, adding that when customers visit the restaurant they learn about the history and culture of Portugal – from the stories behind each dish that is served, from her parents’ personal story and even from the décor of the building’s interior.

“It’s like taking a little piece of Portugal with them,” says Da Costa.

Food Connects Cultures

Helen Vallianatos, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta who has specialized in the connection between food and culture, says that food is able to connect people through time and place.

“Its sensory aspects connect to our memories,” says Vallianatos. “Because of that, food can work in a powerful way to connect immigrants to the homeland.”

She adds that through the cooking of foods that remind one of home, those connections are being recreated every day.

Bal Preet Gill, co-owner of Clay Oven, says that the culture of his family is kept alive through the restaurant’s food.

“We have very high standards in terms of our food quality,” says Gill. “We want authentic Indian food, a lot of Indian restaurants do fusion menus and we stay away from that.”

Vallianatos says that food is one of the last markers of identity to shift in immigrant groups. She adds that eating patterns change when people immigrate – especially to North America, because society’s fast-paced lifestyle leaves little time to eat during the workday.

“Breakfast is usually the first to change to something that is more normal to North America. Dinner is the last meal to change over time,” she says. “After that, even if dinner has changed – around three generations in – traditional cuisines might be held onto for weekends and special occasions.”

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Indeed, Gill adds that Clay Oven serves traditional Punjabi food. “We don’t want to cut corners when it comes to the food.”Clay Oven’s recipes have been passed down to Bal Preet Gill by his father, Gurnek Singh Gill, who founded the restaurant.

Photo by Sarah Comber

Furthermore, Gill says that traditionally the food is shared and that utensils are not used – only hands. That being said, cutlery is offered at his restaurant.

Walking the Line

Vallianatos explains that the tension between what is authentic and what adaptations restaurants have to make to cater to the majority is quite complex.

“On the one hand, they need to earn money and survive,” says Vallianatos, adding that the rise of “foodie culture” over the past few years creates an additional level of complexity – foodies seek out authentic, traditional cuisines that have not been changed to cater to North American tastes.

Da Costa says that in her culture meals are shared. “We serve you family style,” say says, and adds that it is expected for any food put on the plate to be eaten, as anything left in the serving trays can be taken home.

“My mother hates seeing waste,” says Da Costa with a chuckle.

(Contrarily, other customs like in the Chinese culture, it is actually considered impolite to not leave a small portion of food on your plate at the end of meal – which signifies that you are full and that your host has fed you well.)

Family First

Miguel Carreno, owner of Picaditas Latin Foods, says that family time and sharing a meal is very important in his native Colombia.

“For example, for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day families typically gather together,” says Carreno, adding that eating together is important because it keeps their family ties strong.Comber Mimo13Carla Da Costa of Mimo says that family is a vital part of the Portuguese culture and is kept alive through traditional Portuguese dishes – such as this flaming Portuguese sausage.

Photo by Sarah Comber

In terms of mixing family with business, both Gill and Da Costa say that while working with family isn’t always easy, the benefits far outweigh any challenges.

“They will work harder for you than regular staff would,” says Gill, “They are emotionally invested in the business and they do care.”

Da Costa says that with any other business there is less time to spend with family, whereas working at Mimo together means they get to spend a lot of time together as a family.

She adds that because the Da Costas do not have a lot of family in the city, their customers become a part of their family and community.

“Everyone knows how we’re doing and we know how they are doing … I don’t think the customers or myself would want to get rid of that feeling. It is our own unique way.”

Vallianatos says that the creation, consumption and sharing of a meal can speak to people in many different ways.

“Food can speak to the social relationships of people both present and absent and connect us between time and place. It has a sensory aspect that we closely associate with our memories” he explains. “Food acts as a symbol as well – through the consumption of food one can mark boundaries of inclusion or exclusion. How we eat speaks to our identities.”

Stay tuned for a multimedia component with more information on Calgary’s diverse cultural eats!

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