Youth weigh cultural cuisine in light of demand for local, sustainable food

RangiChangi Roots hosted a workshop in December at the first HSBC-Evergreen Youth Action Series to discuss sourcing local, organic food for ethnic dishes and supporting a sustainable diet.

Arzeena Hamir of Richmond Food Security Society. Photo credit: Sean Stiller

“If we removed the potato, tomato and chili from South Asian cuisine, would you recognize your favourite dishes?” asks Arzeena Hamir of the Richmond Food Security Society.

Her question elicits shy smiles and soft laughter from youth aged 15-20 gathered early Sunday, December 4, at the W2 Media Café. They’re here at a workshop organized by RangiChangi Roots to explore whether it’s viable to source local, organic food for ethnic dishes and support a sustainable diet.

“Youth aren’t as tied to doing things the way they’ve always been done—they’re resourceful and imaginative. Straddling the cultural divide, young people can help facilitate change at home with their parents,” Hamir explains.

An agronomist and garden writer, Hamir uses her personal history to make the case for fusion cooking that blends local, heart-healthy ingredients like kale with traditional dishes like curry. She recounts how her family migrated from Kutch in northwestern India to East Africa in 1908, and then to Canada in 1973.

“Of all the things that change when you move,” Hamir tells the participants, “the last you’re willing to give up as an immigrant is your diet.”

Yet, over time, her family’s diet altered to reflect both South Asian and East African influences.

To put this in broader context, Hamir reveals that three key ingredients we associate closely with South Asian cooking—the potato, tomato and chili—originated in the Americas. Through trade, these foods came to Asia where they were adapted to the local diet.

“Can the same be done in Vancouver’s multi ethnic community?” she asks us to consider. “Can we adapt our favourite dishes in order to be healthier and more sustainable?”

The question is taken up next by Tricia Sedgwick, founder of World in a Garden, a multicultural urban agriculture project demonstrating the nutritional, cultural, social and environmental benefits of a just and local food system.

Tricia Sedgwick of World in a Garden. Photo credit: Sean Stiller

“I didn’t want to just sit in an office and tell people what to eat,” Sedgwick explains.

A registered holistic nutritionist, she started the garden to help participants experience the seed to table process and promote cross-cultural acceptance.

“We can grow traditional foods locally but also adapt when we are unable to do so,” Sedgwick tells the crowd. “At World in a Garden, we grow as many of The Seven Species of Israel as we can but many of the traditional staples of the region can’t be grown here—like dates, pomegranates and olives.”

Consequently, Sedgwick urges her young audience to take another look at the traditional Western diet—not McDonald’s and Pizza Hut—but back to First Nations communities who have long acted as stewards of the land.

“Why not cultivate corn, beans and squash known as The Three Sisters by the First Nations?” she asks. Like real siblings who support one another, these three crops are planted together because each assists the other to develop. 

“Start by asking questions,” ends Sedgwick. “You don’t have to start a garden or make a big change—it’s about the small steps.” 

Additional workshops in the City of Vancouver will cover anti-racism, anti-discrimination and intercultural leadership training through citizenU, a three-year initiative designed to train 2,000 young leaders and reach youth from marginalized cultural communities. Following the program, up to 24 youth-driven community building projects will address the prevention of bullying, violence, crime and addictions.

Adding colour to the sustainable movement, RangiChangi Roots is an education, advocacy and networking hub of cultural and ethnically diverse groups working on green initiatives.

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