Passages Canada staff, Calina Ellwand and Maddy Macnab, recently took part in the Intercultural Dialogue Institute’s Meet Your Neighbours program, which gave them the opportunity to share a fast-breaking Iftar dinner with a Muslim family during Ramadan. The purpose of the program is to build bridges and exchange ideas across differences of culture and religion.
By Calina Ellwand
(August 13, 2014) – Having dinner with complete strangers in their home is definitely outside of my comfort zone. As I bike up to the newly renovated home of the Ece family in east Toronto, I wonder if this is going to feel like a long night. What will we talk about? What will we have in common? Will their food appeal to me?
As I enter the house and slip off my sandals, I am introduced to my hosts – Fatma and Onur Ece – who are, like me, new to the ‘Meet Your Neighbours’ program. Fatma’s blue eyes are full of anticipation as she hands me a pair of fluffy house slippers and ushers me to the couch telling me to sit and relax while she puts the finishing touches on her culinary masterpiece. With my feet in cozy slippers, I’m immediately more at ease.
I meet the other guests, the Badaks, a Muslim Turkish-Canadian family who are facilitating the evening on behalf of the Intercultural Dialogues Institute, and a professor from York University. Conversation begins stiltedly at first but my curiosity regarding their Islamic religious traditions and their immigration stories save me from too many awkward silences.
I ask about the joys and struggles of fasting. They explain that the physical deprivation of going without food or fluids for 17 hours a day for a month makes them feel more connected to their religious beliefs. They regard it as a very sacred time. Of course, it also comes with challenges. Apart from dinner, they wake up at 3 am to eat a small breakfast before the sun comes up but they find it hard to consume anything substantial at that hour, half-asleep. In the heat of summer, they get very thirsty by the end of the day.
At 9 PM, the sun has set and we are ushered around the table. It is laden with mounds of food. Fatma and her mother have been working all day to prepare traditional Turkish delicacies for their guests. The fast is traditionally broken by eating three dates. As our host Onur picks up his spoon and dips in to the first course, we all hungrily follow. They tell me the Turkish name for what we are eating: mercimek corbasi, a thick red lentil soup. It’s a very comforting dish for an empty stomach. Then comes a dish of veal stewing in a tomato broth poured over strips of chicken mixed with creamy white rice. Next, fried-then-roasted eggplant that is a silky smooth texture stuffed with spiced ground beef and slathered with tomato sauce.
In the middle of the table is a plate piled high with sarma, grape leaves tightly bound around a filling of rice and herbs. The dish looks very work-intensive. Fatma explains that when she first moved to Canada, she struggled to get her hands on the right leaves. She would have her sister send her kilos of grape leaves from Turkey until she happened to find out from another Turkish woman living in Canada that Toronto’s parks are full of the stuff! She ventured in to Caledonia Park and found wild grape leaves in abundance. She filled several plastic bags of leaves but not before a curious onlooker approached to ask what on earth she was doing!
The leaves go through an intensive process that involves cleaning, boiling and canning so that they are eventually soft enough to be used as an edible wrap. The process takes over a month. Turkish families always have sarma on hand. They are eaten throughout the day as a snack and at mealtimes. You must always have some waiting in the fridge, ready to serve!
Despite the space in my stomach diminishing at an alarming rate, I continue to eat the food in front of me. It is all too good to pass up and they keep reminding me that I will never taste Turkish food like this in a restaurant. Homemade is always so much better.
After the meal, as I get up from the table to stretch my aching stomach, Fatma notices me admiring a platter of engraved silver cups and saucers. She says that these have come all the way from her home in Turkey and they are for serving the strong Turkish coffee that caps off a meal. The coffee wakes me right up and I’m ready to get back on my bike for the ride home.
Before I can leave, Fatma fills my knapsack with leftovers and we promise to keep in touch. We are neighbours after all.
Read about Maddy’s experience here.
[Source: Historica Canada Blog]