Dine with me:
How Food Brought Me Community

In Food by Ola Idris

I imagine Ethiopia tastes like minced raw beef, marinated in mitmita and niter kibbeh. I imagine it is hot and hospitable. Japan must taste like vinegared rice, with a serving of raw fish and vegetables. I’ve never been, but I have tasted them. Offered to me through the memory of their expatriates, at the bazar in my high school in Uganda, it felt like the world came for dinner, and the menu was your passport. 

I love food. More importantly, I love when my friends offer me food. I loved listening to my friends share their pride in their home countries and where they are from. 

Most of my fondest moments as a little girl probably involved food. Food has been a connecting factor between me, cultures and humanity in so many ways and continues to be a part of my comfort. This isn’t unique to just me. When we are growing up, we usually are exposed to the food of our culture and it becomes an intrinsic part of who we are. When we go anywhere, we carry it with us, even if it’s subconscious. And when we go off to college, excited to taste independence and freedom, a little while in we miss the warmth and familiarity of a home-cooked cultural meal. 

Through my journey of being a third culture kid, I have tasted what homes feel like for others. Slowly, I have come to understand how sharing our food and culture can become a bonding and learning moment. I learnt about my friends’ life experiences while sharing a meal with them, and I got to value human experiences and connections even more once I met them in their cultures when I tasted their traditional dishes. 

When I was in high school in Uganda, I was honoured to attend a school that had such a myriad of students from all over the world. Once a year, our school would host a cultural day. The day consisted of performances from each culture and a bazaar. Although I loved watching the dances and the skits by my friends, my favourite part was the bazaar. Each cultural tent had posters and tokens from their homelands and would put out samples of food so students would get the chance to go around trying out the different cuisines and sharing moments of joy. Every year without fail, there was always a new culture or food item. It allowed me to try Japanese sushi for the first time and even a raw meat delicacy from Ethiopia called kitfo. I decided then that maybe uncooked food wasn’t so bad as I had been told by my family when I was a young girl. One year I even got to eat Congolese Caterpillars. Their crunch followed by a tangy taste of the juices in the caterpillar is a fond memory for sure, but one I am not looking to replicate any time soon! Needless to say, each year my stomach got a bunch of little surprises and I loved it. I loved listening to my friends share their pride in their home countries and their cuisines. I loved being in this space where all our identities were equally celebrated and cherished. Looking back, it felt like a great symbolism for humanity. 

I spent most of my summers in Sudan, in my grandmother’s home. Our home was always full. My aunt and her five kids lived there, and it was also a common stop for the neighbours, family and friends. This meant that most times, food times were big moments filled with laughter and union. In Sudan, meals are usually had around a circular tray and everyone just shares the food—unlike in the West where people are served on separate plates. My aunts, uncles, cousins, and guests would all be hunched over this tray eating and chatting about our days. Although it’s been a while since I have been in Sudan and experienced meals in this fashion, the feeling has a special place in my heart, and always is tucked with other feelings of ‘home’. 

The only time we didn’t eat in this tradition was during the month of Ramadan. Ramadan is the holy month in Islam where Muslims fast from sunrise and then break their fast with ‘Iftar’ at sunset. This one meal was also a time where people would come together to celebrate. It was common that guests would walk into our house a couple of minutes before we broke our fast to eat with us so every day. It would be a big meal set up with many different types of food and juices. Some staples at every meal were Sudanese black beans, Sudanese falafel (made from chickpeas), multiple kinds of salads and always some kind of meat. We would fill the dining room with music or just natural sounds of laughter, and as kids, we were so excited because every day felt like a feast! 

When I immigrated to Canada, I was upset because I knew that Ramadan would not be the same. Here the days were longer and hotter, so it was harder to fast, and I would not get to experience that sense of family and community in the same way. So, I was so excited when I found out that the Sudanese community in Mississauga held weekly get-togethers during Ramadan to break the fast. Sudanese from all over the city would meet up, every family would bring a different dish and folks would share this one night a week together. I got to meet some of my closest Sudanese friends at these gatherings, and it was so special to me because I had just moved and was longing for familiarity and new friends. Food always had a way of bringing people together who are meant to be in our lives. 

I was glad that most summers I would be in Mississauga rather than Waterloo, so I could attend the weekly Ramadan get-togethers. But in the summer of 2019, I had a study term and unfortunately, that meant I had to be in Waterloo all summer. 

I slowly started to fully understand how important it was to have a community, especially with other Sudanese folk in the midst of the Sudanese Revolution of 2019. Most of us felt disconnected and were yearning for some feeling of home, so my friend and I decided to bring our friends together to break our fast together in Waterloo. We also decided to invite a bunch of our other non-Sudanese friends to have them experience a Sudanese Iftar. We treated it as a potluck and so everyone was able to contribute something. It ended up being one of the most healing nights of the summer. We played games, laughed through the stress of school, revolutions, being young adults, and life in general, and no one wanted the night to end. When it hit 2:00 a.m., the few folks that remained were adamant that we should stay up all night to have our meal before sunrise together. And so, about ten of us decided to take a short road trip from Waterloo to Toronto at 2 o’clock in the morning to have some Denny’s and prolong our time together for as long as we could. It was during that ride over that I realized how grateful I was to have people around me that understood how important it is to come together and enjoy these moments of human connection. I reflect on that night often, especially since this year we weren’t able to do any kind of social gatherings for Ramadan due to the pandemic. If anything, experiencing the isolation of 2020 has made me more grateful for the memories I do have surrounded by love and friends. 

Food is a tying piece for me to understand culture, to seek comfort, to connect with my family and friends, and to feel connected to my roots. Even today, when I feel homesick, a good Sudanese meal makes me feel a whole lot better, almost like my spirit is transported home for that little while. I hope I never lose that feeling that food gives me, and I hope I continue to honour the cultures that it exposes me to.