How we can grow our own (not so) exotic ingredients right here in the GTA
There's no more direct gateway into an unfamiliar culture than an invitation to taste its food. With its sidewalk grocers' stands loaded with produce from around the world, Toronto extends countless invitations to taste the unknown. What are those brown, barrel-shaped tubers? How would I cook "desi kerala"? How hot are those tiny multicoloured peppers?
In Kensington Market, on Gerrard East, along Spadina and Bloor West and Eglinton—in fact, in every neighbourhood with a concentration of residents who've arrived in recent decades from some other country—shopkeepers have reassembled the essential foodstuffs of the expats' national cuisines. Much of this produced has travelled thousands of miles from other countries. But for some vegetables, that long commute to our tables may be about to change, thanks to a brilliantly simple partnership between Ontario farmers and food scientists.
When you're talking coconut, yuzu and mango, importing makes sense—we can't grow those things here. But why aren't local farmers supplying the things we could be producing in Ontario? Well, partly because no one told the farmers they wanted to buy those crops, and partly because the varieties bred for production in other countries may not fare so well here.
In order to grow a crop commercially in Ontario, it needs to reach its full development within our rather short growing season. It must be able to cope with Ontario temperatures and humidity levels, and it must be resistant to the types of insects and plant diseases that thrive here. (Case in point: apparently early Ontario settlers planted lots of quince trees here, because they were used to cooking with quinces, which are related to apples and pears. They gave up when they lost crop after crop to Fire blight, a bacterial disease that lives here but isn't generally found in Europe.)
When researchers at Niagara's renowned horticultural science facility, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre
, put their heads together with members of the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association
, "they recognized the opportunity of Ontario's changing demographic," says Michael Brownbridge, the centre's research director of horticultural production systems. "That changing diversity can be used to drive innovation."
It could also potentially drive millions of dollars into the pockets of local farmers, while reducing Ontario's carbon footprint.
The innovation in question is an ethnocultural vegetables program that's working to develop varieties of food crops that will appeal to shoppers from other countries, but which also have the potential to become viable commercial crops for Ontario farmers.
In the 2006 Census
, close to 300,000 people of South Asian heritage were living in Toronto—12 per cent of the city's population—while almost 700,000 were living in the GTA; that's more than half the South Asian population of Canada. Toronto's Chinese residents made up a further 11.4 per cent. The 2011 Census figures aren't in circulation yet, but they're likely to show that Toronto's diversity has increased, with strong immigration from Latin America, Asia and parts of Africa.
"This is a substantial market," says Brownbridge. "Research done at the University of Guelph two or three years ago indicated that the purchasing size of the market was worth about $61 million per month in the GTA on behalf of three specific groups: South Asian (Indian, Pakistani and so on), Chinese and Afro-Caribbean."
The Vineland researchers are working with growers, but also with retail businesses, distributors and consumers, to make sure there's a market for the plants they develop. It's not enough for the plant to grow well; it also has to have the right shape, colour, texture and taste. "That's integral to the work we do, having that consumer feedback," says Brownbridge.
For now, the program is focusing on okra; yard-long beans; long thin "Oriental" eggplants and the small round "Indian" type; two varieties of hot pepper (Chinese and Thai), and bottle gourd, which is something like a large zucchini. At this stage, plants are in the fields, and the crops are already beginning to reach grocery stores around the GTA.
Shoppers may find these experimental vegetables in Longo's 26 stores, in the smaller Golden Groceries chain, or in shops served by Caledonia Produce, a distributor that works with "the small corner store up to Loblaws," Brownbridge says. Some of the growers are selling through the Ontario Food Terminal, and a few, like Margaret Zondo and Rodney Garnes of Southern Horizons, will turn up at farmer's markets around town.
The first goal is to start supplying the local market with locally grown produce four months a year, but so far there's no end point in sight. The current crops may need tweaking, new ones could be added, and the program could expand its focus to processed food as well.
"If you go into any of the ethnic stores, in the freezer section you'll find frozen okra from India," says Brownbridge. "Now we're focusing on production of fresh produce, but in the long term, do we see an opportunity? Yes. If we could also grow for the processing market, potentially we could supply 12 months of the year," he says. "It's an industry that's in its infancy."
Sarah B. Hood's writing explores the culture of food, fashion, urban life, environment and the arts. Her latest book,
We Sure Can! How Jams and Pickles are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food, has been shortlisted for Taste Canada—The Food Writing Awards 2012
The main photo was provided by Vineland Research and Innovation Centre. The veggie photos were taken at a Toronto market by Sarah B. Hood.
Correction: The captions on the secondary photos were changed on August 22, 2012, to reflect their status as replaceable imports, not Ontario produce.