The strength of Canada lies in our diversity. Our harmony comes from knowing that there is commonality within this diversity.
Our first home in Canada was in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montréal. Back then it was far from being the gentrified hipster hangout that it is now. It had served as the stomping grounds for waves of immigrants, notably English Protestants, Irish Catholics, Jews, Greeks, Italians and Portuguese, long before we arrived. By the time we settled there, in the 70’s, it was already embedded with relics from its rich history.
Every Saturday morning, we took the 55 south to do our weekly shopping on The Main or boulevard Saint-Laurent as it is officially called or Saint Lawrence Boulevard as it was called back then among English-speaking Montrealers. My parents found the shops along this strip far less daunting than the pristine aisle of the large chain stores like Steinberg’s and Simpson’s. These smaller shops were more in line with what they had been accustomed to back home in India. Money was tight and if a little haggling could save a few quarters and pennies, it made all the difference. On Saturday mornings, the place was bustling, streaming with new and old immigrants alike. Everyone spoke with a different accent if not a different language and although everything was new for us, we were strangely comforted by the diversity of it all.I might have bumped into her or brushed past her one of those mornings but we were only destined to really know each other later on in life. I, a skinny, brown pre-schooler with big brown eyes. One look and you would’ve known that we were poor. She, I imagine, would’ve been a petite lady with a stern German accent, perfectly coiffed blond hair, and of course those crystal blue eyes, that I would later come to know, behind large rimmed glasses. You could’ve looked deep into those eyes but never would you have guessed the stories they kept.
In those early years, we had to adapt to new foods as many of the ones we were accustomed to were unavailable here. So we bought peaches instead of guava, apples instead of mangoes, and staples like white bread, peanut butter and canned tuna earned a place alongside our beloved roti, rice and dal.
I can imagine the horror my parents must have felt upon opening a can of tuna for the first time, especially my mom as she had grown up in a sleepy fishing village along the Arabian Sea not far from where Gandhi led his Salt March in 1930. There, fish was eaten daily, bought fresh, straight from the fisherman who had caught it earlier that morning. Occasionally, we would step into the fish market, Waldman’s, to buy fresh fish. But the reality of our new life was that fresh fish was now an expensive commodity that we could barely afford and so a visit to Waldman’s was limited to special occasions. Instead, my maternal grandmother (back in the sleepy fishing village) would send us parcels of dried ocean treasures such as Bombay duck, baby shrimp and fish roe. She would arrive at the wharf early enough to eye the best catch and bargain enough to get the best price. Once home, she would meticulously clean the goods before salting them and setting them to dry on her rooftop. The salt, of course, was also obtained courtesy of the Arabian Sea just as Gandhi had instructed his people to do. She would then take her dried goods and travel to the nearest town housing a post office, purchase a metal container, pack everything neatly inside, have the lid welded onto it, and have it sent to us via ocean liners. The dried fish, shrimp, roe and of course the salt used to preserve them would all go back to where they came from-the Arabian Sea, and begin their journey ending at an address in Mile End. Only they would travel much more than a mere mile to get there. Weeks later, a letter would arrive assuring us that a parcel was on its way, and months later, the parcel itself would miraculously appear at our doorstep, banged up and having been opened up for inspection and then clumsily resealed, with a fishy odor escaping from it that the postman would be sure to leave us a sharp look before going about his route.
But even with those dried supplements, my mom could not turn away from the convenience afforded by a can of tuna. Of course, we did not eat canned tuna as is, straight from the can. It must have seemed unholy to her to not cook it first or eat it without any spices. Indian spices, of course. My mom would sauté onions, mix in some garam masala, cumin powder, chili powder and turmeric and then, as a last step, mix in the tuna. Canned tuna curry, you could call it. But in reality, it was more like onion curry as she used a fairly high ratio of onions to tuna. One can of tuna, you know, had to feed the whole family.
Decades later, my boyfriend (now husband) brought me to meet his grandmother. She and I hit it off like best buds from the start. You would’ve thought we had known each other from long ago. And maybe we had.
Over the years that I’d known her, she told me fascinating stories of growing up in Germany. She told me stories of the war; these ones would keep me up at night. (If I hadn’t already been a believer of Gandhi’s policy of non-violence, these surely would have turned me into one.) And then there was her personal heartbreak. By the time the Japananese would surrender to the Allies, she was a widow and a single mom. There wasn’t much left to keep her in Germany so she got on a boat headed to Canada with her new husband and young son to carve a new life. They could have settled further west or up north where the mining industry was in need of workers. But they settled here in Montréal two decades before my family would do the same. Those early years were tough, she reminded me often. “Lots of immigrants coming from Europe, each with their own scars and wounds, being German meant it was tough to find work,” she’d told me.
My husband remembers her best for her culinary skills. And rightfully so. On weekends when she was expecting her grandson over, she would head off early in the morning to Saint Lawrence Boulevard to buy fresh yeast from Saint Lawrence Bakery and cheeses and sausages among other delights from La Vieille Europe. Once home, she would prepare a feast for her only grandchild.
Even well into her 80’s, her recipes rested clearly in her mind. She would graciously recite them to me while I scribbled them down like a mad woman, lest my brain, high on pregnancy or new motherhood, would forget a detail. When she finished reciting the recipe for these rye and tuna patties she said, “I know, there’s a lot of rye in there. But you know, back then, times were tough and one can had to feed the whole family.”
Rye and Tuna Patties
- 100 g rye flakes (can be substituted with equal weight of oatmeal flakes)
- 90-100 g onion (about one small)
- 100 g canned tuna, drained*
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 1 egg
- 2-3 tbsp olive oil
- Grind the rye (or oatmeal) flakes using a blender to get a bread crumb-like consistency and add to a large bowl. (I use a mini blender.)
- Mix in pepper.
- Finely mince the onion or process in the blender and add to the bowl. (A mini blender will work well since it is a small amount.)
- Add egg and mix well.
- Mix in tuna, breaking it up to get a homogeneous mixture.
- Add olive oil to a large skillet or frying pan and spread it around.
- Using your hands, form 8 patties and place on skillet.
- Cook on low-medium heat, covered, for 10-12 minutes, until browned.
- Flip over and cook for another 5-10 minutes, until browned.
*Canned tuna is one of the most unsustainable types of fish. Please shop responsibly. Here are some helpful resources: