Homesick newcomers finding comfort in familiar food as they tackle COVID blues

·5 min read
Homesick newcomers finding comfort in familiar food as they tackle COVID blues

They call it comfort food for a reason.

Newcomers in Calgary are turning to treats and dishes from home more than ever during the pandemic, heading to Calgary's network of small ethnic stores and eateries for a taste of home to help ease a rise in homesickness.

Some are taking up cooking for the first time during the pandemic, sharing traditional dishes with their families and making up for missing out on visits back to friends and family due to travel restrictions.

Many are finding food is a healer when it comes to reducing stress and helping with their mental health as they face homesickness and isolation.

"It's quite depressing because I'm a new mother," said J.B. Anilao, who lives in the new community of Cornerstone. "I'm cooped up in the house 24/7."

Her husband is at work during the day.

"I think about what it is to be home and what are the things that make me feel at home."

A short walk away is a home-based online Filipino grocery store.

It serves mostly local Filipinos. Anilao says the right food can make everything better for a while.

"I can taste my mom's cooking. It cures the homesickness. We can't go home because of COVID, and it really helps," she said.

"For people like us, from other countries, it's very comforting. It feels like you're in your home country. Your mom is cooking, your brothers and sisters are there, your father is there," she said.

She's been cooking chicken adobo. Her local store sells a DIY package with all the ingredients needed to make Filipino dishes from scratch. It's a big hit with Filipinos who need an authentic taste of home right now.

Submitted by J.B. Anilao
Submitted by J.B. Anilao

"Three steps and you're done. The homesickness is cured," she said.

"I feel like my mom is cooking with me here."

The owner of her local Filipino food store says customers are all feeling an extra pinch of homesickness right now.

"They feel more homesick. More of them are buying food and even cooking their own meals. It's their way of coping with homesickness because these are the foods we actually grew up eating," said Ailene Dela Torre, who runs Cornerstone Online Grocery.

She's talking about dishes like adobo and bicol express. Adobo is meat, usually chicken or pork, marinated in spices and served with rice. Bicol express is a type of pork stew using coconut milk and spices.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

"Since we migrated to Canada, it's become our comfort food," said Dela Torre.

"These are the things when I'm not feeling well or feeling sad, these foods bring happy memories to me. I associate it with family and it really helps me with homesickness," she said.

"During COVID, people are being more conscious with their budget, so people are also looking for food they can cook at home. There's a lot of demand during COVID."

Dela Torre said many younger immigrant families don't know how to cook traditional dishes and now some are using the time they have due to the pandemic to try.

"One of my customers says when they cook traditional food it's like a legacy, she's passing it on to her daughter. The smell, it's cooking with love and it's their way of coping with homesickness," said Dela Torre.

It's a common theme across the city for immigrants of all backgrounds and from all corners of the world. Food triggers memories of happier times and brings a special and unique comfort.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

Bhanu Sharma arrived in Calgary from India in the summer of 2019.

"One feels homesick when away from their homeland or home country. It happened to us," said Sharma.

"It has been one year now that people have not been able to go home. Almost all of the world has been in lockdown," he said.

"People really feel homesick right now."

His passion for cooking Indian food helps him feel better.

"I overcome it easily, just because of food," he said.

"Food is not just food, it's an experience, it has memories, so you remember: 'I had this kind of food in my hometown at this particular restaurant.' You get connected to the food," said Sharma.

Sharma cooks and shares videos of his recipes and dishes, like his favourite kadhi chawal, through his Urban Halwaee Facebook page.

He talks about optimizing and tweaking ingredients to make up for things you just can't get in Canada.

He says he's connected with others through sharing his food on social media and made new friends.

Counsellors who work with newcomers say food can play a huge part in combating isolation during the pandemic.

"Especially during COVID, the impacts are more exasperating in terms of mental health for newcomers," said Shamaila Akram, manager of vulnerable populations and a counsellor with the Centre For Newcomers.

Akram says mainstream food banks are often not culturally appropriate, and newcomers also face economic and social barriers to food that can help.

Dan McGarvey/CBC
Dan McGarvey/CBC

The centre has been offering and delivering food tailored to the tastes of newcomers from different countries with familiar foods from their home countries.

"Food, it creates a feeling a connectedness that reduces the risk of social isolation," she said.

"Someone from the Filipino community or African diaspora, they have a feeling of connectedness, a feeling of inclusion and a feeling they are not alone in their struggle," said Akram.

"It influences their mental health in a positive way," she said.