A Taste of Something New: Adapting to Food in a New Country

Settling in a new country may pose many challenges for immigrants

There are language barriers, cultural differences and, often, difficulties getting accustomed to the climate, to name only a few. Though there are countless other adjustments we may discuss relating to immigration, one important and certainly relatable challenge is adapting to new and unfamiliar foods.

In Canada, one is inevitably exposed to different food from around the world, especially during the summer months through cultural festivals. Discovering new and exotic cuisine at a festival can be a fun and exciting experience, but for immigrants, getting used to different food in their new country can also be difficult and confusing.

Sometimes immigrants settle in an area where there is a very limited availability of food and ingredients from their homeland. When traditional foods aren’t readily available, you might worry that you aren’t getting enough nutrition because you aren’t familiar with the ingredients.

As a result, many immigrants face struggles in trying to cook healthy food. Sometimes it’s hard to buy food within your budget because many items are more expensive than what you are used to. And it takes a long time to learn about different kinds of healthy food available in a new country.

In addition to this, when I came to Canada, I was missing this one type of food I grew up with and felt was a source of comfort. It’s called Ubugali, a stiff porridge made from Cassava root powder and a very common dish in my home country of Burundi.

I was craving it and most African stores in Halifax don’t have the same kind of Ubugali that we have back home. So I called my best friend who lives in Montreal, and I asked if they have it there since it is a big city and it often has more selection than in Halifax. As it turned out she was able to buy it and send it to me, but it was very expensive and therefore not feasible to continue doing often.

I am, of course, not the only immigrant to have challenges adjusting to new food in Canada. Luckily for us, Pier 21 is a museum of stories of people who came – and continue to come - to make Canada their new home. To give a little of bit a taste (pun intended) of one of the many immigrant stories we have here at Pier 21, let’s explore Mireille Thomas’ experience:

“I came from Marseille, from Provence, which is an area renowned for its vegetables. We’ve always eaten—now we have a label—the Mediterranean diet—but I’ve never thought of it in those terms. There was always olive oil in our house, and tomatoes, vegetables, fresh fruit, because that is what is considered normal where I come from,” said Thomas, who immigrated to St. John’s, Nfld in 1964.

“When I went to the grocery store there was no fresh fish. The only vegetables available at the time were carrots, turnips, potatoes, and onions. It was a little hard to adjust,” she added. “There was a lot of canned food. There was no coffee, only Nescafé. The only fish was salted fish, sometimes it was frozen. What else was there—meat, it was often frozen meat. But I do remember finding whale steaks in one of the small grocery stores that was still open. So I tasted whale, which isn’t available anymore. That’s my story. But it was quite hard to adapt, but I succeeded because it’s in my personality to do so.”

Like Thomas, I have also adapted to Canadian food. But every once in a while I still crave the familiar, comforting taste of Ubugali. I have included the recipe below, so that those of you who live in a bigger city can taste a little piece of my home country.

So if you happen to be a recent immigrant to Canada, what are some other challenges you are facing?

Can you relate to any of the challenges that I discussed above?

What is your traditional staple food?

If you’d like to learn more stories about immigrants’ experiences with food, come visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Ubugali Recipe

Round mass of bread-like substance sitting on a square white plate.
This is an image of how ubugali looks when it is done.
  • Heat water to boiling in a saucepan. Slowly pour the flour into boiling water. Avoid forming lumps.
  • Stir continuously and mash any lumps that do form. Add more flour until it is thicker than mashed potatoes.
  • Cook for three or four minutes, continue to stir. (Continuing to stir as the ubugali thickens is the secret to success, i.e., lump-free ubugali.)
  • Cover and keep warm.
  • Serve immediately with any meat, vegetable stew, beans or fish.

Angelique Cishahayo

Angelique Cishahayo is the Interpretation and Visitor Experience Coordinator at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 and a former Welcome Home to Canada participant.