A wooden board with vegetables and a bowl of yogurt with blueberries.

Exploring the meaning of local food with Chef Bashir Munye

Chef Bashir’s life and cuisine has been shaped by his travels, as evidenced in his beautiful Cheese & Egg “Meatballs” recipe based on a regional Italian dish of cheese and egg simmered in a rustic tomato sauce and finished with grated Ontario Asiago cheese. Born in Mogadishu, Somalia and raised in Italy, the man destined to become a celebrated chef then travelled across Europe and moved on to the U.S. before coming to Toronto, Ontario.
 

In 1996, he fell in love with cooking and began working in restaurants and studying culinary management. Young and in demand, Bashir opened a catering company, consulted for Toronto restaurants on Italian and Mediterranean cooking, worked in boutique hotels and owned a dumpling shop in downtown Toronto. As he moved through his career, he became increasingly focused on the intersectionality between ideas of “local” and diversity. “I’m able to celebrate diversity and multiculturalism and the right for people to seek their own food sovereignty and find food that is culturally appropriate. As a chef, when I’m looking at or composing a plate, most of the time I don’t really see myself reflected in it. The ideal for me is when I’m able to celebrate a locality and bring to the plate ingredients that perhaps are not commonly seen or grown here in Ontario. This is called “nomadic cooking”.”

 

He defines this cooking style as using the methodology of nomadic living as his ancestors have done for hundreds of years—moving from one place to another—as a chef, moving from one kitchen to another kitchen. Being able to find ingredients and adapt to a new environment. “So now, I’m in Ontario, what are the dishes I can cook to make me feel like I’m home? When a rutabaga and I look each other in the eye, there’s very little joy I get out of it. It’s not like it’s not sweet and delicious, it just doesn’t speak to my own cultural food identity. So, I’m seeking to redefine my cooking and looking for food that has been in my DNA for hundreds of years. It might be okra, it might be callaloo, sorghum or corn. Now, many young cooks are cooking within their own cultural identity, but mine is based specifically on my own heritage as a nomad.”

 

Bashir’s journey has been as philosophical as it has been literal. After five years operating My Little Dumplings, a culturally diverse dumpling venture, he felt it was important for someone to represent and speak to the contribution and vibrancy of multi-ethnic African cuisine through a lens of local food. “That has been my transition,” he says. “I’ve done a research project with Greenbelt Fund Ontario and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), researching locally grown world crops like okra, bok choy and peanuts and have now been teaching at George Brown for about four years. I teach foundation cooking and two theoretical classes that are really special to me—The Sustainable Chef and Slow Food, which is part of the post graduate Italian program.”


“When I teach my students in the Sustainable Chef course about eating from the land—la terroir—how do we speak about terroir and not speak about whose land this is? What is the experience of those communities and how were they sustaining themselves for thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans and their food? I ask them, “When you think about “Canadian food” what comes to mind?”, because Canada is such a broad country. You never hear “wild game, beluga, seal or wild rice or blueberries.” They’re not responding from a place of awareness and understanding of local food. An understanding of local ingredients is really important. Chefs and passionate cooks should think about this and where and from whom they buy their food. People want to support local food and Ontario ingredients, but what does that really mean? “


When people begin to explore their relationship to local food, what can they do to educate themselves and apply these learnings to their home kitchen? How do these big ideas translate to our tables? Chef Bashir encourages an active, exploratory approach. “Social media and food channels encourage people to be adventurous and try new food. Go to a new neighbourhood and explore new ingredients and try to learn other cultures through their food. Get out of your comfort zone and find vibrant new dishes by trying ingredients from other communities that are also grown locally, right here.”


Through his project with the Ontario Greenbelt Fund, Chef Bashir produced a guide that identifies farms that are growing world crops in Ontario from ginger, turmeric and eggplant to the largest peanut community in Canada. “If people have more awareness of how vibrant southern Ontario can be, particularly within the Greenbelt, then people will understand they can make callaloo and sweet potato dishes with local ingredients. I think it’s important for people to know the possibilities that are out there. I think I sound like an Ontario discovery ad.”


Bashir acknowledges the growth in chefs’ support of local ingredients and the direct relationships they’ve nurtured with Ontario growers and producers, but he feels there’s a need to grow the conversation and advocacy for diversity on the plate. “For me, this project is an educational piece to show Ontario chefs that when they are buying local ingredients, they should seek redefine “local” and include diverse local ingredients in their food. It was driven by wanting to “eat delicious that looks like me.” For this project with Savour Ontario, Bashir originally wanted to create a recipe that features wagashi cheese, which is not currently made in Ontario. Wagashi is a fresh, cow’s milk cheese made with an enzyme from the Apple of Sodom plant, native to Africa. The cheese was first created by the Fulani community in northern Ghana. He would love to see an Ontario dairy processor take the opportunity to host an African cheesemaker to co-produce the cheese.


Ultimately, Bashir would love to see more outreach from chefs to farmers, requesting locally grown, culturally representative crops, proteins and dairy. The farmers featured in his project bring their farming knowledge and techniques from the Maldives, the Caribbean and China and are growing their food to cater to the needs of their communities. He encourages chefs and consumers to support these farms to help grow their capacity and increase the awareness and availability of these locally grown and produced foods.


“As much as I love everything Ontario grows, I’ll give you an example—asparagus is not really native to Ontario. But when people gush that spring is coming! Fiddleheads and asparagus are the first things that come to mind, but what about us? When we celebrate diversity, we need to celebrate diversity in the composition of our plates. I think it’s really cool that the largest urban farm in Canada, The Black Creek Community Farm, is right behind the Black Creek Pioneer Village. Thousands visit every year, but hardly any visit the actual farm, and they’re missing out.”


“Support diverse farmers. Try something new.”

Check out Chef Bashir's delicious recipe Cheese & Egg "Meatballs" with Naan on a Skillet!

 

Bashir Munye's portrait
Written By

Bashir Munye

Culinary Professor, Chef Activist

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