Nourishing traditions

Feasts with family and friends are common across many holidays and cultures

by Heidi Tattrie Rushton

One thing that every culture around the world has in common is that holidays and food traditions go hand-in-hand. Family and friends gather for parties and meals with special dishes they make and enjoy yearly playing an important role in the celebrations.

Amanda Nahas of Halifax is a mother of two, coming from a family who loves food. Her husband owns Mezza, a local Mediterranean restaurant, and her mother loves to cook.

“Family gatherings are a big deal in our culture and the food is made with a whole lot of love and passion,” she says. Nahas is Lebanese and Antiochian/Greek Orthodox. She says their Christmas feast is an “endless spread” filled with traditional Lebanese dishes.

Amanda Nahas and family.

“Some of the most common foods are riz a djej [spiced chicken with a nutty rice] and Lebanon’s national dish, kibbeh, which is minced meat and bulgur. It is often prepared raw for Christmas, but we also have a cooked pie-like version, served with laban [yogurt],” she says. “We can’t forget about the grape leaves or mezza plates of hummus, baba ganoush and tabbouleh.”

Nahas says they have added a turkey to their meal due to the Western influence, but lamb is traditionally served at Christmas in many Lebanese homes. The French and Mediterranean influence on Lebanese cuisine plays a role in their food, particularly the desserts, such as the Bûche de Noël (a yule log cake).

“Some households also prepare a traditional rice pudding topped with nuts and coconut, known as Meghli,” she says. “This dessert symbolizes the birth of Jesus Christ and it is also made and served in celebration of newborns.”

Shivani Dhamija of Halifax has two children and runs an Indian catering company and cooking school. She grew up in India and her family is Hindu. This year they celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights at the end of October. It honours the return of the deities, Rama and Sita, who were exiled for 14 years until good over evil, or light over darkness, triumphed. The people light up their houses for Diwali each year to lead them back home.

“For kids, Diwali is always about firecrackers, new clothes, and of course, lots of good food,” she laughs.

Shivani Dhamija and family

One of the traditions Dhamija’s family follows is becoming strictly vegetarian during Diwali. No meat is allowed to enter their home and she says some families also ban onions during the festival. “It’s all good meals though,” she says. “It’s a lot of desserts actually, lots and lots of desserts. It’s just like Christmas where you give cookies and gifts to your neighbours, it’s very similar to us. We get dressed up and go to each other’s houses and give desserts to our neighbours to wish them a happy Diwali.”

Family and friends flow in and out of each other’s homes during the festival and Dhamija says the belief is that Lord Ganesh and Goddess Lakshmi visit every home as well so it’s important that someone is always ready to greet visitors with a clean house and plenty of food, especially sweet desserts.

“There are lots and lots of good foods, but this is really the time of desserts,” she says. “There is kaju katli made of cashew nuts and that is one of my favourites, then rice pudding and halwa and one of the most important is gujiya, which is so delicious.”

Dhamija was taught how to make many of these treats by her mother. “My mom makes a lot of desserts, she still does. She is very creative,” she says. “I have seen her cook all my life and I learned a lot of tricks from her.” Her two boys also love eating the traditional desserts of Diwali, and her younger son’s favourite sweet is the Indian treat mithai. She hopes to teach both of her children how to make the desserts when they’re a little older so she can continue to pass down the tradition.

In Nahas’s family, she learned about her culture’s foods in much the same way Dhamjia learned about hers: in the kitchen, with hands-on lessons from the generations that came before.

“It was quite literally spoon-fed to me,” she says. “Typically, all of the aunts, mothers, and grandmothers gather in the kitchen and help in the preparation. It can take all day or multiple days. To watch them pour their hearts and souls into these traditional dishes is incredibly enjoyable. You can really sense their joy and pride in the family recipes full of rich history.”

Nahas says she and her husband’s parents and grandparents have worked hard to hold onto traditions to ensure the younger generations understand and value their roots. She is looking forward to teaching her own children in the same way and inviting their family and friends to continue to join them in their holiday celebrations through the years.

“We love to host,” Nahas says. “As my family would say, Ahla w Sahla [Welcome!], Tfadalou [help yourselves], and Sahtein [Bon appétit!].”

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