Street Foods Collective
The promise of wood-fired pizza typically lures a crowd to the Bayshore Park Community Oven every other weekend, but today a mysterious milky drink seems to be getting all the attention. Over a barrage of small plastic cups laid out on a picnic table, each filled with a kaleidoscopic array of syrups and sweets, a group of women called the Street Foods Collective have huddled to test recipes and conduct market research.
It’s a good day for feedback — sunny and warm, the place is buzzing with people milling about and children playing in the nearby community gardens. Dhanalakshmi Sulegai walks around handing out samples of falooda to eager recipients. It is a sweet drink commonly found among the street vendors of India, but as Sulegai explains, it is a street food with global tendencies.
“It actually originated in Persia, but it is very popular in India,” she says, “And now it is part of many different food cultures.” Layered with varying concoctions of brightly coloured syrups, jellies, milk and ice cream, the drinkable dessert incites a slight squeal in the taste buds from the sweetness and the intense perfume of the rose water. Perfect for fans of bubble tea, one of its cultural food cousins, it’s packed with a textural whimsy of sweet basil seeds, small vermicelli-like noodles and cubes of jelly.
For the 12 diverse women who form the Street Foods Collective, a social enterprise project of the Bayshore Park Community Oven that is seeking to empower women with entrepreneurial skills through the marketing of global street foods, dishes such as falooda have come to represent more than their individual differences. They have come to represent their connection to one another.
“All of the women who come here share something in common: they all know how to cook,” says Sulegai of her community. Like many newcomers to the nation’s capital, she settled her young family in Ottawa’s west end, in the culturally diverse neighbourhood surrounding Bayshore Park. “It can be a very transient neighbourhood,” she says, “There are always people moving and new people arriving.” The community oven quickly became the heart and hearth of the neighbourhood, where she and other women from the neighbourhood found themselves drawn to cooking and sharing food as a community. Their universal culinary prowess struck Sulegai, as it did Mete Padir, one of the community oven organizers, who suggested to her that they start a project specifically for women. After months of hashing out her proposal, Sulegai got in touch with Spark, a funding initiative of the United Way aimed at supporting women to make meaningful impacts in their communities and secured the seed money she needed to launch the street-food enterprise.
“Street food is the soul of a place,” Sulegai says, “It is something we all understand because street food is a part of every culture.” The collective gathers at the community oven for monthly trials of different recipes of varying country origins, which they will prepare in a certified kitchen and offer at farmers' markets over the course of the summer. Their first pop-up featured a “Flavours of Bangladesh” theme and launched at the Main Street Farmers' Market in mid-May with a small menu of vegetable puff pastries, a semolina-based sweet, a curry dish called chotpoti and a mango lassi. Sulegai explained the nature of the program and the dishes to curious market-goers while a volunteer kept track of the popularity of each item on a survey, hoping to glean some market insights to help the women decide on which recipes might be suitable for commercial development.
“Our primary goal of the collective is to give women a sense of community and to increase their self-esteem,” Sulegai says, “but our secondary goals are to see some of the women develop their own product lines and maybe even start their own businesses.”
The vegetable puff took home the most votes and the chotpoti a close second, flavoured with fresh fenugreek, turmeric and nigella seed. The chickpea and potato stew topped with sliced egg was warm and hearty and paired perfectly with the sweet and creamy lassi. But ultimately, it will be up to the women to decide if they want to use these culinary successes and newly gained entrepreneurial skills to take these trials further. For now, the nascent collective is simply sharing recipes and the stories that go along with them, such as the falooda they are testing out for “Flavours of India,” their second theme and farmers' market appearance happening sometime in July.
Today falooda might belong to India, but with versions of it popping up across South East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and now in Bayshore Park, the stories associated with these street foods transcend boundaries, just like the women preparing them. The collective has offered women an opportunity to chart their own futures, Sulegai explains, all the while cultivating a vibrant community around diverse and delicious food.
“Food connects everything — where there is food, there is life, there is activity. You can’t go wrong.”
Street Food Collective
Bayshore Park, Ottawa, Ont.