UKRAINE: Zelenskyy’s May 9th speech

I’m rarely topical, but President Zelenskyy’s speech today reclaiming May 9th as Victory Day for Ukraine is worth a listen. It’s extremely powerful counter-propaganda, as Russia and Ukraine are both trying to use USSR’s victory over Germany in WWII to frame the narrative on the current war.

Also, most world leaders age quickly when they get into office, but that prior footage is less than a year old! Though, in all fairness, most world leaders aren’t actively being shelled in their own capital by an invading army.

NEW ZEALAND: Anzac biscuits

I tried to follow authentic recipes as often as possible, but this is the first one where following the recipe is required by law! Anzac biscuits are shared by Australia and New Zealand (who are in friendly competition over having the oldest recipe), and were sold in fundraisers for troops fighting in the First World War. They’re often still sold to fundraise for veterans’ associations around Anzac Day.

That military connection is where the law comes in. Both New Zealand and Australia regulate the use of “ANZAC” – government permission is specifically needed to sell anything commercially with the name. There’s an exemption for needing to file for permission to sell Anzac biscuits, but they must be made with the traditional recipe, with no modifications like chocolate chips or nuts. (Gluten- or dairy-free modifications are allowed.) They must also be marketed exactly as “Anzac biscuits” – not as cookies or other names.

The two countries take it quite seriously and enforce these rules with the threat of fines. An ice cream company using the cookies had to change their marketing from “Anzac bikkies” to “biscuits”, and Subway was forced to stop selling the biscuits in Australia in 2008 when it was found they were using their regular cookie dough (which was American-made to boot, which seemed to be a further bone of contention).

So, how to make Anzac biscuits the right way? The recipe is actually pretty straightforward – sugar, flour, rolled oats, and coconut, with butter, golden syrup, and some baking soda dissolved in boiling water. I used this recipe from the Edmonds Cookbook, a New Zealand cooking staple in its own right.

I found real golden syrup in the international aisle at the grocery (no substitutions!) The recipe was really easy and baked up quickly – the biscuits were soft and chewy, sweet but not excessively so, and nice and toothsome with the coconut and oats.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Parang

Trinidad and Tobago feels so deeply Caribbean that I keep forgetting that Trinidad is only a few kilometres off the South American mainland! One of the neatest cultural crossovers between those narrow straights is parang. Parang originated as Venezuelan folk music but has become a mainstay of Christmas music in Trinidad and Tobago.

Here’s a really high quality documentary on parang – with great performances from parang musicians. They also touch on the genre’s history, connection with Venezuela and Christmas, and how it has evolved on Trinidad and Tobago.

Parang has also taken on lots of influence from soca and calypso, and is almost now a catchall term for Christmas music. Here’s DJ Ana again with a soca parang mix for Christmas (I know, it’s still October!)

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: First Peoples / Reconciliation

An interesting (though mild) look at the history and present of the Indigenous Carib population of Trinidad, and the Santa Rosa First Peoples’ Community, the representative body of the community. This includes an interview with the late Carib Queen Jennifer Cassar on cultural transmission, engaging youth and building identity, and public awareness. There’s also a look at Amerindian Heritage Day (now called First Peoples’ Day of Recognition and Heritage Week) and plans to build up active agricultural, culinary, and traditional knowledge bases.

However, past this video, there’s some very interesting deeper nuance. This older article, Reviving Caribs: Recognition, Patronage and Ceremonial Indigeneity in Trinidad and Tobago” by anthropologist Maximilian C. Forte focuses both on the organizational challenges the Santa Rosa community faces and that they risk “reconciliation without self-determination” – ceremonialized and celebrated by the state, but not engaged in political advocacy and reconciliation the way other Indigenous groups are.

However, Forte’s article also recognizes a nuance with Indigenous reconciliation in Trinidad – Trinidad is not Canada or Australia. It’s not really because of Trinidad’s smaller Indigenous population (both in absolute numbers, and proportionally), it’s largely because Trinidad was not a settler colony, but an extractive colony.

A settler colony is where a large mainly-European permanent population is brought in to displace the Indigenous people already there (Canada, the US, New Zealand, French Algeria was a failed attempt). The settler population normally has legal and proprietary rights. However, an extractive colony is where there is a small elite extracting wealth and resources, including wealth produced by the labour of either an Indigenous population or a new population brought in for that purpose – usually slaves or indentured labour, that does not have the same rights as the elite (India, most of Africa, the Caribbean).

As a former extractive colony, the ancestors of Trinidad’s population had either no or little choice to come to the island, and only gained their own true self-determination themselves through emancipation, decolonization and the civil rights movement. This makes it a lot less clear-cut situation when it comes to reconciliation between the Indigenous community (and even the larger Trinbagonian population) and the state – what responsibility does the modern post-colonial state and population of Trinidad and Tobago carry for the sins of the colonial government’s past?

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Indian Arrival Day

Indian Arrival Day is a commemoration of the arrival of the first indentured labourers from India to Trinidad, and touches on both the challenges people faced, and as a celebration of Indian culture and history. The British Empire turned to Indian indentured labour as a replacement to slavery (workers were paid, though only a pittance, and worked in similar conditions as people did under slavery, but did get land grants after their term was up), and it was not limited to Trinidad. Similar holidays are held around the Caribbean, in South Africa, and Fiji.

It’s a bittersweet holiday, as it’s both a celebration of a culture that not just survived hardship and dislocation, but thrived. However, it’s also a holiday that commemorates those who did not make it through the suffering, and that many labourers were pressured into leaving India through force, trickery, or desperation. I recommend reading Arthur Dash’s editorial “An immigration storyfor more context.

There are also those in the Indo-Caribbean community that are against celebrating Indian Arrival Day, seeing it as a deeply colonial holiday. It’s also criticized as fuelling racial divides, particularly with the historical legacies of British colonialism – the post-indentureship land grants gave the Indian community a significant financial leg up over the Afro-Caribbean community, and there were often outright attempts by the British to divide the Indian and African communities as a way to keep control. Guyanese writer Rajiv Mohabir’s article “Why I Will Never Celebrate Indian Arrival Dayis a good read on this view, and those historical legacies definitely shone through in Green Days by the River.

Another interesting element is that the Indo-Carribean community both developed their own identity, and kept a lot deep connections with India, including religion and music. This video below from Shawn at Hindu Lifestyle has a great look at West Indian Hinduism and identity, as well as the extra layer of identity that comes from being an Indo-Trinidadian raised in Canada.

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Carnival

I keep on running into “where do I even begin” topics this month – especially around Carnival. Carnival is so huge, so emblematic of Trinidad and Tobago, and such a complex holiday, that there’s so much to learn about it. I’d recommend starting with the article Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago: Ferocious Spirit, Enduring Identities” by Shrinagar Francis that gives both a rundown of the festivities, and works to undo a myth that Carnival was a purely European invention, which obscures a lot of Carnival’s African roots.

I’d also suggest this beautiful short film about Playing Mas and getting ready for the festivities. It really captures both the fun, the chaos, but also all the work that goes into Carnival.

A really good interview on the history of Carnival, the religious and cultural meanings, the different events in Carnival. They also talk about how Carnival has grown and spread first to other parts of the Caribbean and then to other parts of the world.

A bit on some of the more historical characters and protest nature of Carnival.

To build on the international influence Carnival has, that last video was shot in Toronto, where Caribana has become one of the largest festivals in Canada, with up to 2 million people attending in a normal year. It’s a direct offshoot from Trinidadian Carnival, though it’s held in the summer for obvious reasons – you don’t want to be down to a bikini in the snow.

TOGO: Epé-Ekpé

Epé-Ekpé is a religious festival that has been held in Togo since 1663, with people coming from all over West Africa (including Togolese government officials), music, dancing, and most crucially, the revealing of a stone, chosen by a priest in a sacred forest – the colour of which foretells what the upcoming year will hold.

Unfortunately, celebrations were cancelled at the last minute in 2020 due to the pandemic, but in 2019 the stone was white – a positive sign (though admittedly, 2020 was not that positive a year). Here’s hoping 2021’s Epé-Ekpé brings even better news!

Some raw footage from 2019 really gives you a sense of the scale of Epé-Ekpé:

TOGO: Vodou

Vodou (alongside other indigenous religions) is the most popular religion in Togo, even more so than Christianity, but there’s a lot of stereotype-busting that needs to happen in the West about Vodou. The religion has such a negative reputation in North America, and those stereotypes are definitely spurred from a racial/religious “othering”. Fundamentally, it’s an animist religion, with connections to the land and spirits, as well as being important for fostering community – people come from all over West Africa for festivals in Togo and Benin, and Lomé is home to the world’s largest Vodou market.

I remember taking a Caribbean history course back in university in which we studied Haitian Vodou – interestingly, while it is a direct descendant of West African Vodou, the Haitian version is much more syncretic with Christianity. In Togo, it’s the other way around; Togolese Christianity seems much more influenced by Vodou (though there’s definitely some tension between the two).

The video at the very top is are clips from a festival involving Zangbetos, who protect law and order, and the video below is a long-play of a festival for Sakpete, the god of the ground, in Anfoin in southern Togo.

As for the spelling of Vodou – there’s no one set spelling. Vaudou is sometimes used, such as with the Togolese musician Vaudou Game. Voudun is common as well, and Vodou is used both for West African and Haitian versions.

“Voodoo” seems to be the spelling used most often in Western sources that stereotype or malign it as “black magic” or something unknowably exotic or Satanic, and while the spelling itself isn’t outright offensive, it is generally falling out of favour.

ALGERIA: Pastries and dates

I feel really lucky that not only is my randomly-chosen country of the month a country renowned for its good food, but I also picked a Muslim country during Ramadan. It’s a beautiful time of celebration, and to a food-lover like me, that means there’s some really great holiday treats available right now! Here in Ottawa, you can order fast delivery of handmade pastries from Bahdja Market. They’ve got a huge variety – the downside for me is my pistachio allergy, which closes off a lot of good options, but I snagged some really special almond-based treats instead!

Qalb el Louz – This is the OG of Algerian sweets – a square of dense sweet almond and semolina cake with a strong orange blossom flavour and dripping with simple syrup. It’s sticky and chewy and doesn’t even pretend to be healthy – it’s fantastic. Comments online say it’s best served with mint tea, which seems like a lovely balance to the richness of the cake.

Dziriyat – A small but very dense pastry with also made from almonds and semolina, though it’s completely distinct from the qalb el louz. It’s sweet without being cloying and really delicious – there’s a lovely honey flavour with a bit of a lemony zip to it.

Oasis Algerian Deglet Nour datesDeglet Nour is a highly sought-after varietal of date that Algeria is famous for. These dates are lighter in colour and have a delicate honey taste – there’s something fruity and complex on the tongue as well, almost like quince. Even for someone who is not particularly a date connoisseur, I can tell these are a very nice treat.