Canada Day is nearly upon us (July 1) so my thoughts have turned to all-Canadian food. Visitors from other countries usually ask us which foods we consider uniquely Canadian, or whether there is such a thing as Canadian cuisine. The true answer is that wild, regional and local foods are the original Canadian cuisine, and everything else was adapted from other cultures.
Wild foods would include all hunted game animals, fish and fowl. Historically that could be anything from bison, caribou and seal to duck, pheasant, pickerel (walleye) and gaspereau (alewife). Obviously wild plants were and are eaten, from mushrooms and berries and fiddlehead ferns to dulse (a seaweed). I have eaten farmed bison burgers, which taste like lean beef, and I have recently come to like fiddleheads, which can taste like asparagus or mushrooms depending how they’re prepared. I haven’t developed a taste for dulse though! It is dried and picked up with your fingers to eat as a snack.
I bet the first contemporary “Canadian” food was bannock, a fry bread made over a cook-fire by fur traders, and adopted by the First Nations peoples. Its origins were in Scotland. Bannock is made, served and sold at all First Nations festivals (powwow season is coming right up!) – either topped with berry jam, or made into a bison taco, or suchlike.
There are a few desserts and sweets that are identified with Canada: sugar pie, butter tarts, and Nanaimo bars. Although I haven’t made sugar pie, you make a filling of maple syrup or brown sugar, cream or evaporated milk, and butter on the stovetop, then bake it in a pie shell. It has the consistency of pecan pie without the nuts. Butter tarts are similar, but include eggs. Usually raisins or nuts are stirred in. And you don’t make it into a pie – it has to be tarts! Nanaimo bars are a no-bake square with a crumb base and a buttercream layer topped with a glossy chocolate layer. They are not unlike grasshopper squares but without the mint. Finally, you will find “beaver tails” at most fairs and festivals, but they are not so unique to Canada – they are also called elephant ears, or just fried dough. They are huge slabs of dough, traditionally served with cinnamon sugar, but now available with all kinds of toppings, like Nutella and bananas.
I’m thinking the only original Canadian main course in modern times must be poutine – French fries served with cheese curds and gravy. My kid was shocked to find this was served in the high school cafeteria! It has spread far beyond Quebec and has become wildly popular food court fare. In my area, rappie pie is a traditional Acadian dish – it is a chicken pot pie covered with grated potatoes, and you would use our favourite local herb in it, summer savoury.
There are a few other best-loved foods that are seen as Canadian, but clearly came from elsewhere. Eastern Canadians love their donairs (aka gyros or shawarma), which are the same as doner kebaps from Turkey, but every area has its own seasonings and special sauce. They are a roasted meat wrap on a Greek/Syrian style pita with a white sauce similar to tzatziki. Westerners adore perogies, a dumpling /dough pocket with fillings such as potatoes and cheese, served with sour cream. They are Eastern European. And of course, Montreal is famous for its smoked meat (beef brisket) sandwiches and bagels, both traditional Jewish foods with local adaptations. In recent times, Canada has become known for its ice wine, a German invention – but we have the more consistent winter frosts needed.
HOWEVER, if you ask any Canadian to name a Canadian food, they will name one of two things:
Tim Horton’s coffee
Kraft Dinner, widely known as KD (Kraft Macaroni and Cheese from a box) – which would surely be acclaimed our national food!