What is Canadian Cuisine? Is the lack of a defined Canadian culture a deficit to Canadian cuisine or is its diversity what defines it? I’m going to try to decipher the cuisine of our multicultural heritage.
The First Nations cooking traditions are the original Canadian cuisine. When European settlers first stepped foot on North American soil it was the aboriginal people that helped them survive and taught them respect for the land. Teaching them how to make pemican, maple syrup, and “pumpkin pie”(at this time in history Native Americans would hollow out a pumpkin filling it with maple sugar and spices, The original pumpkin pie). As we moved west we learned of bent wood boxes, bison and the long tradition of smoking fish.
During the time the settlers spent colonizing the country a few unique food items were created. Bannock was a bread made with baking powder. Originally it was cooked in a fire, but now it’s mostly cooked in a pan with oil or baked. Pemmican is a mixture of animal fat, salted meat, and dried berries that was made into “protein bars” which the fur traders would take with them on their long journeys.
In the Maritimes cod fishing was a way of life. It sustained the entire economy for five-hundred years until the almost complete overfishing lead to restrictions and bans on the industry. Ottawa just recently re-established limited cod catches off the south coast. The fisherman that made their living off cod cooked it in all sorts of ways. They made fish sausage, chowders, and salted or smoked the cod. Since the decline of cod, many of these recipes have had the cod swapped with oysters, lobster, or other fish that are more plentiful. Needless to say our great country has a long history of taking advantage of the abundance of the sea.
In central areas of the country like Ontario and Quebec a distinctively French influence would shape our cuisine. The Metis people (European/Native blood that can trace their roots to the Red River Settlement) and the French developed recipes that would use the local meats, vegetables, and fruits. I believe this relationship thrived because both the French and Metis had a strong sense of where there food came from. The French called it terroir and the Metis had a deep connection to the land through their spiritual practices. They believed that mother earth was powerful and needed to be respected (a practice I think we should all learn from). Dishes like Tortier, rabbit stew, and the pumpkin pie that we are all familiar with came out of this relationship.
Quebec had a strong Jewish population that in the early 20th century created a kosher-style deli-meat that we now call Montreal Smoked Meat, traditionally served with mustard and rye bread. This may be the single most famous food that came out of Canada (other than maple syrup which we did not invent, just harvest). You can still get a traditional smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen.
Eastern Canada is also the home of the poutine and maple syrup. The poutine is a simple yet awesome creation that combines French fries, gravy and cheese curds. It was created in the 1970s and is a favourite among the country’s younger population. Canada is the worlds largest producer of maple syrup. This has lead chefs and home cooks all over the country to beautifully incorporate it into their cooking. We have many maple flavoured desserts and savoury dishes. Whisky and maple glazed salmon is just one example.
The wild west has a slightly different food culture than the east. Meat and potatoes dominate the tables in the prairies. While for thousands of years the native people were able to hunt, and sustain the population of the wild Buffalo, unfortunately once the European settlers crossed the plains to the west of Canada, the sixty-million bison that roamed the countryside in the nineteenth century soon diminished to less than one-thousand. Ranches and conservationists helped bring this almost extinct animal back to a population of a quarter million. Bison meat is now a prized meat and hopefully the populations will continue to grow.
British Columbia’s food heritage is one to be proud of. Organic farming, sustainable fishing practices and a focus on local foods sets them apart from the rest of Canada. The weather is quite mild allowing them to have a much more abundant harvest. They have also contributed to Canadian classics such as the Nanaimo bar, and cedar plank salmon.
Canada’s farm land is unique. In the prairies it lends it’s self to grain and potatoes. Canola, wheat and barley grow across this enormous area. This has lead to a long heritage of beer making. Canada is known for its selection of fine beers that rival the best in the world. British Columbia and Niagara’s farm land is suitable for many fruits and vegetables. The summer in these areas allow for millions of Canadians to enjoy fresh, crisp and local produce. Grapes also thrive in these areas and, like the beers of the prairies, the wine and ice wine that comes out of these regions are some of the worlds greatest.
Canada has a unique food history that is painted with diversity that helps define our cuisine. French, Metis, English, Native, Jewish, and everything in-between has contributed to our unique bill of fare. Bison, cod, wine, and beer are just a few of the staples that define our heritage. I’m sure locally many more dishes can contribute to our growing history. Feel free to leave a comment telling us of your Canadian food history. I hope that the knowledge of the First Nations and the French’s sense of place helps us to continue to grow a fruitful and sustainable culture of food in Canada.