Oh, Canada — Over 150 years of food and culture

Happy birthday Canada, you don’t look a day over 129.

On Saturday, Canada will turn 150 (or much, much older than that if you consider that the settlers didn’t just find the place empty). It’s kind of a big deal here and I’ll be spending my Saturday celebrating in Toronto. Canada is largely a nation of immigrants and its food culture reflects this. As I discussed in a post a while back, you can find just about every kind of dumpling in Toronto.

‘Canadian’ cuisine however is kind of an oddity. A quick google search brings up a fairly short and expected list:

As you might expect from a country of Canada’s size, cuisine can vary as you travel coast to coast (or border to coast) and a lot of it marries local availability with imported cultural influence. I suppose most cuisines subdivide by region too. Overall, Canadian food seems to vary mostly along lines of street foods and desserts.

East Coast cuisine includes the obvious seafood — mussels, scallops, fried fish — but Haligonians would be remiss not to tell you about the wonders of donairs — a kind of giant shaved hot dog, served with a sweet milk and garlic sauce (it also comes as a pizza).

Donairs are a classic Halifax street food. Beef is shaved from a large kebab and served with ‘donair sauce’, a sweet sauce made from condensed milk. (Image: FoodNetwork.ca)

Quebec has its own rich culinary traditions rooted in the early ‘Habitant’ settlers. The food is as rich as its winters are cold. Tourtiere, maple syrup, ham and pea soup, and poutine are deeply rooted in French Canadian traditions.

Tourtiere is a Quebecois minced meat pie. Much of Quebecois cuisine is rooted in lard and maple syrup — essential foods if you’re going to survive a -40 degree winter (centigrade or Fahrenheit, it doesn’t matter when it gets that cold)

Montreal’s cuisine has flourished so much too that it deserves its own discussion. Once boasting the largest community of Jewish immigrants (before they fled south for warmer weather), Montreal’s deli tradition and kosher-style steakhouses are a staple of Canadian cuisine too. It’s so pervasive that ‘Montreal’ is now a legitimate type of seasoning.

Montreal is known for deli and bagels and has a heavy European-Jewish influence in its cuisine. Montreal bagels (right) have a distinct style and are traditionally baked in a wood fired oven. They’re thinner than most bagels and sweet and chewy. (https://www.chowhound.com/post/find-montreal-style-bagel-los-angeles-369882)

Ottawa has beavertails (big flat cinnamon doughnuts), while Toronto is developing its own poutine scene and is famous for peameal bacon (and its suburbs have some of the most authentic Chinese food outside of China). Moving west, you can find a variety of beef dishes in Calgary as well as some great innovations in booze like the Bloody Caesar (Canada’s bloody Mary, made with clamato instead of tomato juice — basically a bloody Mary with extra MSG) and Canadian rye whiskey.

If you ever had a glass of tomato juice and thought, you know what this needs? Clams. Canada has you covered. Calgary apparently invented the Bloody Caesar which is a boozy brunch staple nationwide.

British Columbia offers smoked sockeye salmon and the ultra sweet Nanaimo bars. There’s also some distinctly Canadian snacks you’ll find around the country like: ketchup or all-dressed chips, maple candies (and maple glazed doughnuts), and Kraft dinner (macaroni and cheese). You can see American’s try our stuff too.

Developing an established cuisine in a country with ever-changing demographics is a challenging thing. Canada has a number of ‘Canadian’ restaurants which focus on local and foraged cuisine (like Actinolite restaurant) or craft menus based on what early explorers ate. Boralia in Toronto offers l’Eclade on its menu, a traditional dish of smoked mussels in pine needles which dates back to 1605. Toronto is also seeing a rise in First Nations cuisine. Nish Dish, also in Toronto, serves foods based on traditional Anishnawbe food. It recently opened and serves a variety of game meats and a soup called ‘Three Sisters’ which features squash, corn, and beans — crops that may have been traditionally raised by First Nations people in Canada for generations.

Today, Canada is actually leading the charge for insect foods. One of North America’s first food-grade insect farms, Entomo Farms, is based in Norwood, Ontario and farms have popped up in Nova Scotia and Ottawa. Third Millennium Farming is currently expanding cricket farming and developing unique architectural solutions to raising bugs. It’s also home to innovative start-ups making insect food products like Naak protein bars, Bug Bistro insect snacks, and meaty Bolognese sauce from One Hop Kitchen (full disclosure, I’m a founder in OHK and ingredient company C-fu FOODS). It might be an unlikely move for Canada’s agricultural sector but it’s encouraging to see Canadians sinking their teeth into new and sustainable eats. With the right support, Canada could lead a new sustainable food movement!

One Hop Kitchen is based in Toronto and makes a line of meaty, Bolognese sauces from restructured mealworm and cricket protein which we sell through our ingredient company, C-fu FOODS. This Toronto home-grown product is available in US and Canadian retailers.

So raise a rye and ginger to Canada on its 150th and celebrate over a thousand years of food, people culture, and a common history that we’re still writing!

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