A slice of Canada served on a platter

From Arctic char to Pacific salmon, maple syrup to Saskatchewan beef, it’s the natural flavor of local produce that gives Canadian cuisine its character

By Sumit Chakraberty

It was indeed like a slice of Canada itself: cold, fresh, and invigorating. Stephen Goddard, co-owner of the Miramichi Smokehouse, had told me it would take no more than 20 minutes of the Mumbai heat to thaw the slice of lightly smoked Atlantic salmon he had brought from New Brunswick. It took a tad longer than that for me to get home to Thane on the city’s outskirts from the Taj in South Bombay, but the salmon weathered the ride just as remarkably as it does when it swims upriver to spawn.

The slice of salmon was pink and moist, with only a hint of smoke, just the way Stephen had said it should be. At Miramichi, they use ‘cold smoking’; in other words, they smoke it at no more than 30 degrees Centigrade, which keeps intact the flavours and juices of the fish. And that is the point of Canadian cuisine, I began to understand.

A boat tour on the Miramichi river

Historically, it derives from the cooking of the English and French settlers, who could not stomach the heavy fat-based diet of the native Inuits and their love for seal meat. Daniel Bood, the Canadian consul general in India, hails from Montreal where the cooking style is mostly French, although he does remember his dad’s fondness for another Innuit favourite, the Arctic char, a freshwater fish only found in deep glacial lakes like those in Canada.

But if the cooking in modern day Canada is largely English and French, what makes it Canadian is the clean freshness of the local produce, whether it is the salmon from the cold, nutrient-rich water of the Miramichi river or the seasonal harvest of asparagus and broccoli. Yes, and maple syrup, of which about three-quarters of the world’s output comes from the province of Quebec in Canada.

It’s not surprising that the sap of the maple tree makes its way easily into Canadian foods, from a maple syrup French toast to maple-glazed salmon. But for the most part, there’s nothing particularly different about the additives in Canadian cooking; it’s the nature of the food itself, like Alberta beef or Saskatchewan wheat, that makes for a Canadian flavour.

To bring out the natural goodness of the food then becomes the preoccupation of both producers and cooks. For Stephen Goddard, it’s a question of harvesting the right size of salmon, between 10 pounds and 20, when it is healthy and firm, fatty but not oily. That’s why the Atlantic salmon is so much in demand — unlike the Pacific salmon which returns from the sea to spawn only once at the end of its life-cycle, the Atlantic variety has several rounds of spawning, which means it can be caught mid-life when it is in prime condition. Compared to that, the bigger, older salmon is mushy in texture and not half as tasty.

With the right kind of salmon, Stephen can make very thin slices which require less smoking. This minimalism is important from a health point of view too, because it’s such an irony that a superfood like the Canadian salmon, rich in artery-unclogging Omega-3 fatty acids and mostly free from the mercury in fish from polluted waters, should be subjected to smoking, which we now know has the carcinogenic carbon compound, creosote.

The practice of smoking dates back millenia, because it is one of the simplest and most effective ways known to man of preserving meat, especially in a land with a long, icy winter. And the allure of the smoky flavour has kept it popular to this day, although Stephen himself advises moderation when you want to indulge in his smoked salmon.

Fortunately, there are plenty of simple and equally delectable options if you want to avoid smoking. Lobster is another Canadian favourite, and there was an impressive array of them at the Taj Mahal hotel when the Canadian consulate decided to give Mumbai a taste of Canada.

The lobster had been flown halfway round the world, and Chef Stefan Czapalay made sure they lost none of their natural Arctic flavour in the cooking. His concoctions mostly involve a light sautéing in butter and simmering in complementary mildly flavoured liquids. There was, for example, a thyme-roasted lobster, a casserole of lobster and scallops, and a lobster stewed in beer. And then there were mussels Creme brûlée and salmon tiramisu.

You get the picture, don’t you? They have a lot of the Atlantic ocean around them, heaps and heaps of fresh catch from those cold unpolluted waters, and they just love their seafood. Can you blame them?

Recipe of Thyme Roasted Split Lobster

Ingredients:

Split raw lobsters, butter, garlic, thyme, lemon, sea salt, pepper, and freshly cracked olive oil

Method

  • Allow split lobsters to thaw overnight in refrigerator.
  • Remove split lobsters from packaging and remove claw and knuckle meat and reserve.
  • In a small sauce pan melt butter with garlic, thyme, lemon zest and juice and reserve.
  • Season the split lobsters generously with salt and pepper. Working in batches, sear the split lobsters flesh side down in olive oil until golden and place on a sheet pan.
  • Drizzle with some of the garlic lemon butter and sprinkle with remaining thyme, place in a 200 degrees C oven for 8 minutes.
  • In a small saute pan cook the claw and knuckle meat in remaining garlic lemon butter.
  • When lobsters are removed from oven, top with sauteed claw and knuckle meat.


Food images from Quinn Dombrowski and woodleywonderworks; Miramichi river image from the Canadian Tourism Commission