Secret Ingredients: Discovering the Roots of Canad...

Secret Ingredients: Discovering the Roots of Canadian Cuisine

It is difficult to say whether Canadian Cuisine exists at all and if it does, it certainly lacks an easily definable focal point. This confusion can be easily glimpsed by taking a look at the Wikipedia article for “Canadian Cuisine.” Not only is the list of dishes quite short,¹ but it also includes such seemingly divergent dishes, like “Ginger Beef,” “Pemmican” and “Nova Scotian Donair.” If you ask Canadians to explain this apparent lack of cohesion, most will point to Canada’s multiculturalism as an explanation. With so many different peoples from across the globe bringing their own culinary traditions with them and spreading them across this geographically enormous country, it is no wonder there is some confusion over what makes this smorgasbord of different foods distinctly “Canadian.”

This is not, however, an issue confined to the lay population. Most Canadian chefs also seem to lack a clear conception of what Canadian food might be. In fact, very few Canadian chefs are explicitly trying to define it. For the most part, the closest thing you will find to an attempt to create Canadian food is the use of locally sourced ingredients to recreate dishes from other traditions—especially the modern French and Italian cuisines, but also Chinese, Indian and so on. And while some chefs obviously do take a good deal of pride in offering Canadian products, even this is complicated by the fact that it has become incredibly trendy in recent years for a menu to be locally sourced, which reflects the “terroir” of the region in which it is located. So even in places where you see a focus on Canadian ingredients, there is no immediate or well-defined connection to ingredients that are distinctly Canadian. It could just as easily be driven by concerns over ingredient quality, ethical and sustainable production, as well as the overall marketability of this approach.

So then, the Canadian, the Everyman and the Chef all seem to have a certain indifference towards whether or not what they eat is “Canadian.” And if you think about the current context in which this nation exists, it makes a lot of sense for people to feel this way. In an increasingly globalized world, and with “multicultural” nations like Canada seemingly at the forefront of that openness to the outside, what would be the use of slinking backwards into insular concepts like that of a “national cuisine?” “We like our smorgasbord just fine!” is the cry of these modern souls. In my view, however, it is just those larger developments that make carving out a unique identity so important. I have no problem with global togetherness and unity, but does this connectedness come with the cost of sacrificing an independent identity? Nothing would be worse than arriving in a far off land and finding every restaurant offering either corporate fast food or “refined,” modern “haute cuisine.” It is thrilling to find that one culinary tradition will use an ingredient in a way that is almost insulting to the aesthetic of another. It is that difference and disagreement that keeps us on our toes, and prevents any sort of lapse into dullness. If the world continues to become more fluid and interconnected, then it must do so with an appreciation and respect for the uniqueness of differing peoples and cultures.

Modern fine dining offerings such as this have become nearly as ubiquitous in major cities across the globe as western fast food chains

Modern fine dining offerings such as this have become nearly as ubiquitous in major cities across the globe as western fast food chains

If a cuisine that reflects a unique Canadian identity is desirable, but does not clearly exist at present, then how should we go about defining it? An obvious answer would be to look back into Canadian history and attempt to revive and update some of the dishes which have a connection to our past. In this respect, we may try and elevate something like the humble and practical pemmican,² to the height of similar but more refined dishes, such as pâté or terrine in the French tradition. While I have no qualms with this approach in principle, it can only ever be a small part of the overall solution. The most exciting possibilities for Canadian food lie not in reviving and adapting “traditional” recipes, but in playing off of the remarkable diversity of “foreign” cuisines available in this country. Rather than using multiculturalism as an excuse for why we have no easily identifiable cuisine, why don’t we work to make the fundamental diversity of different foods on offer in Canada and particularly, the variety of ways they have been adapted, the centerpiece of it?

Today many people are becoming increasingly aware that the food served in Lebanese, Indian or Chinese restaurants is not an “authentic” replication of the food served in Lebanon, India and China. However, rather than lamenting this lack of authenticity, we ought to be celebrating the ongoing evolution of Canadian cuisine! Restaurants that adapt a cuisine to the taste of locals is precisely how we came to recognize the “traditional” foods of other cultures. No one would deny that tempura is Japanese, but it is originally a Portuguese dish that was brought to Japan by traders and adapted to suit Japanese tastes. Pav Bhaji, a famous Mumbai street food, uses fluffy breads that are actually exported from Portugal. For this reason, there should be no qualms in calling the Ginger Beef developed in Chinese restaurants in Canada, Canadian. It is just as Canadian as tempura is Japanese. It is only a difference in time scale that separates the two examples.

Although often thought of as quintessentially Japanese, tempura was borrowed from Portuguese traders and continually adapted throughout the centuries to reflect the changing tastes of the Japanese people.

Although often thought of as quintessentially Japanese, tempura was borrowed from Portuguese traders and continually adapted throughout the centuries to reflect the changing tastes of the Japanese people.

In a sense, all I am really saying is that Canadian chefs must remember what they ate growing up. Whether that was Indian or Portuguese takeaway, their mother’s cooking, or traditional national dishes, Canadians must break the precedent of accepting detachment, and take the myriad of available food options more seriously. If we leave notions of “authenticity” and “origins” aside, then we discover that to an extent, there always has been a vibrant and thriving Canadian cuisine— we have just been calling it something else! If we collectively realize this and begin making our adaptations of the diversity of various cultural influences in Canada more conscious than accidental, then we have the opportunity to define food that is specifically Canadian, and to establish a new way of thinking about the connections between cuisine, culture and identity.

[1] So short in fact, that it seems the authors were tempted to pad it by adding what are actually single ingredients rather than dishes. Peameal bacon and Montreal bagels make the list!
[2] Pemmican is essentially a mixture of dried meat, fat and sometimes berries. It was used as a preserve of valuable nutrients for aboriginal hunters and western voyageurs alike in Canada’s early history. I compare it to terrine here because of its similar practical origins. But while terrine has been perfected over the years and is now enjoyed for its own sake, there has been no concerted effort to do the same with pemmican.