Thursday, January 13, 2011

What is Canadian Food?

Yesterday I received an email inviting me to an event hosted by the Canadian Association of Singapore. The evening would begin with networking over a buffet of Canadian foods then kick-off with a Singapore-Canada Learning Exchange Dialogue from their distinguished speakers. Needless to say I didn’t go because it sounded soul-shatteringly boring, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that promised buffet of “Canadian foods”.  What would they be serving?  Moose meat? Winnipeg rye bread? Cape Breton lobster?  Sushi with BC salmon? Poutine? Kraft Dinner? It was almost worth going just to see their interpretation of Canadian food.

Considering that I was born and raised there, it may seem like an odd thing that I have no idea how to summarize Canadian food. There are certainly foods that Canada is known for producing, but no Canadian I’ve ever met sits down to a dinner of maple syrup and Inniskillin ice wine. Similarly, there are the historic foods that Canada’s original people subsisted on for centuries before colonization like pemmican (dried buffalo meat) and bannock (unleavened bread).  Most Canadians have tried these exactly once – during the “Canada’s Early People” unit in 4th grade Social Studies – so these really don’t represent typical Canadian food either.
As far as I can tell, Canadian food depends entirely on who you (and your family) are. From my experience growing up, most Canadian families eat pretty banal “western food” most of the time – spaghetti , sandwiches, chicken, pizza, roast beef and mashed potatoes, stir-fry with rice – but at big holiday dinners the traditional recipes come out and the family roots show.  

Pierogies and sour cream: Canadian food?
My family is a jumble of Eastern European ancestry, so no Christmas dinner was complete without pierogies and cabbage rolls, and visits to my baba’s (grandmother’s) house always meant a steaming pot of borscht on the stove to welcome us (which, after being told it made your pee red, my sister and I refused to eat).  Dinners with my boyfriend’s extended family might include German schnitzel or uber-British Yorkshire pudding, but when he was instructed to prepare a “traditional Canadian food” for a multi-cultural day at his office in Singapore he made Nanaimo bars (named after a city in the province of British Columbia and even sold at JoMa Bakery in Laos!). And, considering that more than 20% of current Canadians were born outside of Canada, lots of Canadian families are sitting down to meals of dim sum, tandoori chicken, or doro tibs with injera bread. 
Nanaimo bar

That said, I like to think of Canadian food as a union of the best that every culture has to offer. Tourtière and flipper pie (exactly what it sounds like) may get listed as “Canadian Cuisine” on Wikipedia, but no one eats those. To me, nothing is more Canadian than a meal of Greek salad and Punjabi chickpea curry washed down with a Sapporo beer.

Of course, I can’t end this without mentioning two foods that are as iconically Canadian as they are bad for you: poutine and Kraft Dinner.

Poutine with Montreal smoked meat
 A French-Canadian creation, poutine is French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. If you go to La Banquise in Montreal you can order poutine topped with smoked meat, and some fancier restaurants offer a poutine with foie gras. During Canada’s poutine craze in the early 2000s even Burger King added it to their menu, but it’s one of those foods you shouldn't develop a taste for because you know it will eventually kill you. I admit I’ve looked for it, but poutine is not available in Singapore. 

Kraft Dinner (known as ‘Kraft Macaroni and Cheese’ everywhere else in the world) is apparently so Canadian that it’s what Terrance and Phillip from South Park eat.  Kraft Dinner is easy to prepare, neon orange and, back in the day, came in Super Mario Bros. shapes. No true Canadian kid says no to Kraft Dinner - especially with ketchup.   

Terrance and Phillip never turn down Kraft Dinner.


  1. I get asked this a lot in Japan too. What is Canadian food?

    They usually suggest maple syrup. They envision Canadians sitting at a table with salt, pepper and maple syrup as standard condiments. I think I disappoint them when I say that most canucks rarely ever eat maple syrup and when they do have pancakes more often than not it is the fake generic brand of corn syrup with butter flavouring (the butter flavour likewise is fake), and not genuine maple syrup.

    Actually, I imagine much of our maple syrup is exported. A lot of Japanese people seem to like it. They put it on hot cakes. Maple syrup cookies are also a big hit. Meanwhile, back home such cookies take a back seat to Chunks Ahoy and Oreos.

    I think the lot of Canadian families eat rather plain stuff. Frozen vegetables heated in the microwave, roast beef, spaghetti (with a canned sauce) and white bread (which was in the freezer for the last two months) with a lot of half-prepared stuff like bags of shredded cheese and canned soups. It is like eating out half-way -- half the meal is already prepared, you just need to mix it or heat it up and do your own dishes.

    Not many canucks make things from scratch anymore. Perogies are usually bought as frozen bags and mass manufactured.

    I think Subway subs are probably the most representative food of Canadian fare. Subway might be American, but Subways are everywhere in Canada and people eat it constantly. Moreso than Tim Hortons.

  2. Canadian food is anything and everything. Canadian food is Tim Horton's chili, phad thai, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Hamburger Helper, samosas, ketchup potato chips, etc.

    What Canadian foods do I miss? That Ethiopian place on Osborne Street, good falafel pitas, white-chocolate macadamia cookies, my mom's lasagna. I usually bring a bottle of pure maple syrup (not the Aunt Jemima stuff) back to Singapore with me because it's 3x as expensive here, but it never, ever gets used.

    Any "Canadian" foods you miss?

  3. Maple syrup is useful to bring to Asia as a token gift to people.

    Whether they use it or not, I dunno... but then if they have a bottle of maple syrup, maybe they'll make hot cakes just to use it.

    I think maple syrup cookies make an ideal gift. You can eat them up right away. In Japan they love cookies and sweets. When their next guests come over they'll share them and remark how some Canadian gave them these wonderful maple syrup cookies.

    I miss the variety of cuisines you can get in Canada. You can have not just "Indian" food, but Tamil or Punjabi. There is the Egyptian food vendor. The Lebanon restaurant with great humus. The various Chinese restaurants with a primarily Chinese customer base, so you can get the real deal.

    Actually the one thing I can say I miss is bread. In Japan bread is cake. It is sugar, flour and shortening. I'm not kidding. You can buy a loaf of rye bread, but it'll cost you. If you want hearty whole wheat bread sans sugar, you pay out your yin-yang for it at the European bakery.

    How about Singapore? You got good bread there?

  4. You can get anything in Singapore if you're willing to pay for it. There's a great bakery called Cedele that does multigrain and other dark loaves. mmm

  5. I get asked this all the time, and everytime I get stumped. To summarize what is Canadian food is like trying to describe the culture of the United Nations. We were just in the Dominican Republic in Punta Cana, aka Punta "Canada", and one of the restaurants had "Canadian Food" night. Of course we went, mostly out of curiousity. Maple ham, scalloped potatoes, mac and cheese, carved roast beef, poutine, lunch meat spread, potatoes and steamed veggies, sandwich table, basically a whole lot of everything - so we left still feeling like we have no clue what defines Canadian food.

    Tim Hortons perhaps? ;-)

  6. Think people! Good grief. If you add the word "traditional" to the term "Canadian food," you'd come up with most of the items in the first paragraph the writer makes fun of.
    Yes, most of us come from somewhere else, but to say dim sum is a traditional Canadian food is rather a stretch.
    We may not all speak Michif or Cree, but within those and other indigenous languages and cultures you will find a culture of food that is uniquely Canadian.
    Want simple traditional Canadian foods? Cook bannock. That is the simplest thing to do if you want a Canadian food. Make hardtack. Cook in all seasons with wildfowl, fresh fish, or game. Cook with berries in late summer and fall. Cook with dried meats and preserves through winter and spring.
    Our first peoples were gatherers. Our first explorers married native women so they could survive- they knew the foods. Those are traditional Canadian foods that built the country over hundreds of years, long before later settlers and pioneers cooked up perogies, created Kraft Dinner so others could later enjoy Timbits or dim sum.
    It says a lot that young people today do not recognize traditional Canadian foods built from 12,000 years of living here. That is your history and heritage. Learn it. Canada was built by traditional foods.
    Get outside. Build a fire. This is how you make bannock outside.
    Four cups flour, add a bit of sugar, two or three tablespoons of baking powder (two heaping will do) a bit of salt, two cups water.
    Stir dry ingredients, slowly mix wet ingredients into it. Do not add eggs to this. You'll ruin it. Kneed the dough good so you feel the toughness come into it. Sprinkle it with flour. Roll the dough about 1/4 inch flat and long so when you wrap it around the tip of your stick it won't fall off. Cook it over the fire.
    You can cook this in a frying pan as well. It's very dangerous to add butter to this: You'll fall in love. Fair warning.
    You can also have Regional Canadian Food, but that's another story.

  7. Oh, by the way, I'm enjoying your blog.
    I used to live in Singapore for a couple months many, many years before you were born. There were food cart vendors in the old Chinatown. Lantern lights above us. Narrow but amazingly clean streets. I'm not sure any of that exists any more.
    I was with three Australians, one from Tasmania. We were eating some sort of meat-meal and rice with chopsticks at a lone table provided by a cart vendor. Suddenly the fellow from Taz shouted, "Good Lord! An eyeball!" True story. The eyeball was dog size. I'm not sure if that was a traditional Singapore food.

  8. Thanks for your comments. There's no argument that bannock, etc. is traditional and uniquely Canadian, but since the majority of the popular is more familiar with phad thai than bannock it falls a bit short of being representative of "Canadian food". But your recipe sounds delicious and I might try it. In a frying pan of course because I'm pretty sure I'll be arrested if I go outside in Singapore and try to start a campfire :) Do you put anything on it or eat it plain?

    I've encountered lots of strange (to me) food in Singapore, but so far no eyeballs. Feet and organs I just eat around, but I think the meal would be over if I found an eye.

  9. perogies caught my attention being half polish!

  10. I'm Finnish/Polish/Ukrainian.

  11. They've got Poutine in Singapore at Hummerstons.. !!

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