What is Canadian food?

spices and salt

“What do Canadians eat?” It’s a common question asked of Canadians abroad, and not one that comes with a straight answer.

In fact, many Canadians would have a difficult time clearly describing our cuisine in a few simple phrases. There are relatively few dishes that can be defined as distinctly Canadian. There are regional favourites such as poutine and tourtière from Quebec, or jigg’s dinner and pan fried cod with scruncheons (fried salted pork) from Newfoundland.

So what is Canadian cuisine? Our perceptions of Canadian food are often informed by the cultural diversity of where we grew up and where we live now. Kyla Rajkumar is a sous-chef at The Gabardine in Toronto, Ontario. Originally from Trinidad & Tobago, she came to Canada to attend culinary school at St. Clair College in Windsor, Ontario. Describing her first impressions of Canadian cuisine, Kyla says “I moved here in 2002, to Windsor. At the time if you asked me what Canadian cuisine was I would have said, I don’t know, like Italian food because there are so many Italian restaurants in Windsor…and pub fare, because to me that was Canadian food.”

“If you ask me today what Canadian culture in food is, I would have to say it’s so blended, which makes it quite awesome.”

However, Kyla’s views on Canadian cuisine have changed since spending time in the United Kingdom and now living and working in Toronto. “There’s so many different nationalities and races and cultures all coexisting and creating what Toronto is. So if you ask me today what Canadian culture in food is, I would have to say it’s so blended which makes it quite awesome.” She goes on to say “A daily conversation my wife and I have is ‘What kind of food do we want to eat today?’ And when you say what kind of food we really mean do we want roti? Do we want Korean food, Chinese, or do we want Mexican? What do we want? These are our options, our daily choices.”

Food writers, such as Anita Stewart, have stated that the diversity present in our cuisine is what makes it distinctly Canadian. She writes, “We can taste the world but we do it, as I’ve written so often, on our own terms with our own ingredients which spring from ancient cultures around the globe.” A wide range of ingredients, spices, and cooking methods are normal to us. Canadians are exposed to numerous cultural cuisines, often from a very young age and within their own families; and this diversity in food mirrors the diversity of Canada’s population.

Canadian cuisine is clearly a result of Canada’s multicultural society. But does good food play an important role in building a multicultural society? Leah Ramoutar of Edmonton, Alberta is a Canadian born home cook who is very skilled in her preparation of the cuisine of Trinidad & Tobago, where her husband of over fifty years was born. Leah, began learning how to make Trinidadian food from her husband and friends. Leah said, “John taught me how to make stewed chicken and curry. Other people cook theirs a little differently; so I would adapt and incorporate what I liked.” This has proven to be a bonding experience, not only between her and her husband but with other West Indian expats. She has shared recipes and techniques with several Trinidadian expats, and this had helped to build close friendships over the years. She has also served Trinidadian food to Canadian friends and family of European descent, and it was enthusiastically received.

In the 1980s, when Edmonton was not as diverse as it is now, Leah was invited to give a cooking demonstration by a women’s group that met at a mosque. Most of the members of the women’s group were of South Asian descent from Uganda and Tanzania, and were interested in learning about different aspects of Canadian life. Leah made some Indian sweets; but she also decided to make Trinidadian stewed chicken since it might be something new to many of the group members. Her dishes were very well received and the ladies discussed different cooking techniques with Leah.

This is a prime example of a Canadian culinary experience. An interest in learning more about Canadian life and food, can lead one to learning about the food and culture of another diaspora.

Kyla experienced something similar when she introduced Graham Pratt, head chef at The Gabardine and long-time friend, to some of the recipes that she grew up with in Trinidad. They decided to put one of these dishes, Shark & Bake, on the menu as a lunch special at the restaurant. The demand for Shark & Bake exceeded expectations, “We tweeted out a picture of it…and people were coming specifically for that. A lot of West Indian people who work downtown, like on Bay Street [came]. It was something that they could connect to, something that they’re nostalgic for.”

Kyla has found a new appreciation for the food that she grew up with by introducing it to friends and colleagues within the food industry. She took Pratt and their respective spouses to Trinidad & Tobago for a culinary tour. “It was really fun to see it through his eyes. And it got me excited about [Trinidadian food] again. I was super proud, just to expose him to these flavours and have his mind blown.” The success of the Shark & Bake special has led to several Trinidadian inspired dishes to become permanent items on The Gabardine’s menu.

These kinds of interactions are what make a wide range of cultural cuisines so common place to Canadians today. Canadian food is a cuisine of inclusion. It is a reflection of ourselves and how foods of various cultures are, as Kyla Rajkumar put it, “not outside of our comfort zone.”

One notable exception, of course, is the lack of awareness of First Nations cuisine. A recent article on the subject suggests that colonial history, economic racism, a current lack of licencing to serve hunted meat, and bad press from animal rights groups all contribute to this void in Canadian cuisine. However, this may be slowly changing with the presence of First Nations restaurants across Canada, such as: La Traite in Wendake, Quebec and The Thunderbird Café in Whistler, British Columbia. Cookbooks featuring First Nations recipes have also been featured in the media.

“It was so delicious that I said to myself ‘I’ve gotta marry this man.'”

Good food is an integral component to Canada’s multiculturalism, both shaping and being shaped by what it means to be Canadian. It can bring people together culturally, socially, and even romantically. When Leah talks of falling in love with her husband John, food was clearly part of the attraction. “He was a good cook. I was over at his place and he was cooking stewed chicken, Trinidad style, which I had never had. And it was so delicious, that …I said to myself ‘I’ve gotta marry this man.’”

Author: Maya Mohan

Maya is a writer, musician, and co-founder of Mosaic Times.