Traditional Canadian food?

We were talking about Chinese food the other day — you know, what kinds were traditional to which region, what was considered “authentic” Chinese food (whatever “authentic” means). An Asian co-worker suddenly spoke up and asked about Canadian food, then made a joke about the country not being old enough to have any “traditional Canadian food,” or even “Canadian food”. We thought for a short while, keeping in mind that Canada was founded primarily by French and English people encroaching on First Nations land. Subsequent to that, we’ve built up a population comprised of just about every other nation and ethnic group around the world, so the concept of “traditional Canadian food” was a bit of a no-starter.
I suggested that Pemmican was probably the most traditional of Canadian food. Then I had to explain what it was — to everyone around me, not just the Asian co-worker. Kind of like saying Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport. Does anyone even know the rules of Lacrosse?
We sort of came up with a few categories that might help us better define what authentic Canadian cuisine might look/taste like. If we were to start where I started, with the First Nations/Fur Traders genre of food, you might get something like Pemmican, Bannock, etc.
Note that I’m intentionally leaving out indigenous animals, such as bison, salmon, venison, bear, caribou, moose, etc., even though there are apparently some really good recipes out there. My primary reason for this is that just about any of these guys can also be found in the nearby États Unis.
I’m also intentionally leaving out Tim Hortons’s coffee, not because it’s not traditional or not Canadian. I just don’t think Canadians should be known for Tim Hortons’s coffee.
I do think we should be known for our Bloody Caesar, invented by Walter Chell at the Owl’s Nest Bar in the Westin Hotel in Calgary, Alberta. If anyone has heard of any other Canadian-invented drinks, I’d like to hear about them.
Of course, there’s all the east coast foods, such as Codfish Cakes, Solomon Gundy, etc. I’m leaving cod on this list. There are things Newfoundlanders do to cod that are really weird.
Also, the Quebecois food is pretty interesting. Creton, Poutine, Tarte Au Sucre. Pretty much anything there that the France French look down on could be considered.
Desserts too … Maple Walnut Ice Cream, Nanaimo Bars, Butter Tarts. I can’t prove that any of these were actually invented in Canada, of course.
In any case, the list can be as complicated or as unusual as you want to make it. Anyone want to try French Fried Skunk? No?

18 Responses to “Traditional Canadian food?

  • clvrmnky
    18 years ago

    This is a test. Canadian food is da bomb.

  • clvrmnky
    18 years ago

    If we were to start counting at first contact then bannock could be
    lumped in with pemmican.
    Otherwise they can easily be split into different categories, since
    bannock requires wheat flour which was only available post-contact.
    For the category “first Canadians in recent geological
    history” (which really doesn’t exist because Canada did not exist as
    an entity) then there are a bunch of recipes based on the “three
    sisters” (for example) food items by the Huron. Corn, beans and
    squash are the cornerstone of many indigenous people in what is now
    Ontario and Quebec.
    Since this is just one small part of what we call Canada, there are a
    bunch of other foods that exist in some form today that are
    completely different. Even the fish dishes on the Pacific coast
    differ than the Atlantic. And can we call raw seal meat a “dish”?
    Not to mention that pemmican was really a staple for those hunter-
    gatherers in central North America that lived on game (primarily
    large herds of various antelope). That is, even though they had
    access to it, many other indigenous groups did not consider pemmican
    a food they would eat.
    If we defined “Canada” (and, therefore, “Canadian food”) as beginning
    with something like the BNA act then the stuff you mention here is
    reasonable. Tea, flour and salt became a sort of triumvirate of
    trade-food that supported the fur trade. For those traders working
    in central Canada pemmican would have been common, but no so much for
    Upper and Lower Canada.
    I guess the real issue is not where food comes from (can British-
    occupied India food created for British tastes be considered “Indian”
    except for several centuries of reinterpretation?), but what food a
    country is famous for.
    Even those famous “Chinese” dishes we all think we know were actually
    a result of trade, immigration, enforced servitude and
    reinterpretation. At what point do we measure the authenticity of
    Chinese food? Before or after the many Mongol invasions, which
    introduced so many of the most famous modern dishes?
    I’m afraid the modern Canadian analogues to this are things like Tim
    Hortons coffee (and snacks) and Hawaiian Pizza. And “doughnut”
    spelled correctly.
    For any given region we really have the only metre-stick that makes
    sense for most of us: did our grandmothers make it for us? Even
    though it ain’t Canadian by a long-shot, perogies are a standard dish
    on many Winnipeg dinner plates, most of which who have never had a
    Russian grandmother.
    That is, if we prevail long enough, and globalism doesn’t turn the
    world into one big beige culture, Canada could have all these
    disparate tastes transformed into an identity. Until then, we have
    smarties, strong beer, St. Lawrence cheese and doughnuts.
    In fact, many of those “American” dishes may as well be Canadian,
    too. “As American as Apple Pie” was an advertising slogan that would
    work just as well for Canada. Since the US has claimed it, we are
    stuck using more “ethnic” choices, which do not translated well to
    other ethnicities.
    Heck, even those most famous of American menus are borrowed, and
    recently, from other countries. Good luck creating new identifiably
    country-as-a-region dishes anywhere, anymore. That required a
    different kind of global market and depended on periods of isolation;
    something we do not have the luxury of anymore.
    In fact, talking about traditional foods in the modern era without
    acknowledging the impact of corporations will always lead us around
    in these circles.

  • Speaking as a Canadian-in-exile… here in the American Midwest, there’s a handful of things that get billed as Canadian. “Canadian bacon” (back bacon, but generally not properly peamealed (if that’s a word)) is probably the biggest/best known; you can also get “Canadian cheddar”, which usually indicates a cheddar which is white and aged 2-3 years.
    Otherwise, I pretty much agree with clvrmnky. There’s a handful of dishes that come down from the settlers (like tourtière, for instance, or clvrmnky’s pierogies) which one might identify as Canadian, but of course they were generally someone else’s first. Into this category also fall things that I would consider Canadian in that I can’t find them in the States but could at any Canadian grocer… but such things (crumpets, for instance) are probably more closely identified with the English than with Canada.
    A friend of mine was on exchange to Switzerland in high school, and her Swiss counterpart asked her what Toronto’s local specialties were, since in Switzerland each villages seems to have its own cheese, or cured meat, or whatever. Ontario in general doesn’t tend that way, possibly because (as has been suggested) it didn’t exist long enough pre-globalisation for such regionalisms to develop.

  • Of course, there’s a big rivalry (of sorts) between Montrealers and Torontonians about their bagels. I’ve never noticed any difference (to me, a bagel is a bagel), but each group has an apparently unique claim to their own bagel style. Perhaps this is an artificial, commericially-reinforced “regionalism”. I certainly don’t think one would include either Montreal-style or Toronto-style bagels as being anything like a traditional Canadian food item.

  • With regards to bagels, I find it interesting that the two foods billed as “Montreal” (bagels and smoked meat) are pretty much slight variations on the New York City versions of the same thing (where pastrami = New York Smoked Meat).

  • CBC was running a piece on Canadian English over the weekend — supposed idiosyncrasies of the English language in Canada, and the possible fallacy of a unique, Canadian form of English. They likened this whole debate to the “traditional Canadian” food discussion, and at some point, someone mentioned Hawaiian pizza. I forgot that this is supposed to be a Canadian invention, though neither pizza, nor anything Hawaiian suggests Canada. Figured we should throw it on the pile.

  • OK, here’s an interesting link that discusses Canadian cuisine:
    It covers a lot of the topics we’ve already examined, and adds quite a few dishes I missed, such as: Ketchup Potato Chips, Apple pie with Cheddar cheese, Beaver tails, and Persians
    It was interesting to note that the Chinese buffet came from Canada, though it’s hardly a source of national pride.

  • A classic Montreal bagel is only slightly leavened, and the twists of dough are dropped in boiling honey water prior to baking.
    Does anyone know if this differs significantly from a New York bagel?
    I’ve also heard that there is a Winnipeg style bagel. No doubt I’ve had one, since I’m not stranger to the North End, but I could not tell you what made it so special.
    Smoke meat products vary so much in spice and technique that we might as well call ’em by the city that made ’em famous. For instance, Parma ham is pretty much just a cured ham the same as every pork-eating civilization has made it; but it is different and famous enough that the region gave its name to the style.
    I’m too lazy to look up the difference, but Montreal smoked meat is a variation on pastrami that has become famous enough that the name stuck. Whether or not the difference demands the fancy label is open to discussion, but there is a difference. Mostly spice content, curing time and moisture content, from my poor understanding.
    Not to mention that different agricultural practices and government guidelines may force standard recipes into new forms out of necessity.
    Really, regionalisms like this are just a less obvious form of the “transplanted food” riff I made earlier.

  • canadian food is so stupid but south african food is the best!!!!!

  • Err, thanks for this insight. What’s a good South African dish?

  • hi guys, must say i find this interesting..We are looking to move from england to canada and im interested in how the food and cuisine vairies, im very used to french style cooking as half my family is french but i have no idea what everyday cuisine is like there…i cant imagine it being too different as every country in europe tends to eat very similar food…what can i expect to be different in canada?
    thanks very muchly!

  • Canadian food on the whole isn’t much different from anywhere else, which is why we began discussing it here — we tend to try to find solidarity by emphasizing the details of our existence. The food in Canada tends to be more like a combination of British and American food, but regional areas will have more specific food varieties (i.e. in Quebec, you’ll see a lot more traditional French style food). Larger regional centres will have a more worldly mix of ethnic foods, reflecting the area’s mix of cultures. In Toronto, for example, you can get just about any kind of food (there are a couple of great Tibetan places). It all depends on where you are in Canada.

  • erica
    16 years ago


  • Whats with syrup and bacon… Michael Buble talks how Canadians love their syrup and bacon? whats with that? I’ve heard of peanut butter and syrup mixed and eaten but bacon and syrup?? Is it a breakfast side? I’m dying to know …ok I’ll live but its got me!!

  • It’s like ham and pineapple in the U.S., or sweet and sour pork in Chinese restaurants. Sweet + bacon = yum. At least for some people … this actually goes back to why the Hawaiian pizza concept is so popular here.

  • On a related note, many U.S. people complain about how salty our candy bars are. I’ve never noticed this, myself, except with Crispy Crunch bars. They’re like salty Butterfinger bars. So maybe this goes back to the salty + sweet preference you see with bacon and syrup.

  • christina carotenuto
    15 years ago

    I am looking for an easy recipe for my 5th grader to make. It must come from the Alberta Canada region. She has to make enough for her class (26 students) it can be a drink or a food.
    I hope you can help me
    Thank you
    Christina Carotenuto-Brooklyn, NY usa

  • Hey, if you don’t mind being off by about a thousand kilometres, I’d suggest making Nanaimo bars (Nanaimo is on Vancouver Island in B.C, quite the distance from Alberta).
    The only other thing that really stands out in my mind is the Bloody Caesar cocktail, which you could make without booze, I suppose:
    Calgary, Alberta – The infamous Bloody Caesar cocktail was invented in 1969, by bartender Walter Chell at the Westin Hotel. He had been asked to concoct a drink to commemorate the opening of Marco’s, the hotel’s Italian restaurant. Using its Italian cuisine for inspiration, he came up with a mixture of hand-mashed clams, tomato juice, vodka, Worcestershire sauce, salt, and pepper; then garnished it with a celery stick and named it for the Roman Emperor – a ‘Bloody Caesar’. Later, with assistance from Chell, the Mott Company went on to develop ‘clamato’ juice.
    More info could be found here: