What makes Canadian cuisine distinct?

TORONTO — Say Creole and most people think of New Orleans, with its complex mixture of indigenous, Spanish, French and Caribbean cultures. But a Fraser Valley professor says Canadian cuisine can also be called Creole.

It’s what happens when different groups form a new culture and a new cuisine results. It’s not to be confused with fusion, where the ingredients are mixed together, says Lenore Newman, who holds a Canada Research Chair in food security and environment. “Basically, we take recipes from elsewhere and then we make them our own by bringing in these defining pillars of Canadian cuisine, which we found right across the country, this idea of wild food, regional foods and seasonal foods,” says Newman, who teaches geography of food at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford.

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She set out to determine what Canadian food is, a quest that involved more than three years of criss-crossing the country, travelling 40,000 kilometres by road. The result is Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey (University of Regina Press).

She found Canadian Creole started with indigenous cuisine.

“You had two founding nations that came and were similar cultures that were highly influenced by indigenous food, but neither French nor English could really dominate because we had that uneasy balance,” says Newman.

Then came waves of settlement. Ukrainians populated the Prairies, Icelandic people came to Manitoba and immigrants from China’s Guangdong province arrived in British Columbia.

One of the best examples of Canadian Creole is saskatoon berry perogies from the Prairies — it’s not a dish found in eastern Europe where the filled dumplings originated, Newman points out.

In B.C., there’s a version of the yogurt-based drink lassi using plentiful local blueberries.

“There are no blueberries in India. You get a mango lassi or a rose lassi, but here you get a blueberry lassi and that’s another great example of that Creole,” she says.

She also cites elk osso buco — the traditional Milanese dish typically uses veal shanks — and butter chicken pizza.

Newman identified five criteria that define Canadian cuisine: wild food, seasonal food, regional food, multiculturalism and a focus on ingredients ahead of recipes, which echoes California or new Nordic cuisine.

“We also draw heavily on the idea of winter and cold wilderness. Our cuisine is cosy — it works well on a cold winter’s night.”

One of her favourite meals during her travels epitomized this — it was in Montreal at Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon.

“It was so incredibly rich and filling and cosy and it was a cold night and I took a bunch of friends. It was this amazing, big, formal meal.”

At the other end of the spectrum was homemade pie she found by chance driving in New Brunswick. “I had a slice of rhubarb pie sitting out on a rock and it was just perfect.”

She went to Thunder Bay, Ont., to try the Persian pastry, an iced sweet roll native to the city. Ontario icewine, “a sort of borrowed product from Germany,” has really come into its own in Canada, she says.

Newman notes the wilderness is still a big part of who we are.

“That really comes through if you remember that fisheries are wild and so we have the fisheries, we have a lot of hunting still, a lot of berry picking — in every single region people pick berries out of the wild. There’s a lot of harvesting of fiddleheads, ramps, all these wonderful things, and, also, of course maple is wild.”

Yet she notes climate change, urban land pressures and the disappearance of wild environments are threatening Canadian food sustainability.

It was her first visit to Newfoundland and Labrador that inspired the book’s title, Speaking in Cod Tongues.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect to find such a wonderfully highly developed cuisine. It’s a great culinary destination now.”

She found people mourning the loss of the cod fishery and yearning for cod tongues, a treat she pronounces delicious.

In the fishery’s heyday, children earned pocket money digging out “tongues” and “cheeks” from the fish heads — actually gelatinous pieces of flesh from the fish’s throat.

“The kids would sell buckets of them and then people would fry it in pork scrunchions [crispy bits of salted pork] at the end of the day. The whole community would get together and they would fry this up and have a Newfoundland scoff where they would just eat cod tongues and hang out with each other and drink beer and have a good time.

“And now, it’s really only a tourist food because there’s no cod. … They stuck in my mind because I kept thinking, ‘Gee, the people, the culture that created this dish can’t enjoy it any more and how would I feel, as a fisherman’s daughter, if I couldn’t have salmon any more.’ And I started to realize the cultural capital of these dishes was so strong.

“I realized the cod tongues really did tell me something about culture and about how fragile it can be.”

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