Cuisine: Moose on a Kaiser?

by Sabine Ehgoetz

When you live in a large Canadian city and plan to eat out, you can choose from a wide variety of different ethnic restaurants. Italian, Japanese, Greek, even Mongolian or Ethiopian cuisine are all easily available.

If you have less adventurous tastes, you may decide to visit a pub or diner for a typical American meal that usually consists of burgers, chicken wings or oversized sandwiches accompanied by fries or coleslaw. I’m not certain whether this could be called traditional food, but it is at least what you mentally connected with places like Louisiana, Texas and the great wide west of the USA.

Try on the other hand to locate a restaurant where "authentic Canadian" food is served. Coming from Bavaria, where restaurants that mainly serve local specialties take up most of the pages of a city’s dining guide, I’m astonished at what comes up when you look for "Canadian restaurants" in the Yellow Pages online. Listed amongst the few results are mostly places like "The Pickle Barrel" and "The Great Canadian Bagel". Fine establishments perhaps, but not what I’m looking for when I want to take visitors for a memorable Canadian dining experience.

Hopefully a look at the dinner table of a Canadian family home will bring some answers. But no luck there either when it comes to traditional cooking, at least not at my in-laws, who are second generation Canadians. As a matter of fact, they have been on something called the South Beach Diet (invented in Florida) for years. I’m pretty certain that every proper lumberjack would feel like starving on a diet that seems to consist of grilled chicken or fish plus a handful of steamed vegetables.

But let’s dig deeper to see what has the potential to become part of an authentic menu. The famous maple syrup is an obvious choice –since the leaf of the maple tree is printed on the national flag. Unfortunately this sweet delicacy in itself doesn’t make much of a meal unless you put it on some pancakes – which are not truly Canadian. The same is true of cranberries, although we are one of the world’s major producers. Some rural towns even honour this berry by organizing entire festivals around it, where it is sold dried, cooked into sauce and jarred or baked into yummy muffins.

On the savoury side, the Quebecois cheese culture has to be singled out, especially Oka, a type of cheese that still comes exclusively from Canada. This country is also known abroad for its huge variety of fish that gets exported to the rest of the world, like salmon and halibut. People here also seem to eat a ton of bacon, but that in itself doesn’t count as typically Canadian, since the same can be found on U.S. breakfast tables. It is true however, that back bacon is known in some other countries as ‘Canadian bacon’.

Is this nation too young and too influenced by its European roots and big southern neighbour to have formed its own culinary identity? I remember living in London, England, where my husband used to take me out to the only "Canadian Pub" in town whenever he got a little homesick, but if I really think about it, the few truly Canadian things about this venue were poutine on the menu, a few Canadian beers on draft and a big moose head over the bar.

Does Canada even have a signature dish it is famous for around the world, such as paella in Spain, curries in India, pasta in Italy or sausage and sauerkraut in Germany? There is, of course, poutine, as mentioned above, a dish that originally stems from the French part of Canada. In case you are not familiar with it and already picture something along the lines of escargot and bouillabaisse, you are far off. Ultimately, when you order this dish, you get a big, soggy lump of French fries with cheese curds smothered in gravy. It usually leaves you with heartburn and – excusez moi – flatulence. [ED: Although many consider it delicious] Poutine is widely considered a fast food meal and mainly served in pubs or roadside fries stands.

The famous national animals, the moose and the bear, surely were on the dinner plan of the country’s First Nations and are still eaten in remote parts of the country and a few gourmet restaurants. You don’t come across ‘moose on a Kaiser’ all too often and as a real city girl I have yet to discover a restaurant that serves ‘bear au jus’. I once tried caribou, commonly known as reindeer, but I doubt it is ever going to become a frequently cooked dish in Canadian homes if other people are like me and have pictures of poor little Rudolph popping up in their minds while they are chewing on it.

From all this, should we draw the conclusion that Canada doesn’t have a culinary identity? After all, the country is home to a huge mix of cultures, all of which have their traditional cooking styles that often overlap to form something called "fusion cuisine". You surely wouldn’t long for something "Canadian on your plate when there are such a huge variety of other delicious and exciting dishes around!

A few innovative chefs across the country would strongly disagree and actually strive to specialize in dishes made entirely from domestic ingredients such as Yukon potatoes, Alberta bison, pemmican (a Cree jerky), fiddleheads (baby ferns), Saskatoon berries, Montreal smoked meats and Pacific smoked salmon.

Maybe the country is trying to claim its own culinary identity and it won’t be long until the local Yellow Pages feature a good selection of "Canadian" restaurants.

Perhaps, eventually you’ll be able to say anywhere in the world, "Let’s go for some Canadian food tonight".

CNM