Canada is a big country, with land divided into 10 provinces and three territories, stretching across nearly four million miles. The culinary traditions of the True North vary from one region to the next, rooted in First Nations, French, English, and Scottish cultures.
But like other nations, the immigrants that arrived after those early Canadian inhabitants in the 19th and 20th centuries influenced the culinary landscape here, as well. Traditional Canadian cuisine is a delicious melding of food cultures, unique flavors, and culinary customs that everyone needs to try.
A double-crusted meat pie, seasoned with cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and nutmeg, food historians have traced tourtière’s origins to early Quebec. Savory and filling, with a flaky crust on the outside, this delicious dish has a tasty filling of potatoes alongside pork, veal, beef, or wild game meat like moose, pheasant, rabbit, or pigeon.
Some foodies add a sauce on the side, ranging from ketchup to cranberry sauce or pickled beets. Many families serve tourtière during the holidays.
The name may come from a Scottish flatbread, but the yeast-free bannock bread’s history is ingrained within the culinary traditions of Canada’s First Nations. They harvested cattails, acorns, lichens, ferns, and other plants from the local landscape and milled them to create the flour used to make bannock and other types of bread.
Indigenous cooks prepared them over an open fire, but today, bannock is either fried or baked and often served with jam or meat fillings.
Even people who know nothing of Canadian cuisine have heard of poutine, which some claim as the national dish. Most culinarians agree that the poutine originated in Quebec in the 1950s. It starts with fresh-cut french fries, which the preparer then tops with cheese curds and gravy.
You’ll have no trouble finding poutine across Canada. High-end restaurants, food trucks, and even fast-food chains serve this well-loved dish. Chefs have created fancier versions featuring classy toppings such as foie gras, lobster, truffles, and steak. And, there are also vegan and vegetarian versions available across the country.
This traditional Canadian delight dates back to the 1800s and a man named William Davies, who many credit with its creation. He wanted to cash in on the lucrative British demand for pork - the problem was that shipping the pork overseas took a long time, and the meat would spoil in the process. Davies remedied the issue by trimming the boneless pork loins, salt-curing them, then rolling them in dried, ground yellow peas.
The process extended the pork’s shelf life. Today, some people call it Canadian bacon instead of peameal bacon. It’s a flavorful, leaner version of traditional bacon. Instead of peameal, modern cooks roll the loins in cornmeal.
With more than 151,000 miles of coastline, Canada’s maritime provinces have a close relationship with the sea and its offerings. Fish and brewis originated in Newfoundland and Labrador. Sailors, who were often away from port for months at a time, created this traditional food because it didn’t spoil during their long journeys.
The dish is a mixture of salt cod and hard bread — AKA hardtack — which must then simmer on the stove and soak overnight. Fans enjoy adding scrunchions, crumbled-up, salted fried pork for texture and flavor.
Food inspirations, especially traditional ones, usually have cultural connections. Jiggs Dinner is one that came about as a result of a popular Canadian comic strip, “Bringing Up Father,” which ran from 1913 to 2000.
Boiled cabbage, potatoes, turnips, and carrots cooked with salted beef or beef riblets are the prime features of this beloved dish. It’s also customary to serve pickled beets or cranberry sauce and a thin gravy on the side.
Nothing beats a hearty soup to ward off the winter chills. With its roots in Quebec, traditional pea soup is one of the ultimate comfort food choices across the Great White North.
Dried peas, salt pork, and herbs are the most common ingredients, although, in some regions, turnips and carrots are also popular. Traditionalists usually cook the salt pork first, then chop it up, and add it to the soup. But in one variation, the cook slices the pork and simmers it with the other ingredients, then removes it from the soup and serves the sliced meat on the side.
No traditional cuisine is complete without some sugary treats to tantalize the taste buds. Nanaimo is a city in British Columbia and the 1950s origin spot for Nanaimo Bars, a three-layered, no-bake confection and dessert staple across Canada.
The graham cracker crumb, coconut, and nut base, or bottom layer, is covered with a middle layer of sweet, creamy, custard icing and a third, or top layer, of chocolate ganache. Today, dessert lovers will find gluten-free and vegan versions, as well as other Nanaimo-inspired desserts like Nanaimo bar cheesecakes.
It’s no surprise this frugal-but-tasty dish originated during the Great Depression. Its name, translated to English, is “unemployment pudding,” yet it has survived long past those difficult times in human history. Why?
First of all, it requires only a few simple ingredients. Secondly, it’s easy to prepare, and finally, it’s delicious. Think simple biscuit dough poached in maple syrup caramel, topped with a dollop of whipped cream and a tad of maple caramel. It’s dessert perfection, especially on cold winter nights.
Canada is the maple syrup capital of the world, and Quebec is the largest producer. It makes sense that one of the country’s top traditional delectables fuses maple syrup and snow into tasty but sticky, maple taffy treats.
Canadian history credits a 16th-century nun for coming up with the idea. She poured boiling maple syrup over the snow to create a candy. In modern times, people roll up the candy with a popsicle stick, creating a sort of chewy, maple taffy lollipop.
The beaver is one of two national animals in Canada. Although you can find cooked beaver tails, the dessert type — BeaverTails —have no beaver meat in them. They are, however, beaver tail-shaped.
A local pastry chain created these hand-stretched, deep-fried dough pastries in the 1970s, serving them with a variety of toppings. Classic versions have a cinnamon sugar topping. A richer, contemporary version uses a topping of peanut butter, chocolate, and Reese’s Pieces candy. And in some areas, you’ll find them topped with salmon tail and cream cheese, ham and cheese, or steak.
Traditionally, preparers start with a brisket that has marinated twice as long as other styles of smoked meats to create this unique Montreal staple. Home cooks often brine it for days, then throw it on a smoker for hours or bake it until it’s nice and tender.
Some say the taste is comparable to pastrami but more flavorful, with less fat and sugar. Epicureans disagree on its beginnings. One camp insists that the meat creation first appeared at a Montreal deli in 1928. Others say it was the invention of a Romanian immigrant who first served the unique smoked meat in Montreal in 1884.
One of the most popular and time-honored holiday treats in Canada is the butter tart. These gooey, delicious pastries date back to the 1600s.
Colonial settlers from Europe arrived in Canada with recipes from their home countries. But, they adapted the recipes to fit with the locally available ingredients to create what would become the traditional Canadian version. The classic butter tart has a sweet, flaky crust surrounding a butter, syrup, vanilla, and brown sugar filling. Some cooks add raisins or currants; others add walnuts or pecans.
The saskatoon berry, or saskatoon serviceberry, grows across the western prairies in Canada, from western Ontario to British Columbia and the Yukon. They resemble blueberries, but horticulturists classify them as a member of the apple family. The saskatoon berry has a sweet and nutty almond flavor.
Saskatoon berry pie is a respected and traditional dessert with ties to its earliest inhabitants. For generations, bakers and home cooks have served these pies to happy diners and family members. In the modern era, it’s not unusual to top it with a scoop of ice cream. The diminished saskatoon supply in Western parts of the country has led to more home gardeners growing them to keep up their supply.
Indigenous peoples created this traditional Canadian food, a mixture of shredded dried meat and berries. It became a popular staple among fur traders and early explorers who bargained for it with local first nations.
Present-day cooks prepare it with lean beef, but traditionally, it contained elk, deer, or bison meat, although some cooks used salmon, duck, or other small game. It’s not only highly nutritious food but a high-energy food as well. Survivalists, mountain climbers, and hikers pack it for sustenance on long treks.
Boiled in water, sweetened with maple syrup or honey, and then cooked in wood-fired ovens, Montreal bagels are a unique take on the popular breakfast food, arriving with the Jewish immigrants who settled here in the early 1900s.
Thinner and sweeter than New York City bagels, the Canadian versions also provide a very satisfying crunch as you bite into them.
Polish and Ukrainian settlers brought these delicious dough dumplings to Canada. Cooks fill them with cheese and potato, boil or fry them, then saute them with lots of butter. Some contain a bit of bacon to enhance the flavor.
Luscious caramelized onions or sour cream are popular toppings. These versatile little dumpling pillows sometimes contain blueberries or Saskatoon berries, with a drizzling of something sweet, rich, and gooey.