What is Canadian cuisine?

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Canada’s first cooks, the Indigenous Peoples, are known to have used more than 500 plant species for food. They cultivated and foraged a variety of plants, hunted animals in the air, water, and land. They also used various tools to boil, smoke/preserve, and roast their food. The arrival of the French and English brought in more ingredients and new cooking techniques. Today, many of Canada’s traditional dishes bear the mark of these Indigenous, French, and English influences.

But when we say Canadian cuisine, what characteristics come to mind?

It’s actually hard to say. When we say Indian food, we immediately think of the blend of spices and smells that make it distinctly Indian. Mention Chinese food, and you imagine savoury goodness. With Canadian cuisine, it can be hard to pinpoint a singular flavour, texture or characteristic. One Canadian prime minister even described it as “a smorgasbord of other cuisines,” which is somewhat accurate since Canada is one of the most multicultural countries in the world.

However, if we go by popular dishes in an attempt to define it, we will see that what makes Canadian food Canadian may be its historical background and the local ingredients used to make them. As award-winning Canadian food culture writer and author Jennifer Cochrall-King said: “There is no single definition of Canadian cuisine. It starts with ingredients that spring from the landscape and with traditional dishes steeped in the region’s history and culture. On the front lines of Canada’s culinary scene, each chef innovatively reinterprets these elements to reflect a very personal vision of the land, food, and people around him or her.” (As quoted from Herch, J. 2009).

Iconic dishes from coast to coast:

Going in this direction, we have listed down some of Canada’s most well-known dishes. We have indicated where the dish originated from but you will discover that most of them may now be found all over Canada. Check the list to see if you’ve tried some of them:

Poutine (French-Canadian/Quebec)– Poutine is French fries with gravy, topped with squeaky cheese curds. It originated from Quebec in the 1950s. There are many stories about its origin but the most popular version involves a Café Ideal regular customer asking for cheese curds to be added to his fries. The owner said “ça va te faire une maudite poutine!” (that will make a damned mess!). The gravy was later added to the mix when customers complained that the fries grew cold too quickly (History of Poutine, The Canadian Encyclopedia). Today, each region has its own version of poutine, distinguished by additional toppings added (e.g. lobster in the Maritimes, slices of Alberta beef, or butter chicken in BC).

Tourtiere – (French-Canadian/Quebec) – It is a double-crusted meat pie, usually made of pork, veal, and beef, or just pork in Montreal. According to the Great Canadian Cookbook, Québécois settlers established this pie as a Christmas feast (réveillon) staple when they came in the 1600s. Various versions of the pie would contain fillings from meat to fish, but what makes it authentic are four spices – cinnamon, clove, allspice, and nutmeg.

Butter tarts (Ontario)- This is a dessert made of butter, sugar, syrup, vanilla, and eggs encased in a crumbly pastry shell. It is said that the pioneers have enjoyed it since the 1600s. Today, butter tarts have variants with raisins and/or chopped nuts like pecan.

Nanaimo bars (Quebec/BC) – These are dessert bars made of a wafer crumb base, custard-flavoured centre, and chocolate on top. It has been popular since the 1950s, not only in Quebec and BC but all over Canada. It is said that the story of the dessert may date back to Nanaimo’s coal mining era in the late 1900s. Miners’ families from England would send the sweet bars to the settlement for their loved ones. The bars became a lunch box staple for the miners (Devon Scoble, The History of Nanaimo bars: A beloved treat).

Bannock – (Scottish origins, adopted by Indigenous Peoples) – Bannock is a circular flatbread. It may be cut into wedges, which are then called scones. It became a staple food for Indigenous people, especially for hunters who found it easy to pack flour and cook the mixture in an open fire. Nowadays, bannock is eaten with various fillings like meats or jam.

Beavertails (Ontario) – Also called queues de castor, the beavertail is a flat version of the donut. According to an article in Culture Trip Toronto, this treat shares its history with the bannock. The flatbread came to be when early settlers began to cook their bread the same way. Indigenous people cooked the tails of beavers – in an open fire. Soon the bannock dough mixture began to be stretched over one or two sticks in the shape of the beaver’s tail. Today, beavertails are deep-fried and topped with sweet spreads like Nutella, peanut butter, even whipped cream and berries. It is available in Manitoba from a concession in Clear Lake and during festivals and events like Festival du Voyageur and the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Saskatoon berry pie (Saskatoon, the prairie provinces) – Saskatoons or “prairie berry” look like blueberries that have a sweet, nutty almond flavour. They are the sweet and nutritious filling for this crusty, flaky pie. Saskatoons were a staple for both Indigenous Peoples and early settlers. The berries can be enjoyed fresh, but it can also be preserved into “berry-bricks” to be gradually chipped for cooking and enjoyed over long winters (The traditional Canadian prairie Wild Saskatoon berry pie, Valerie Lugonja).

Canadian bacon (Ontario) – Despite its name, “peameal bacon” is known mostly in Ontario. Canadian bacon is a leaner version of regular bacon that originated from Toronto. It is made from a cut of pork that is trimmed of fat and rolled in cornmeal. Originally, it was rolled in crushed yellow peas, hence the name peameal. This process cures the pork to preserve it for lean months. Today, peameal sandwiches continue to be a tourist must-have from Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market.

Split pea soup (French Canadian) – This uses yellow split peas with the soup base made from ham bone or ham hock. Those in Quebec and Newfoundland may cook the peas together with meat, carrots, and turnips. The old-fashioned soup was first made by voyagers who always took dried peas with them (since they last long) in their journey.

Fish and brewis (Newfoundland) – It is a unique dish made with salted cod and hard bread (also called hard tack). The fish and bread are soaked overnight and mixed together. The dish is traditionally topped with scrunchions, which are fried salted pork fat cut into small pieces. This rustic dish traces its roots to sailors who developed this dish (as a breakfast meal) using ingredients that could withstand weeks of travel.

Figgy Duff (Newfoundland) – Surprisingly, this dish does not contain figs. It actually contains raisins, which in old Cornish (English) is called “figgy.” The figgy duff is a pudding made out of breadcrumbs, raisins, brown sugar, molasses, butter, flour, and spices. It traces its origin to the first British settlers of Newfoundland and Labrador who came in the 1600s.

Montreal bagels – is a type of bread that is circular, with a hole in the middle. Montreal bagels are distinctive for being fresh, handmade and baked in a wood-fired oven. They became popular in Montréal with the arrival of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the 1900s. At first, the bagels were almost exclusively baked and sold within Jewish communities, but in the 1950s, they were sold in non-kosher grocery stores too (Montreal Bagels, Jules Lewis). Many aficionados today prefer bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon (cream cheese and lox), and a variety of other fillings.

Sources: Structural elements in Canadian cuisine, Hersch Jacobs, 2009; 12 foods Canada has given the world (besides poutine), MacLean’s, 2012; The Great Canadian Cookbook; The Canadian Encyclopedia; 18 delicious, classically Canadian dishes from coast to coast, Carmen Chai, Global News; Food in every country. Accessed August 24, 2017.

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Community Resources

Are you interested in learning more about healthy food in your new country? Immigrant Centre has free nutrition classes that offer cooking and nutrition programs for all English levels. Meanwhile, Food Matters Manitoba has newcomer nutrition classes, cultural food skills program, kids cooking club, and newcomer gardening projects.

Talk to your Neighbourhood Immigrant Settlement Worker to know about other free programs.

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