This story is part of a week-long series exploring how we as Canadians define "Canadian food," and how it has evolved in modern Canada.
For years, people have struggled to define what Canadian cuisine is through a singular food item. Some say poutine is the obvious answer, while others argue that there can be no recipe more Canadian that the butter tart.
But Canadian cuisine is more varied and complex than that. After all, the word cuisine itself refers to a style of cooking, or the food of a certain country in general, rather than one single dish.
Unlike countries such as Italy where the cuisine is often (unfairly) summed up in one word (like pasta) there’s no lone word that describes the cornucopia of delicious dishes that people enjoy from province to province.
The reason behind that has more to do with our culturally-diverse cities than a lack of national identity.
“If you ask any Canadian, when they invite friends to go out for dinner, they would ask…‘what would you like to eat tonight?’” said Susur Lee, a critically-acclaimed chef who owns five restaurants in Toronto and one in Singapore. “Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern? We have all this variety and that is a very Canadian way of seeing food.”
Recipes have immigrated along with the chefs
Lee is well known for his Signature Singaporean-style Slaw, a dish that is served in all of his restaurants. Chef Lee says that particular dish is close to his heart.
“I always give myself as an example,” explained Chef Lee. “I come from Hong Kong, and immigrated and became Canadian - the same as the slaw.”
The slaw is actually an adaptation of a Lunar New Year specialty from Singapore called Lo Hei. The traditional dish is a colourful salad made with 14 or more ingredients, which include shredded vegetables, fruit and a crispy element like crackers or fried shallots. Chef Lee has kept the essence of the dish intact, but made changes that reflect his personality and the preferences of Canadian diners.
“I have increased a lot of the nutrient values in the dish,” said Chef Lee. “I use less fried things, there’s only a few things that are actually roasted or fried.”
He has also changed the way the dish is plated, creating a stunning tower of vegetables, herbs and rice noodles decorated with edible organic flower petals.
While some of the ingredients are still Asian (like the salted plums in the dressing), Chef Lee says the vegetables are locally grown and the herbs come from the herb cultivator in his restaurant.
“The salad is not local, but the ingredients are local, and that’s what makes it Canadian,” said Chef Lee.
Canadians enjoy worldwide cuisine without leaving home
“One of the greatest things about Canadian food is sometimes you don’t need to travel around the world to taste it,” said Chef Lee. “Canadians bring it to your table. Some people don’t have opportunity to travel, so we’re actually bringing the world to Canada.”
That’s exactly what Trevor Lui had in mind when he launched Kanpai Snack Bar with his business partners earlier this year.
Located in the heart of old Toronto, Kanpai Snack Bar has become a go-to place for authentic Taiwanese snack food, inspired by the night markets of Taiwan.
“We wanted to be able to bring some of the culture of exquisite, fast, tasty night market type eats to the Toronto scene,” said Lui, who grew up in a family of restaurateurs.
Lui works collaboratively with chef and co-owner Ike Huang, who hails from Taiwan, to find ways to mesh authentic Taiwanese flavors into the Western market. He says this includes how they use ingredients in a dish, how they present that dish and what they end up calling it. And no dish better represents this process than their Taiwanese Fried Chicken, affectionately referred to as TFC.
The similarity to KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) is not an accident; in fact they even list a 12-piece bucket of TFC on their menu. Lui says the cultural reference is intentional, and it helps connect their customers with the story of fried chicken.
“As new Canadians one of the things we enjoyed growing up was that every now and then you got to have that trip to KFC,” Lui explained. “That was fried chicken to us growing up.”
While the names of the dishes are similar, the actual dishes are very different.
The Taiwanese Fried Chicken at Kanpai is made with a gluten-free batter, and Kanpai’s own blend of spices. They top off the crispy chicken with chopped up cilantro, onions, a proprietary seasoning, Thai bird’s-eye chilies and fresh lemon and serve it with a dipping sauce. Lui says that they are taking “that culture of enjoying a bucket of fried chicken” and presenting it with Taiwanese flavours.
Lui believes that his restaurant is a mirror of the Canadian food scene, because it’s an authentic mixture of cultures.
“You sit in the restaurant, and you hear the sounds of the fiery wok, and a full Taiwanese kitchen screaming at each other,” said Lui. “But at the front of the house you’re drinking local craft beer and listening to classic hip hop. So to me, Canadian food is a mishmash of what everyone’s culture has brought together, put onto a plate.”
Canadian food influenced by culture, culinary training
Sometimes the mix of cultures can be found in the chefs themselves. Chef Harminder is the owner of Coriander Green restaurant in Oakville, Ont. He cooks Indian cuisine - but his training was done in French cooking. His education has influenced how he prepares several dishes at his restaurant, including his popular butter chicken dish.
“Traditionally, we use a lot of butter and fat in the sauce, so it is very rich and fatty,” said Chef Harminder.
In order to cut the fat for his health-conscious consumers, he uses a traditional French technique. “We finish the sauce with a little bit of fat like butter or cream, which makes it taste really good because you taste that fresh butter or cream right at the end.”
Chef Harminder has also opted to use boneless white meat in his butter chicken, instead of a mixture of bone-in white and dark meats. He says that here, people prefer not to have to pick out bones from their curries.
The one thing he didn’t change too much was the spices in the dish, because butter chicken “is a mild dish” that already appeals to the Canadian palate.
“Usually when you think of Canadian food, you usually think milder, like not too many chilies, and not a lot of spices,” the chef explained.
He also added that while American cuisine can be seen as fries, burgers and pulled pork, Canadian cuisine has been directly influenced by the many ethnicities that can be found here.
Chefs elevate home cooking into gourmet dishes
That’s how we ended up with the unusual, but delightful, Salmorejo Toronto dish from Chef Luis Valenzuela at Carmen Restaurant. Chef Valenzuela says this tomato-based soup dish comes from modest roots.
“The idea would be that the tomatoes would be very ripe, almost to the point where you would throw them out,” Chef Valenzuela explained. “Instead of throwing them out, you would add the vinegar mixture with bread so it would be more enjoyable and edible.” He added that depending on the region, eggs or Serrano hamwould also be put in the soup.
Of course, while a dish like that makes perfect sense for cooking at home, it’s hardly the kind of dish you would expect to see on a restaurant menu. Chef Valenzuela had to work with his colleagues to refine the dish, especially since it was being served for a special event at the restaurant.
Instead of hard-boiling a whole egg, Chef Valenzuela separates the whites and yolk. He then hard-boils the egg whites and lightly poaches the egg yolk to give the soup a silky texture. He also added onion, garlic, Serrano ham, and Chorizo sausage, along with some Canadian-sourced ingredients.
“We used garlic scapes, which is something I’d never seen until I came to Canada,” said Valenzuela. “We also use three different kinds of chilies. One of them is a dried chipotle that a farmer here in Canada grows.”
While adapting international dishes can make them more accessible, they can also upset people as well.
“I’m very sympathetic when people come to eat at the restaurant and they complain about why am I bastardizing the dish,” said Valenzuela. “I don’t get offended. I just say I’m sorry, this is my interpretation, with the utmost respect, because I understand that there’s a deeper cultural connection that someone may have with that dish.”
Much like Chef Lee’s slaw, the Salmorejo Toronto brings together local ingredients and turns them into something uniquely and wonderfully Canadian, adapting an international recipe for a new audience to love.
“With the Salmorejo, I thought I’m gonna bring this dish that is of Spanish origin and I’m gonna turn it into a Canadian one, with what I’ve seen of what Canada is to me,” said Chef Valenzuela.
“The experience that I’ve had of Canada has always been of an accepting, multicultural, inclusiveness and that’s what the dish was all about,” Valenzuela explained. “All of the ingredients that we put together were ingredients that would accept each other, it was not a dish that would showcase one thing more than the other, so you get the tomato and then acidity, and then at the end of you get a little bit of the spiciness, but the crunchiness comes as you’re biting it, and at any point as you’re eating it you think ‘mmm this tastes totally different!’
“It’s just a balanced, accepting dish.”