Day 606: Dining Up North

originally published August 28, 2013

Despite my locale in the dark frozen tundra of Canada (whose climate has actually been tolerably pleasant throughout August), the majority of my readership is located south of the border. That’s okay, I’m descended from hearty American stock – my grandfather actually played stickball in the streets of Brooklyn during the Great Depression, so I’m descended from hearty American cliché as well – and I have always cherished the glorious U.S. of A. as my second home.

Canadian culture is, to a large extent, the overflow reservoir for American culture. Our most popular movies and TV, most of our store chains, our meth-like dependence on Starbucks in the morning, and indeed our varied selection of westernized food styles are all derived from American sources. Sure, we’ll scoff at your Dunkin’ Donuts and revere Tim Hortons as the superlative choice, but come on – we’re all still eating donuts and drinking coffee.

But beyond back bacon, maple syrup and poutine, what do our southern (or northern if we are talking Alaska) neighbors know about true Canadian cuisine? I’m curious to see just how hungry you’ll be after you read this.

The Turkish version of the Greek gyro – a frighteningly large slab of meat, skewered, cooked, then sliced into a fattening pita wrap – is known as a döner kebab. In these parts we call either variation a donair, and while it’s greasy, calorie-heavy and occasionally a trigger of regret and self-loathing, there are a few subtle differences that make the Canadian donair truly unique.

Mostly it’s the sauce. Greek (and American) gyros are usually served with tzatziki, but Atlantic donairs – which have spread westward across the country – are made with a sweet sauce based on evaporated milk. In some cities (Vancouver, I’ve heard) it’s hard to find a great donair. But if you do, then you can be assured that your post-night-of-drinking munchies will be pleasurable and satisfying.

You’ll just feel uncomfortably weighted down the next morning. But who cares?

Here’s one I had no idea was a local dish. A chef named George Wong moved to Calgary in 1974 and married a woman who opened up a Chinese restaurant with her sister at the Silver Inn. George introduced something called Deep Fried Shredded Beef in Chili Sauce. Back then, the smart move was not to rile up the burger-loving western Canadian palate with anything too exotic, so the so-called chili sauce was really heavier on the ginger than the chili spices.

The crunchy, sticky food was a huge hit, and before long it became a staple at every Chinese restaurant in the province. Every so often I’ll come across a ginger beef dish that is not deep fried – and yes, probably more authentic – but I’m used to what I grew up eating. Crispy ginger beef (and crispy ginger chicken can be even better) is a glorious component of grease-heavy, MSG-saturated, not-really-Chinese Chinese food.

This one is a bit of a sore spot with me. If you dine at a New York deli (or a reasonable facsimile in Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, or any other city of note), a pastrami sandwich is packed with thick-cut, juicy (to the point of occasionally soaking through the rye bread and launching a shirt-killing grease blitzkrieg onto your shirt) and unbelievably tasty meat. In Edmonton, a pastrami sandwich is nothing more than thinly-sliced cold cuts.

Over in Montreal, some otherworldly saint figured out how to cure beef brisket in savory spices before hot smoking it to an orgasmic plateau. The meat is so tender it would disintegrate if you tried to cut with a meat slicer. It can be ordered lean, medium, fatty, and right up to ‘speck’, which is all fat, no meat. A Canadian delicacy? Sure. But I still can’t find it here. Order Montreal smoked meat in a restaurant here, you’ll get… fucking cold cuts.

I simply can’t believe this is a Canadian dish – how could Americans not be all over the butter tart? It’s like a mini-pecan pie without the crunch of nuts. I know, some Americans would simply call this a ‘transparent pie’, and it’s similar to the European sugar pies, but there’s something about the tart format that sets my taste buds into a joyous, almost sobbing frenzy.

A good butter tart has no corn starch, and is thus a little gooey on the inside, while maintaining a surface area that has been baked to a slight crunch. Oh and forget the raisins. People put raisins in these damn things and they just get in the way of the creamy, buttery yumminess.

Damn raisins.

Oreilles de Crisse is a traditional Quebecois food I’ve never tried, consisting of deep-fried smoked pork jowls, often served with maple syrup. The word ‘Crisse’ is a French swear word for ‘Christ’, so this snack is technically called ‘Christ’s Ears’. That doesn’t make the thought of eating deep-fried pig-jowl any more appealing to me.

Flipper Pie is exactly what it sounds like. After the annual seal hunt – always a favorite among PETA and other animal enthusiasts around the world – people dine on a pie made from the meat of the seal flippers. This is a Newfoundland and Labrador thing, and like most Newfoundland and Labrador things (Celtic music, goofy colloquialisms, a disturbingly loud and weird provincial pride), I’ll pass.

Back to Montreal, where they have their own trademark variety of bagel. Theirs are smaller, sweeter, denser, with a larger hole and always baked in a wood-fired oven. With all due respect to my fellow countrymen and countrywomen who toil in the doughy depths of our local bakeries, I tend to prefer the New York bagel. I grew up on the ones my one-time New Yorker grandmother baked at home, and have yet to find a single bagel that can match the flavor and consistency of hers.

The closest I came was at H&H Bagels on 46th street in New York. Sorry Canada. I’m not a big hockey fan either – I guess I’ll never be a good stereotype, eh?

Okay, I have to close out with what many consider to be our national dish. It’s unhealthy, messy, and practically perfect. French fries, gravy and cheese curds – though some places substitute grated cheese, and that’s just fine with me. Poutine originated in rural Quebec, and as with most iconic foods there’s a battle over who should get credit for it. I don’t know if this is a thing in the US, but even our fast food joints (McDonalds, A&W, Burger King, KFC) offer poutine. It’s everywhere.

The word itself is believed to have origins in the English “pudding” – a dessert made with flour or bread crumbs. Another definition of the word ‘poutine’ is a grotesque clump of leftovers that no one really wants to eat. This is likely how the term became associated with the sticky mess of glory that is our unofficial national dish.

So to my American friends, I hope this quick look at Canadian cuisine doesn’t turn you off visiting our wonderful country. Besides, even if none of these foods really appeals to you, keep in mind that pretty much everything else you get here is the same stuff you’d get at home.

That’s just who we are.

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