In Europe, there are a few standard reactions that you will encounter if you are introduced as a Canadian. Upon meeting a Spaniard, he or she will often immediately and inscrutably yell “TORONTO RAPTORS!!!”. In other countries, people will mention Quebec and nod sagely. (“It’s famous,” someone eventually explained.) But the most common question I heard when I traveled there for 10 weeks last spring was “what is Canada’s national dish?”
I had no idea how to answer.
Most times, I would explain that Canada is a very young country. Even the most genealogically entrenched “Canadian-Canadian” families have usually only been in the country for a few generations. We are a nation of immigrants and our food reflects that, I said. Then I would try to explain what bibimbap is, and the conversation would go downhill from there.
But that’s not answering the question they were really asking.
What all those Europeans meant was “what food have Canadians, and only Canadians, been eating the longest?” Though I still think my argument is a better way to explain Canada, it doesn’t answer the question at hand. And the problem with arguing that our national dish is bibimbap is that then you have to argue why it’s not pho, or lasagna, or char siu bao (Chinese steamed pork buns. I’d like to say I didn’t have to look that up, but then I’d be lying) So if not those, what?
If you google “Canadian national dish,” the first three hits all mention maple syrup, pancakes and poutine. Plausible contenders, right?
Except I’m going to disqualify pancakes right off the bat because we have no special claim to them. Most cultures have a version of pancakes, and Americans in particular have devoted many more chain restaurants to them than we have. Plus I think pancakes are gross.
Maple syrup might be a winner. We’ve been making it since pre-recorded history, nobody else makes it except places that are a lot like us (New England), and it’s so so delicious! I have fond memories of eating the stuff off snow as a kid, and slightly less fond memories of failing to recreate the process in my backyard in Halifax as an university student. Who doesn’t love maple syrup? Even Vince Vaughn loves maple syrup.
But then there’s poutine. Ah, poutine. Poutine is my favourite food. It even says so in my Thunderbird bio, so it must be true. Is there anything more idiosyncratically Canadian than a hot sweaty pile of fries, cheese curds and gravy? And it’s not just us kids that love it. Toronto Life recently devoted a column to all the high-end poutine cropping up at expensive restaurants in the Dot. I would poke fun at Bymark’s lobster poutine if I hadn’t shelled out 22 dollars for foie gras poutine at Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal (a dish the incomparable Anthony Bourdain once described as “like driving down Hollywood Boulevard naked, wearing a cowboy hat and holding a white castle hamburger in one hand, having sex with two hookers while listening to ZZ Top.” While I’ve experienced none of those things, I can’t say he’s wrong. It’s pure, decadent bliss).
Although Ireland makes something called “curry cheese chips” that bears a familial resemblance to poutine–it consists of cheese, fries, and a dubious brown sludge, it’s disgusting unless you’re Irish, and it tastes way better if you’re drunk–poutine has to take the prize for being food that only Canadians could love. Longevity, maybe not. But love? Poutine, you had me at hello.
Check out this intriguing and occasionally hilarious list of national dishes on Wikipedia. You’d be a liar if you said you weren’t intrigued by Mauritius’ “octopus curry.” And who wouldn’t want to dig into a nice “Fungee and Pepperpot” in Antigua? More importantly, and I’m talking to you Australia, what the heck is a “Pie Floater”?