What Is Canadian Cuisine? It Happens To Be Multicultural, Multiethnic, Inclusive—And Delicious
What is Canadian cuisine? That’s the question I asked myself as I embarked on a week-long trip to the city of Calgary together with Metro Channel’s FoodPrints team to film host Sandy Daza as he set out to discover the culinary and agricultural delights of the province of Alberta.
When one thinks of a distinctly Canadian dish, top of mind, perhaps, is poutine, that strange concoction of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy originally from Quebec. While certainly unique to Canada, this dish is only a small part of the story that is the cuisine of this vast country.
Poutine at Prairie Dog Brewery in Calgary
While in Calgary, with each meal and encounter with chefs and restaurateurs there, I got a bit closer to understanding the cuisine of Canada, and its characteristics of openness and inclusivity. Amy Turner, one of the owners of popular neighborhood eatery Donna Mac shares, “Canada is a very eclectic, a very diverse country. So Canadian cuisine is a little bit of everything, which is tough for people to understand because they want to put a label on it.” Rather than looking back to its European settler roots, the cuisine seems to reside in the present, as the country welcomes immigrants from all parts of the world, incorporating the culinary traditions they bring with them.
One of the city’s top chefs, Darren MacLean of Shokunin expands on this, “I do think that the exploration of Canadian cuisine needs to be a conversation of who lives here now, and how do we apply what they know, what they brought from their different nations to the food that we grow locally.”
Modern Asian at Foreign Concept
One such restaurant that is very much in the “now” is Foreign Concept, a modern, pan-Asian spot making waves in Calgary since it opened in early 2017. This beautifully designed restaurant is run by Chef Duncan Ly of Vietnamese heritage and Executive Chef Jinhee Lee who originally hails from South Korea.
Born in Vietnam but raised in Alberta, Chef Duncan explains, “To me, what we’re doing is essentially my interpretation of what Canadian cuisine is, being first generation Canadian.” For Chef Duncan, his pan-Asian restaurant remains inherently Canadian by embracing both his heritage and his locale. He shares, “It’s showcasing those flavors of my heritage, but also showcasing the ingredients that Calgary has to offer, whether it’s the beef or the produce, or whatever is available, and taking those ingredients and highlighting the flavors.” And showcase those flavors he does, with the memorable dishes he brought out for us to try:
Dry aged Alberta Wagyu beef tartare mixed with chili paste, Asian pear, cucumber, spicy cashew nuts, and served with nori tapioca crisps
Lemongrass coconut scallop crudo with XO sauce, Thai basil, and rhubarb verjus
72-hour sous vide Angus beef short rib, marinated in soy for 24 hours, with scallion pomme purée, braised turnip, and king oyster mushroom roasted in charcoal
Coconut haupia or pudding with passionfruit crème anglaise and spiced granola
Japanese meets Canadian at Shokunin
While Foreign Concept uses cultural heritage as a starting point, Shokunin takes off from a whole other point of origin. Loosely fashioned after a Japanese izakaya, Shokunin may be Japanese but in a very “Canadian” way, embracing a more experimental approach to the cuisine. Thanks to the ingenuity and skill of its chef and Alberta native, Darren MacLean, Shokunin has been crowned among the top 50 restaurants in the country by Canada’s 100 Best.
Chef Darren MacLean
So why Japanese? Chef Darren answers, “It’s the first time I saw food as not just something that you eat or something that was delicious, but something that had an intellectual purpose as well as an aesthetic one.” After training in Japan, he initially opened Shokunin as a traditional Japanese restaurant but soon decided to cook closer to the heart. He shares, “In order to actually be successful, I had to cook the things that I loved, the way I wanted to cook, and so I amalgamated those styles together. The elements and traditions of Japan we respect here, but we’re not afraid to put our spin and do the things that we do.” We got to savor exactly what that meant as Chef Darren brought out dish after virtuoso dish, wowing us with his bold interpretation of Japanese flavors and techniques, using the best Alberta ingredients he could source. Here are just a few of the highlights:
Chicken skin chips with nitsume, scallions, mayo, and bonito
A riff on the classic “beef and horseradish,” using sablefish, bonito, and local horseradish, with burnt garlic oil and citrus ponzu
Bison tataki with yuzu kosho pickled onions aged for 12 weeks, garlic chips, radish sprouts
Braised beef gyoza with house fermented XO, scallions, and ponzu
So, what is Canadian cuisine? Chef Darren asserts, “The new Canadian cuisine is actually engaging with our local terroir ingredients, and applying the flavor profiles of our ethnic mosaic, and I think to deny these ethnicities that are allowed to be themselves in Canada and keep them out of our cuisine is not Canadian at all.” Fighting words from a chef who has realized that the more diverse and inclusive the culinary landscape, the more possibilities there are for cooking something bold, forward-thinking, and inherently Canadian.
Watch Sandy Daza tour Alberta, Canada on FoodPrints Season 6, airing October 29 and November 2 on Metro Channel (Channel 52 on SkyCable and channel 174 on HD). Catch replays throughout the week.
Special thanks to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry at www.agrifoodalberta.ca and Canadian Beef Centre for Excellence at canadabeef.ca