“Remember to have maple syrup!” Those were one of the last words I heard when I walked through the departure gates of Changi Airport, about to embark on my half year sabbatical (it’s really just an exchange) to Canada.
By way of media representation or otherwise, somehow, maple syrup has since become representative of Canadian food in the minds of many Singaporeans. No doubt the caramel brown sweet sticky goodness is huge in Canada but it’s by no means the leading dish, at least according to Canadians.
The foodscape in Canada is truly diverse, especially in cosmopolitan cities like Vancouver and Toronto, where global food influences have impacted the culinary scene. In certain cities however, such as Montreal and Quebec City, there’s a stronger link to heritage food that have reisisted the warping effects of globalisation.
If you find yourself in Canada, here are 10 classic eats that you absolutely must get your hands on.
Perhaps there’s no better dish to start off with than Poutine. To the Eastern world, Poutine would be the stuff of confusion. To Canadians, it’s the stuff of dreams. Created in the 1950s in the province of Quebec, it was a signature dish consumed in what people called “greasy spoon” diners and pubs.
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At its core, Poutine is a simple dish — crispy fries and savoury cheese curds, all slathered with light brown gravy. It’s a dish that has been well loved despite the singular chewy texture it offers, save for a few pieces of fries that remain crisp despite the gravy. Because of the cheese curds and gravy, it can get quite heavy after a while, so it may be best as a sharing dish!
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Poutine today is readily available in restaurants all across Canada with a multitude of variations. The dish has also seen experimentation resulting in an evolved flavour and texture profile with the addition of bacon, smoked meat, and egg to list a few.
I still remember seeing a crowd of people jamming up a BeaverTails shop and wondering that on earth was the hype all about. I mean, the smells emanating out were hunger-inducing, but did it really justify the entire block queueing for it?
Not knowing what it actually was, I did what every Singaporean would in this situation, I queued. While queuing, I found out the reason behind the name BeaverTails. Turns out the shop sells fried dough pastries that are stretched out to resemble beaver tails.
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There are about 14 different flavours of signature pastries available, from their Classic which features cinnamon and sugar to Apple Pie and Strawberry Cheesecake. I got the Hazel Amour which is essentially hazelnut spread with a dusting of icing sugar. Think of it as a rich Nutella on a hot, doughy bread, paired with a cup of coffee. Boy, was I in heaven.
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3. Montreal Bagel
When doing research for my short trip to Montreal, all I saw food wise were two things. The first was bagels which to be honest confounded me because judging from the lack of popularity of bagels over on our side of the world, how good can bagels actually be?
I swung by St. Viateur Bagel which opened for business back in 1957 and has since become a stalwart bagel establishment in Montreal. From the outside, St. Viateur looked like a small, humble shop, but inside boasts a huge wood fire oven that churns out bagel after bagel.
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When you enter, you’ll no doubt notice heaps of bagels surrounding you, in all their signature flavours. If you’re stumped as to what to get, their All Dressed bagel a.k.a “the everything” bagel is one to look out for. With a mix of sesame, poppy, garlic, and onion, there’s a nice balance of flavours and textures.
However, if you’re more of a purist, the plain ones are excellent and the sesame bagels are simply delicious with just a little bit of crunch. You’ll find their bagels are sweeter and denser than the ones from the Big Apple.
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4. Montreal-style Smoked Meat
The other must-try recommendation by virtually everyone, the Montreal-style Smoked Meat is an all-time favourite. Again hailing from the province of Quebec, this dish features a beef brisket that is salted and cured with a range of spices for over a week. It is then smoked and steamed before being sandwiched in rye bread.
One of the best places to try this Montreal delicacy is Schwartz’s Deli which is a small diner that can barely fit 20 people. Squeezing onto a table with another couple, I had little to no space to stretch my chicken wings, the floor and tables were greasy, and the entire diner was buzzing with conversation.
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But none of that mattered when my sandwich arrived – a savoury, mouthwatering creation with a great balance of fat to lean meat.
If Schwartz’s has too long a queue, locals suggest going for Reuben’s Deli instead.
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5. Saskatoon Berry Pie
If you don’t already know where Saskatoon is, you can read all about it here. This sleepy town doesn’t seem much on the surface, but it’s home to one of the most famous berries in all of Canada.
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Saskatoon berries are similar looking to blueberries, but boast a more sweet and nutty almond flavour. These berries usually ripen during the some during the months of June and July and are grown all over Canada, contrary to the name.
Which means you can eat these pies all over Canada, especially in Edmonton where Bon Ton Bakery gets a lot of rave for their berry pies. If you’re in Saskatoon, however, the Summer Farmer’s Market in the heart of downtown is where you go to source for this delicious berry pie.
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6. Nanaimo Bars
Named after the city of Nanaimo, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, these sweet treats are no-bake bar desserts that consist of three distinct layers. You’ll usually find a coconut crumb base, a custard-flavoured butter icing in the middle, and a layer of chocolate fills the top spot.
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Back in Nanaimo, Tourism Nanaimo created a Nanaimo Bar Trail where you can go on your own self-guided tour to discover the sweet heaven of Nanaimo bars. When an entire tourism package revolves around a singular food, you know that it means business.
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7. Butter Tarts
A classic and perennial favourite during Wintertime, butter tarts are a very simple dish. Though they may genuinely be considered to be quintessentially Canadian, there has been debate regarding its origin with some dismissing it as a knockoff American pecan pies. Truth be told, the butter tarts we see today may probably be an amalgamation of American and Canadian influences.
While its history may be tedious and hazy, the actual tart is as simple as it can get. They are small flaky pastry tarts filled with egg, butter, syrup, and sugar that results a simple buttery and sweet goodness. It’s probably the introduction of nuts that result in the tart’s association with pecan pies and the like. Regardless, don’t leave before trying a butter tart, you won’t regret it.
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8. Ice Wine
It was my friend who first introduced the idea of Ice Wine when we were on an exchange, saying that we absolutely must get it as it is way cheaper in Canada. Ice Wine is essentially a type of dessert wine that is produced from grapes that were frozen on the vine.
Due to the extremely cold climate experienced in certain parts of Canada, especially in Ontario, Canada is currently one of the world’s top producers of Ice Wine, despite the alcoholic beverage originally hailing from Germany. It was said that in the late 1800s, winemakers were somewhat forced to create a product from frozen grapes, the only harvest they had available. What resulted was a wine that had a high sugar content and very flavourful.
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Today, ice wine is a sweet treat that many reserves for that special celebration. Be prepared to spend northwards of $30 for a bottle!
9. Maple Syrup
It’s said that it was the Native Canadians that first taught the European settlers how to harvest sap and turn it into maple syrup. Fast forward to today and there’s a reason why maple syrup is the first thing that comes to mind when people mention Canadian food.
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Canada produces nearly three-quarters of the world’s supply of pure maple syrup. A large majority of said supply originates from the province of Quebec and there are numerous farms that you can visit to see the production and even try some samples.
There are even various festivals that take place all over Canada in celebration and promotion of maple syrup and its various usages. There’s even candied maple syrup on a stick, oh how far we have come from a simple pancake topper.
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10. Tim Hortons
Rounding out our list is something that is not exactly a dish per se, but Tim Hortons is a dining experience that you cannot miss out if you want the full Canadian experience. The largest quick service restaurant chain in Canada, think of a Tim Hortons like Starbucks meets McDonald’s.
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Offering a wide variety of breakfast burgers, sandwiches and wraps, an iconic tray will have you leaving the counter with coffee and one of their signature doughnuts. There’s nothing especially mind-blowing for what Tim Hortons offer, but there’s just something about it that Canadians adore.
If you’re having trouble deciding, get an iced latte and a box of their Timbits (mini doughnut balls) and you’ll be satisfied to the tee.
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