Food in Canada
English Canadians may be puzzled when you ask them where to find Canadian food. English Canadian cuisine varies greatly from region to region. Specialities include maple syrup, Nanaimo bars (unbaked squares with chocolate, custard or vanilla butter filling and a breadcrumb base), butter tarts (tarts made with butter, sugar and eggs), beaver tails (deep-fried, dough sprinkled with icing sugar), fiddleheads (curly fern heads), pork bacon (a type of back bacon made from lean, boneless pork loin that is thinly sliced, water-dried and rolled in cornmeal; It’s eaten for breakfast with eggs or as a sandwich for lunch), and Halifax Donairs (slices of ground beef wrapped in pita bread and topped with onions, tomatoes and a sweetened condensed milk sauce). They are an important, if somewhat humble, part of the Canadian culinary landscape. In other respects, English-Canadian cuisine is similar to that in the northern United States. Canadians are sometimes unaware that they have national dishes, especially in more urbanised areas; however, there is a growing trend among Canadian chefs and restaurateurs to offer locally produced ingredients, and most major cities have bistros that specialise in local and national cuisine. These specialities include game dishes such as caribou, grouse, elk, venison or wild turkey, prepared in a variety of European styles.
French-Canadian cuisine is distinctive and includes specialities such as turtière, a meat dish that dates back to the founding of Quebec in the 16th century. Century, Cipaille (meat and vegetable pie), Cretons (bacon hash), Ragout de Pattes (braised pigs feet), Plorine (pork pie), Oreilles de Christ (fried bacon) Poutine, a dish of French fries, cheese curds and gravy (its popularity has spread across the country and can be found from coast to coast), croquignoles (homemade doughnuts baked in shortening), farlouche pie (a pie made with sultanas, flour and molasses), sugar pie and many cheese and maple products. Acadian regions have different dishes, such as knitted chicken and poutine râpée (potato dumplings with meat inside). Baked beans, peas and ham are staples. French-Canadian cuisine also contains elements of English-speaking North American and, not surprisingly, French cuisine.
One particular tradition that can be seen in almost every small town is the Chinese-Canadian restaurant. This is mainly due to the historical role that Chinese immigration played in the settlement of Canada, especially in the building of the railway. These places sell the usual Chinese fast-food cuisine. American visitors will find this cuisine familiar, as it paralleled an almost identical version in the United States. In Toronto and Vancouver, two major centres of Chinese immigration, you can find authentic Chinese food that rivals that of Hong Kong and Shanghai. In Toronto, visit Spadina-Dunda’s Chinatown; if you’re north of the city, consider visiting the Markham area, which has recently seen an influx of new Chinese immigrants.
Montreal is known for its Central and Eastern European Jewish specialities, including local varieties of bagels and smoked meats. The Prairie Provinces have excellent Ukrainian dishes, such as pierogies, due to the many Ukrainian immigrants.
If you’re more adventurous, you’ll find a wide variety of ethnic flavours from all over Europe, Asia and beyond, especially in the bigger cities. You can find pretty much every taste and type of food in Canada, from a 20 oz. T-bone with all the trimmings to Japanese sushi (in fact, much of the salmon used in Japanese sushi comes from Canada). Check out the local tourist brochures when you arrive. They are available in almost every hotel and free of charge at any provincial or municipal tourist information office.
Americans will find many distinct types of cuisine and brands with subtle differences, as well as many products unique to Canada, such as chocolate bar brands and the availability of authentic maple syrup.
You will find that many American chains are well established here.
Canadian channels include:
- A&W. It can be found across Canada; it is not related to the American A&W as the two chains were sold separately years ago. Menu items often resemble the American version, but the Canadian chain abandoned the “drive-in” model in the 1980s as too seasonal (understandable, given the Canadian climate). The company, which primarily targets baby boomers (and tends to portray 1950s “car-hop” service as nostalgia in its marketing), arguably offers higher quality than most American chains. Prices can approach those of cheaper restaurants, with a combination menu (a “trio” in Quebec) usually costing no less than $7.
- Boston Pizza. Founded in Edmonton, the table-service restaurants serve pizza, pasta and burgers. Casual family dining, lounge and take-out available.
- Cora’s. It was launched in Quebec and is now expanding across the country. Cora’s only serves breakfast and lunch.
- East Side Mario’s. American Italian-style restaurants with a New York theme.
- Harvey’s. A fast food chain common in Ontario and present in almost all provinces, offering burgers and other sandwiches made to order.
- The Cask. Steakhouses, mostly with tables and booths for 4-6 people. In addition to steaks, salads and starters are also offered. The Keg Mansions in Toronto and Ottawa are worth a visit.
- Kelsey’s. Casual family restaurant, very similar to Applebees or T.G.I. Friday’s in the United States.
- mmmuffins. Coffee, muffin and doughnut retailer belonging to Timothy’s World Coffee Inc. and operated as an independent brand.
- Montana’s. A family restaurant with an outdoor and wilderness theme. Montana’s promises hearty portions of home cooking and friendly, efficient service in a lodge setting.
- Mr. Sub. Submarine sandwich chain.
- New York Fries. Fast food restaurant serving mainly fries and hot dogs at locations in several provinces in Canada.
- Robin’s Donuts. A café that also serves a variety of soups, sandwiches and donuts.
- Second Cup. Serves coffee and cake. This chain is very similar to Starbucks in terms of atmosphere and product range.
- Swiss chalet. Specialising in roast chicken and ribs. Table service restaurants operated by Cara, which includes Harvey’s. The Swiss Chalet brand has been withdrawn from Quebec, which is served by the very similar St. Hubert’s chain.
- TimHortons. Canada’s largest coffee chain and a cultural icon. Soups, sandwiches and doughnuts; their Timbits are like doughnut holes.
- Timothy’s World Coffee (aka “Timothy’s”). The third largest Canadian-owned coffee chain, behind Tim Hortons and Second Cup.
- YogenFruz. Leading frozen yogurt chain offering probiotic frozen yogurt, a staple in malls across Canada.
Note: This list contains mainly national channels. Each region also has its own regional chains, which may be of interest to those who want to try local dishes. See also Fast Food in North America.
Drinks in Canada
The drinking age in Canada varies from province to province. In Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec the age is 18, while in the rest of the provinces and territories it is 19. A special feature in many Canadian provinces is that alcohol and beer may only be sold in licensed shops, which usually excludes supermarkets. In Ontario, alcoholic beverages can only be sold in licensed restaurants and bars and in shops operated by the provincial Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), although you can also buy wine in some supermarkets in a special section called the “Wine Rack”. Beer shops in Ontario are owned by Brewers Retail, a group of large brewers. Supermarkets in other provinces usually have their own liquor shops nearby. Quebec has the fewest restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and alcohol is usually available in convenience stores, in addition to the government-owned Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ) shops. Alberta is the only province where alcohol sales are completely decentralised, so many supermarket chains have separate liquor shops near the supermarket itself. Prices may seem high for Americans in some states, but it is advisable to bring alcohol into Canada (up to 1 litre of liquor, 1.5 litres of wine or a 24-pack of beer). American cigarettes are also very popular as they are not sold in Canada.
Canadian mainstream beers (e.g. Molson’s, Labatt’s) are usually light golden lagers with an alcohol content of 4-6 %. This alcohol content can be higher than that of popular beers in the United States or the United Kingdom. Like most mainstream beers, they are not very distinctive (although Americans will note that some beers from these companies are not sold in the US), but Canadian beer drinkers are known to support local breweries. In recent years, the number and quality of beers from microbreweries has increased significantly. While many of these beers are only available close to where they are made, many mid-range and upscale bars offer locally brewed beers. Many cities have brewpubs that brew and serve their own beers, often with a full kitchen behind the bar. These places offer a great opportunity to try different beers and enjoy selected dishes to go with them.
The two largest wine-growing regions in Canada are the Niagara region in Ontario and the Okanagan in British Columbia. Other wine-growing areas include the shores of Lake Erie, Georgian Bay (Beaver River Valley) and Prince Edward County in Ontario, as well as the Similkameen Valley, the southern Fraser River Valley, southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. Wine is also produced on a small scale in southern Quebec, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan.
Ice wine, a (very) sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes, is a Canadian speciality. In particular, the products of the Inniskillin winery can be found in airport duty-free shops all over the world. Unlike most other wine regions in the world, Canada, especially the Niagara region, experiences constant winter frost and has become the largest producer of ice wine in the world. However, due to its minimal yield (5-10% of normal wine), it is relatively expensive, with half bottles (375 ml) starting at $50. It should be noted that Canadian icewine is slightly sweeter than the German varieties.
Canada is known in other countries for its distinctive rye whisky, a drink that Canadians love to drink. Popular brands include Canadian Club, Wisers, Crown Royal, to name a few. In addition to the abundant selection of inexpensive blended ryes, it may be worth exploring the premium blended and unblended ryes available in most liquor shops. Alberta Premium is one of the best known unblended whiskies. It was named “Canadian Whisky of the Year” by the well-known writer Jim Murray.
Canada also produces a small number of distinctive liqueurs. One of the best known, and an ideal winter drink, is Yukon Jack, a whiskey-based liqueur with citrus notes. It is the Canadian equivalent of the American Southern Comfort, which tastes similar but is made from corn (bourbon) whiskey rather than rye.
Cape Breton Island is home to North America’s first (and Canada’s only) single malt whisky.
You can find most non-alcoholic drinks that you would find in any other country. Soft drinks (called “pop”, “soda” and “soft drinks” in different regions) are very popular. Clean, safe drinking water is available from the tap in every city and town in Canada. Bottled water is widely available, but its quality is no better than tap water. Coffee is a very popular drink in Canada, usually drunk with breakfast or in the morning. Tim Hortons is the most ubiquitous and popular coffee shop in the country. Starbucks is also very popular in most medium and large cities. Other national chains such as Second Cup, Timothy’s, mmmuffins, Country Style, Coffee Time can be found across Canada. Tea is available in most coffee shops, with at least half a dozen varieties (black, green, mint, etc.).