Wandering Gourmand: What is Canadian food?

Original article written for The Vancouver Sun.

What is Canadian food? It’s a common question asked of us food-loving Canadians, and one we’ve likely asked ourselves equally as often.

I remember my very Parisian pastry school instructors being curious about the same thing. What in fact were Canadian pastries?

“Are zey brownies, or pie or something like zaht?”

“No, that’s more American,” I replied. Then, on second thought, I conceded, “Close enough.” I simply had no answer beyond Nanaimo bars or butter tarts, and knew these wouldn’t provide more clarity.

Then, one evening, during executive chef John Horne’s Haida Gwaii-inspired menu at Canoe, a fine dining restaurant in downtown Toronto, mid-bite of his spot prawn chowder with nettles and licorice root powder, I was inspired to wonder again.

The chowder used shrimp found off the coast of British Columbia, a starchier strain of local potato called tlingit, and even its ocean water, all woven into an edible story of the Haida Gwaii’s past and present. The menu was by far the most appealing history lesson I’ve ever received, with apologies to my high school teachers.

Canoe has been trying to answer the “what is Canadian food?” question since it opened 20 years ago, and something Horne has been unintentionally devoted to his entire life.

Working in kitchens since he was 13, Horne flew to London at age 21 with not much more than a duffle bag and his knife in an ambitious search spun from intense curiosity and a passion for perfection. Working under Michelin-starred chefs, he dove deep into learning his craft.

After returning to Toronto, and years working up to a senior sous chef position at Auberge du Pommier, he returned to Europe again in search of more.

“My cooks would ask me why the French made ratatouille or what a truffle smelled like straight from the ground, and it bothered me that I couldn’t answer them. It was my job to know and teach them, so I went to learn,” Horne said.

He immersed himself in the south of France, a foreign culture with a familiar cuisine he had been cooking for many years.

After his return, the position for senior sous chef opened at Canoe and Horne immediately recognized what he wanted: to cook food that resonated with him, the food of his childhood, Canadian food.

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetPhoto Credit: Acquired Taste Magazine

“Of all the travelling I’d done, I always felt I was cooking someone else’s food,” he said.

While reminiscing about his mom’s freshly baked country loaf and, of course, butter tarts, he said: “I’m a farm boy from a couple hours north of Toronto. So when the chance came up to cook for Canoe, to cook Canadian food and to be able to make a statement of not only what Canadian food was but who I am, expressing everything I’ve experienced in the last 25 years, I was not going to give that up.”

Horne began by scouring the country for uniquely Canadian ingredients — like inconnu fish from the Northwest Territories and amaretto-tasting service tree buds — with the idea that in Canada, multiculturalism meets terroir, creating something uniquely our own.

“It’s ingredient and culturally based, so (as) we get more multicultural … different cultures use ingredients they can get in Canada in their own recipes, and I believe that becomes Canadian food.”


At Holland Marsh, north of Toronto, Horne explained that he smells the onions in the air when driving to his family’s farm during in late summer and is amazed that so many people don’t know that much of Ontario’s food is grown there.
It’s Canadian: this black soil, the onions that grow in it, and the French onion soup made by a Canadian farm boy.

“Everything comes full circle and everything I learned came together. If Canadian food mostly is based off different cultures, a French ratatouille made with Canadian ingredients, to me, is Canadian food.”

As their perspectives change at Canoe, Horne has taken to looking at our country’s history to take yet another step in defining Canadian cuisine, and this inspired the historical menus at Canoe.

When I ask him if he feels he has succeeded in answering the“what is Canadian food?” question, he answers without hesitation.

“Not yet, I don’t think I’m done. I may never be done. We can try as much as we want but it’s ever changing, the more diverse we get — but that’s what excites me so much.”

In looking at my own journey as a Chinese-Canadian studying French pastries in Paris, it seems I, too, am the perfect case study of what Horne is describing.

Inspiration from all my experiences came together in creating a black sesame religieuse and kinako shortbread, or just a perfect Parisian croissant made by a Canadian, born and bred. And I feel I’ve arrived at a worthy response for my very Parisian instructors.


Prawn & Nettle Chowder

Canoe - Prawn + Nettle Chowder - Cindy LaPhoto Credit: Cindy La

A part of Canoe Restaurant’s menu is inspired by Haida Gwaii, This chowder features ingredients local to the islands and highlights the freshness of the shrimp with gentle cooking and pickling.

1 cup (250 mL) diced celery
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp (155 mL) diced yellow carrots
1 2/3 cup (410 mL) diced fennel
1/2 large shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/3 cup (80 mL) unsalted butter
3/4 cup plus 1 tbsp (195 mL) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp (85 mL) white wine
1 tbsp (15 mL) cognac
6 cups (1.5 L) cold shrimp stock
2 cups (500 mL) 35 per cent cream
3-4 oz (86-114 g) pink shrimp

1 sachet with 1 bay leaf, two sprigs of tarragon, 1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) coriander seed, 1/2 tsp (2.5 mL) fennel seed, and two sprigs parsley stems

2 side stripes, raw
2 spot prawns, grilled lightly
8 to 10 pink shrimp, raw
1/4 cup (63ml) medium-diced russet potatoes, cooked
2 tbsp (30ml) stinging nettles, blanched and finely chopped
1 tsp (5ml) licorice root powder (can be purchased online)

2 humpback shrimp, pickled raw with 1/4 cup (60 mL) white wine vinegar, 1/4 cup (60 mL) water, 3/4 cup (180 mL), 1 tsp (5ml) coriander and 1 tsp (5ml) fennel seed.

In a medium pot, sweat the celery, carrots, fennel, shallots and garlic in the butter until they become translucent. Deglaze the pan with white wine and cognac, and reduce to about half.

Add flour and whisk to incorporate and make a roux, which will thicken then soup. Add shrimp stock slowly while whisking and continue cooking until there are no lumps

Add the sachet to the soup and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer. Soup should still be a little thick once it comes to a simmer. Add cream and bring back to a simmer.

Cook chowder for 20 minutes, add pink shrimp and blend with an immersion blender. Pass through a strainer or chinoise, re-season with salt and more raw cognac to taste, if needed. Season with fresh cracked pepper and salt to taste.

Garnish with blanched and finely chopped stinging nettles and medium-diced russet potatoes. All garnishes, the dusting of licorice root and shrimp, can be tossed in the chowder just before serving or be placed in the bowl for hot chowder to be poured over it.

Makes: 6-8 servings

Holland Marsh Onion Soup

Canoe - Holland Marsh Onion Soup - Cindy LaPhoto Credit: Cindy La

This French onion soup is one that Chef John Horne spent decades refining: learning tricks and techniques from each chef that taught him through his career. He mentions that this soup has taught him the importance of having patience in the kitchen. You cannot rush this soup, you have to let it grow and develop into the rich deep flavours it will produce.

He uses onions specifically from the Holland Marsh when they are freshly picked from the ground making the soup more flavourful.

5 large (1 lb, 454 g) Holland Marsh onions or yellow onion, peeled, core removed, and thinly sliced no thicker than a matchstick, with the grain from top to bottom
3/4 lb (340 g) good quality butter
12 cups (3 L) brown fowl stock (made from duck, goose, pheasant, and free-range chicken bones; all roasted golden brown)
1/2 cup (125 mL) Madeira wine
1/2 cup (125 mL) sherry
1/2 cup, plus 2 tbsp (155 mL) Screech
1 sachet of thyme, rosemary, parsley stems, black peppercorns and juniper
1 1/2 tsp (7.5 mL) tomato paste

Melt butter in a large wide pot over medium to medium-high heat. The larger the surface area, the better, so the pot can have an even heat source under it.

Add onions and begin to cook. Give the onions a generous seasoning of salt, adding more near the end to taste. This is the longest and most important step of the recipe. You need to cook the onions until they become so caramelized that they look like dark leather. This could easily take 4 to 6 hours. This takes patience, watching the heat and stirring at the right time. Once you think they are done, cook them at least another 30 minutes.

Once the onions take on a rich, deep colour, add the tomato paste and the sachet to the onions. Cook for another 10 minutes.

Add Madeira wine, Screech, and sherry one at a time and reduce to a syrup as the raw alcohol is cooked out.

Add the rich fowl stock to the onions and simmer for another 1-2 hours, until it looks like the onions are taking over the stock.

Remove from the heat and let stand for 30 to 45 minutes, then reheat and serve. Even better, allow it to stand overnight — the next day the soup will have married its flavours more.

Canoe serves this with with Thunder Oak Gouda, roasted bone marrow, rye croutons, freshly picked thyme and parsley.

Makes: 6-8 servings

Bison Tenderloin Carpaccio

Canoe - Bison Tenderloin Carpaccio - Cindy LaPhoto Credit: Cindy La

This dish was a part of the series of Canadian menus at Canoe Restaurant and was inspired by the Prairies. If you don’t love the caramelized flavours on the outside of the carpaccio, you can skip the searing and just freeze it as it can be served entirely raw.

1 3.5-5 lb (1.6-2.2 kg) fresh bison tenderloin, removed of any fat and silver skin and cut into 5 to 6 inch (13-15 cm) pieces.

1 3/4 cup (430 mL) coarse salt
2 1/2 cup (625 mL) brown sugar
1/2 bunch of fresh thyme
1 tbsp (15 mL) powdered ginger
2 bay leaves
1 tsp (5 mL) powdered nutmeg
1 tbsp (15 mL) juniper berries
1 tbsp (15 mL) Szechuan peppercorns

Blend all ingredients together in a food processor until ingredients are evenly mixed. It is okay to have chunks of juniper berries and peppercorns.

In a shallow pan that is big enough to hold the tenderloin, place a 1/2 inch (1.2 cm) layer of cure. Lay the tenderloin on top. Pour remaining cure over the tenderloin. Push the cure all the way around the tenderloin so that it is completely covered. Allow to sit for four to five hours.

Remove from cure and brush off any cure sticking to the loin. Sear the bison tenderloin in a hot frying pan until browned all the way around. This adds extra flavour.

Take some plastic wrap and roll each tenderloin tight to make a perfect cylinder.

Place in freezer for an hour until the tenderloin sets and you can slice thinly. If you are finding your slices are coming out too thick you can place them between wax paper or plastic wrap and pound them with a frying pan or mallet to flatten.

Canoe serves the tenderloin carpaccio with cedar jelly, dandelion puree, foraged pickles, allegretto cheese and granola. At home, this dish goes well with horseradish, fresh greens and olive oil.

Makes: 6-10 servings, depending on the size of tenderloin

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