When I was growing up, we ate at home almost every night with the entire family, all 10 of us, together around the dinner table.
Going to a restaurant was a rare occasion — in part because we were a big family on a little budget, but mostly because in 1980s Vancouver, there simply wasn’t Chinese food … or at least our Chinese food. Having deep roots in Northern China, Southern Sichuan dishes were as foreign to us as fortune cookies and General Tso’s chicken.
Sure, there were the usual seafood restaurants and won ton joints, but the only place you could find pig ear salads with black vinegar, star anise-braised beef shins, or scallion pancakes was at home.
Our food was so regional to where my family was raised that if you came for dinner you would leave knowing exactly who we were (particularly after you were full from our homemade dumplings), where we came from and that we were not only Chinese, but from the province of Shandong.
I was reminded of this recently when I visited Western Newfoundland and Labrador. This part of Canada was immediately more foreign than I expected my country to feel. I spent over a week taking in the culture shaped by a history that was largely unfamiliar to me with Basque, Viking, Irish, French and British roots, and the unique dialects spoken in the province.
Even the landscape was new: hardier cliffs and more sinewy trees than I had seen, growing low like bushes along the misty shoreline, slanting away from the wild winter winds blowing from the Atlantic.
Gros Morne National Park, a section of mountain range created by the earth’s mantle forced to the surface, is an otherworldly landscape covered with a barren soil incapable of sustaining life, and was aptly named by the French, a “large bleakness.”
North of there, bright blue icebergs float into the bays of St. Anthony in hues so pure they outshine the multitudes of whales and dolphins playing in the wake of your boat. Dotting the shores are charming lighthouses, and colourful quilts and crafts by locals. It was all very much Canadian, and yet a world entirely different from the one I had seen.
So I was eager to taste the food, knowing that the local cuisine would shed light on this province and its people, just as the food of Shandong defined the culture of my own family from the other regions of China.
I discovered Western Newfoundlanders and Labradorites fished and foraged, particularly for the many varietals of Scandinavian berries with local names like bakeapples (cloudberries) and partridgeberries (lingonberries). Many hunted moose and most grew their own vegetables in lush patches along the highway, invulnerable to thieves and protected by a local custom called “trust between neighbours”, a concept wholly alien to this city girl.
And even though every local I met along the way relayed legendary stories of home cooking, of local specialties like scrunchions (fried pork fat) and cod tongues, there wasn’t much to be found in restaurants, aside from a few selling exceptional fish and chips. But with a place so rich with local ingredients, my culinary intuition insisted that there just had to be more.
After returning to Vancouver, I visited Mark Burton, the new pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver (who won my respect with an old fashioned chocolate cake that rivalled my own). He is from Newfoundland, and I interrogated him, desperate to fill the gaps of my understanding. I had left without a true taste of its food, and had a hunger to understand it more.
I wanted to know about the nuances of the cuisine, where toutons (a doughnut-like bread fried in pork fat and drizzled with molasses and melted butter) came from and why they are so important to Newfoundland culture, and he answered it all, filling me with childhood stories of Tetley tea time with his favourite cookies, Jam Jams, and of sweet soups made from overwintered parsnips.
He explained that friends and families would gather for festive kitchen parties, making the cold winters pass with more warmth. He told me that each time he returns home for a visit, toutons are made from the rising dough to be baked that morning, and fried in the pork fat from the night before, and drizzled in bittersweet molasses. And with each memory shared, he built rich, sentimental feelings for food that can only be cooked at home.
“No matter where Newfoundlanders find themselves or how long they have been away, they will always call it ‘home’”, Burton says. I tend to agree, since home is still, for me, where the best meals can be found.
I travel the world in search of the best chefs and cuisines, I observe what, how and where locals eat, to get a glimpse of not only who they are, but what they value — and for Newfoundlanders, it’s home.
Chef Mark Burton of f the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver created this dessert inspired by the tea times in Newfoundland as a child. There was always Tetley tea with evaporated milk and his favourite were a cookie called Jam Jams, molasses cookies sandwiched with jam.
For the cookies:
1 cup (250 mL) unsalted butter
1 tsp (5 mL) vanilla
1 tsp (5 mL) baking soda
1/2 cup (125 mL) molasses
3 cups (750 mL) all purpose flour
1 cup (250 mL) light brown sugar
3 tbsp (45 mL) boiling water
1 cup (250 mL) good quality strawberry jam
Cream the butter and sugar together until very light, about 5 mins. Add the egg and mix until well incorporated.
Combine the molasses, baking soda and the boiling water in a separate bowl. Add the molasses mixture into the butter mixture and mix. Add the flour and the vanilla all at once and mix until just incorporated.
Roll the dough on a floured surface and then cut with a cookie cutter about 1.5-2 inches (4-5 cm) in diameter. Bake at 350 F (176 C) for about 10-12 minutes, or until the edges are slightly golden, and allow the cookies to cool on the sheet before handling.
Once baked and cooled, sandwich two cookies with good quality strawberry jam. You can use other jam if you wish.
For the “Tetley” tea cream:
1 cup (250 mL) evaporated milk
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp (45 mL) granulated sugar
2 tbsp (30 mL) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp (15 mL) unsalted butter
2 black tea bags, Tetley is preferred
Place the evaporated milk in a pot and scald the milk. Remove from the heat, add the tea bags and let them steep for 10 mins. Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks, flour, and sugar in a bowl and mix well, set aside.
Remove the tea bags and return the milk to the heat and bring to a boil. Once boiled, pour a small amount into the egg mixture and whisk. Continue to whisk in small amounts until all of the milk has been added. Pour the mixture back into the pot and bring the entire mixture back to a boil while stirring constantly.
The mixture will be thick and creamy, remove from the heat and place the cream in a shallow bowl to cool for 15 mins then stir in the butter. Cool and keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Makes 1 1/2 cups
1 pint (473 ml) raspberries or strawberries
Break a couple of jam jam cookies into halves on a plate, decorate with berries and place a few spoons of the cream. Serve immediately.
Makes 2 dozen complete sandwich cookies.
Touton Fritters with Molasses and Butter
Burton explains that everyone in Newfoundland made their own bread in the evening and lets it rise overnight to be baked the following morning. Pieces of the dough would be fried in the lard leftover from dinner the evening before and then the toutons would be drizzled in butter and molasses for breakfast. This recipe is Burton’s.
For the Touton fritter dough:
1 tbsp (15 mL) active dry yeast
3 tbsp (30 mL) granulated sugar
2 1/2 cups (625 mL) lukewarm water
3 tbsp (45 mL) lard or vegetable shortening, melted (can substitute butter)
1 tbsp (15 mL) salt
6 1/2 cups (1.625 L) bread flour
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast and sugar in warm water. Stir in lard, salt and 2 cups (500 mL) of the flour. Stir in the remaining flour, 1/2 cup (125 mL) at a time, beating well after each addition. When the dough has pulled together, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
Lightly oil a large bowl, place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
Deflate the dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough out to about 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) thick and allow it to rest undisturbed for 10 minutes. Using a 1 1/2 inch (3.8 cm) round cookie cutter, cut out circles and allow them to rise for 10 minutes.
In a pot of canola oil heated to 375 F (190 C) fry the dough rounds until golden. Once fried, remove from the oil and drain on a tray lined with paper towel. Let them cool for 10 mins.
For the molasses sugar:
1 cup (250 mL) granulated sugar
1/4 cup (60 mL) blackstrap molasses, plus more for drizzling
1/4 cup (60 mL) melted butter
Combine in a food processor and then spread on a baking tray and dry in oven at 300 F (150 C) for 10 to 15 minutes, or until completely dry. Crumble the sugar and reserve it to coat the toutons.
Toss the fritters in the molasses sugar, top them with a drizzle of melted butter and more molasses and serve hot.
Makes 20-30 toutons
Travel arrangements and expenses were subsidized by Tourism Western Newfoundland and Labrador. For more on our policies on paid partnerships & endorsements, visit our policies page.