Canada is a massive country of diverse cultures, landscapes, languages and histories. Its identity is difficult to define, and the same can be said of its cuisine. In the words of former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, “Canada has a cuisine of cuisines. Not a stew pot but a smorgasbord.” From the solitary trappers and oil-rig workers living in the country’s far north to the cosmopolitan residents of its big southern cities, every Canadian has his or her own relationship with the country and its food.
The diversity of Canadian cuisine was born from the same disparate influences that formed Canadian culture. The influence of indigenous Canadian cultures, known as First Nations, is still present in today’s food scene, alongside with that of the three major immigrant groups of the 17th and 18th centuries: English, Scottish and French. Add to the mix the subsequent waves of immigration in the 20th and 21st centuries, which brought South American, Asian and Middle Eastern ethnic traditions to Canada, and you start to get an idea of the different flavors acting on the Canadian culinary scene.
What do all these foods have in common, though? To start, they use available ingredients. A common trope in Canadian food is the use of recipes from abroad that have been tweaked to use local products, such as tourtière, a sort of French-originated meat pie that can be cooked with beef, pork or even fish. Illustrating the French influence, much of Canadian cuisine is rich and heavily spiced. It’s also often heavy in carbohydrates, such as bread and potatoes, as well as game meats, such as hare and venison. Unsurprisingly, due to the cold climate, it also features a wide array of soups and stews.
The Dining Experience in Canada
Dining in Canada can be anything you want it to be, from a hearty meal at a homey hotel far from civilization to a modern fusion experience at a swanky cosmopolitan restaurant. Because “Canadian food” is so hard to pin down, it’s best not to go chasing a single idea of what an authentic Canadian dining experience should be. Rather, enjoy your journey, seek out local establishments, and you’ll undoubtedly be happy with your Canadian culinary experience.
In Canada’s major cities, especially Vancouver and Quebec, you’ll find a variety of modern fine dining options. These cities are home to a thriving restaurant scene, and there’s a growing trend to feature locally sourced ingredients and recipes. Beyond fine dining, most of Canada’s major cities are home to thriving street food scenes. The exact genre of food on offer at each rolling establishment depends mostly on the local immigrant population, but you can be sure to find something tasty and cheap.
Outside major cities, many of Canada’s rural areas are now home to a variety of delicious dining experiences. This is thanks to the growing popularity of the farm-to-table movement. Today, in agricultural areas, you can find a meal as good as (or better than!) in the city—and it comes with the pride of supporting local and sustainable business. Of course, some Canadian regions are still metaphorical deserts—or tundras—when it comes to fine dining. There, your best bet is to visit one of Canada’s many homegrown chain restaurants and to indulge in some greasy goodness before your next plate of raw organic greens.
Typical Canadian Dishes
Canadian food varies so widely from region to region that it can be difficult to describe any dish as truly “Canadian.” However, there are some dishes and ingredients every traveler to Canada should try.
A classic French-Canadian delicacy, this dish is concentrated in French Canada but can be found across the country. Consisting of french fries topped with brown gravy and fresh cheese curds, poutine is famous both as a late-night indulgence and as a restorative morning treat. While it was created (and persists) as a fast food indulgence, many top-end Canadian restaurants today will offer their own spruced-up versions, garnishing the humble dish with duck confit, foie gras, sweet potato fries or even lobster.
● Maple Syrup
Maybe the quintessential Canadian delicacy, maple syrup is traditionally served with breakfast, alongside pancakes and bacon, but it can also be used as a sweetener in baked goods, candies or beverages. Canada produces over three-quarters of the world’s supply of this sweet syrup, and it celebrates its maple heritage every year with hundreds of festivals.
From Canada’s indigenous peoples to French Canadians to the Asian and South American immigrants of recent times, there’s hardly a culture in the country that doesn’t make use, in some way, of Canadian salmon. This fish is the backbone of Canadian cuisine, and you’ll find it prepared in a variety of ways: freshly baked, pan fried, smoked or even made into jerky.
● Canadian Chinese
Similar to US Chinese food, Canadian Chinese Food emerged with the arrival of a wave of Cantonese immigrants to the country in the 1800s. Today, it’s quintessential Canadian comfort food. It’s often served to go, and it’s available throughout the country.
Backroads Pro Tip
While many aspects of Canadian culture and cuisine look familiar to US visitors, one foodstuff on offer is sure to surprise: the potato chips. Canadians pride themselves on the unique chip flavors available at their stores, including poutine, Jamaican jerk chicken and maple bacon. One flavor—“ketchup chips”— even won 7 percent of the vote in a 2010 online poll asking voters to decide the true national food of Canada.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Thanks to its massive size, most of Canada’s typical foods are only available in certain regions. Here are some of these regional dishes and where to find them.
● Caribou Stew
Native to the far north of the country, caribou stew is a classic of rural Canadian cooking. Caribou, or reindeer, is not farmed, only hunted, guaranteeing the meat you’re eating comes from a truly wild animal. Its availability can vary season to season, so sometimes you’ll find a similar stew made with moose or venison. The stew typically also includes potatoes, carrots, celery and onion. This makes for a hearty meal—if you can get your mind off Rudolph.
● Saskatoon Berry Jam
Available in the summer months, saskatoon berries are a delicious seasonal treat native to southern Canada. While they most closely resemble blueberries, they’re actually in the same family as apples, and they pack a tart, sweet flavor. From late June to early August, you can find this jam around Canada. If you’re lucky, you might also hit a festival to celebrate picking season.
● Ginger Beef
A famous Canadian-Chinese dish, this one originated in Calgary and is still a local favorite. Beef fried and candied in a sweet ginger sauce, it won’t win any health food awards, but it’s sure to satisfy your cravings.
● Montreal-Style Bagels
This distinctive variation of bagel comes from Montreal, and it differs from typical American bagels in a number of ways. It’s made in a wood-fired oven and, in contrast to sourdough bagels, is made with honey for a sweeter flavor. In some Montreal bagel shops, you can even watch them bake while you eat. Black seed (poppy) or white seed (sesame) are the two classic versions.
● Lobster Rolls
Originating along Canada’s Atlantic coast and available throughout Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, lobster rolls are a classic Canadian summertime snack. Made with lobster, mayonnaise, black pepper and lemon juice and served on anything from a hot dog bun to a pita pocket, Canadian lobster rolls are a delicacy you don’t want to miss.
● Flipper Pie
A traditional delicacy of eastern Canada, flipper pie is what it sounds like: a meat pie made from the flippers of hunted harp seals. It’s available primarily in Newfoundland and Labrador in April and May, which is when the annual seal hunt takes place. The flavor is most often compared to dark meat chicken or rabbit.
● Poutine Râpée
Distinct from classic poutine, this dish comes from Acadia, a culturally separate section of French Canada that has strong ties to Cajun culture. Poutine râpée consists of a potato dumpling stuffed with pork, and it’s traditionally served on Acadian holidays.
The official food of Halifax, Nova Scotia, this variation on the classic doner kebab uses sweet donair sauce (condensed milk, vinegar and sugar) in lieu of the usual white sauce. Served mainly as street food and in pizza shops, this Middle Eastern delicacy has taken over Halifax. Give it a try.
Canadian Dining Terms: Glossary
While much of Canada is English speaking, here are a few words to help you out while dining in French Canada.
Words to Know on the Menu
● Beef: Le bœuf
● Chicken: Le poulet
● Veal: Le veau
● Fish: Le poisson
● Cocktail or pre-dinner drink: L’apéritif
● Appetizers: Les entrées
● Main courses: Les plats
Words to Know When Dining Out
● What do you recommend?: Qu'est-ce que vous me conseillez?
● I’ll have…: Je vais prendre…
● Where is the bathroom?: Où sont les toilettes?
● The check: L’addition
● It was delicious.: C’était vraiment délicieux.
Like in the United States, it’s uncommon for restaurants in Canada to include service in the bill. A 15–20 percent tip is expected, but it depends, of course, on the service received.
The Canadian dining experience is largely similar to that of the United States, though you might find some restaurants in French Canada that eat later, or on a more European schedule. Similarly, the workers at most Canadian establishments will not hesitate to bring you the bill once you appear to be done with your meal, but you might find some exceptions to this rule in French-speaking parts.