America, Head for the Other Border: Canada

Terroir Explores Canada's Vibrant Culinary Landscape

Food Features
America, Head for the Other Border: Canada

Newcomer Kitchen’s labneh trio at Terroir featured the pressed yogurt cheese rolled in mint, nigella seeds, and a sumac and Aleppo pepper blend, served in mini Lebanese cucumbers. (Labneh photo by Dakota Kim. Fiddlehead caviar preview photo by Michelle Doucette.)

The U.S. can be such a snob when it comes to Canada. We think of the vast ten-province land almost as little as we do our most northern territories. In the past decade, however, there’s been a surge of interest Stateside in French Canadian food — the maple syrup-drenched Québécois food seemingly aggressive enough to merit our American fried-food-and-meat interests. Poutine has come stateside, as has smoked meat, appealing to Pommes Frites and Katz’s-loving New Yorkers.

But when we think mostly of Montreal, we neglect a land as vast as our own, culinarily speaking. An adventure trip to British Columbia and its cold coastal Discovery Islands alerted me to the wealth of uni in its waters, so plentiful that my kayak guide told me it was exported to seafood-mad Japan. Whether picking up ochre sea stars that curled away from our fingers, feasting on tender trout caught before my very eyes, or watching boys yank bright red crabs from shallow tidal pools, I wondered what else I was missing about Canada.

An amazing morning spent with Chris Sheridan and Kimberly Halkett from @aljazeera

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Turns out, there was much I was missing. A recent trip to attend Terroir, the Canadian gastronomy conference, continued my education in all things Canadian by bringing a vast array of Canadian foods to Toronto. Syrian food, for instance — it’s not what I expect of our friendly northern neighbor, but it should be. The recent wave of Syrian refugee immigration has led to an influx of good food, including the dinners of Newcomer Kitchen;, a non-profit at The Depanneur hosting a rotating cast of Syrian refugee cooks. This group of Syrian women brought a forceful trio of labneh to the conference, pressing mint, nigella seeds, sumac and aleppo pepper up against the yogurty cheese. Small Lebanese cucumbers were carved out to house each tiny trio of cheeses, which were then drizzled with small-batch olive oil.

A trip to Lamesa, meanwhile, Toronto’s parallel to D.C.’s Filipino eatery Bad Saint, had me realizing Canadian food is a braised beef cheek sinigang with eggplants, tomatoes, radishes, but one that uses sorrel citrus broth instead of just tamarind. Combine Canada’s best food producers with immigrant traditions, and you’re looking at the bright future of Canadian food.

But there were other things to learn — especially about the fruits of Canada’s vast bodies of water, and why it’s important to protect them (so we can eat those sea-fruits, for starters). Things like how sustainable Acadian Wild sturgeon caviar from New Brunswick is so rich, salty and brimming with ocean that three spoonsful will render your mouth a virtual oyster. Things like how the U.S. has the Bloody Mary and Mexico has the michelada but Canada has its own tomato king, the Caesar. The Caesar is a Clamato-like spin on our familiar favorite that, when made with Walter Craft Caesar Mix, which culls the juice of a sustainably harvested clam from the North Atlantic, tastes like equal parts artisanship, trouble and the sea. (I will tell you personally that drinking three cocktails during a food conference will make talks especially fun.)

The Beaser. Beaver Caesar. All the usuals with the added bonus of Pike Creek Canadian Whisky. ????

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In general, in many of the things I tasted in Canada, I felt a connection to the sea, the environment and the nurturers of food, from fishers to farmers. During a 10-hour delay in the airport (Air Canada is notorious for its delays) I sprang for the Fogo cod and queried the waiter as to whether my humble airport fish and chips were really going to have the best of Newfoundland’s fishing. He said yes, and Newfies, you delivered with the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, airport or no. I now can’t wait to go to Fogo Island and taste the cod near the source.

And while the general populace in America does not seem to have much connection with indigenous populations, every time I visit Canada I feel the presence of those people so intricately connected to its waterways. Whether it’s First Nations art from Haida Gwaii or Native foods in Toronto, I see hints, clues and markers of the surviving culture of Canada’s oldest peoples. Terroir highlighted the challenges for First Nations food systems, with Wikwemikong activist John Crouch; advocating for more First Nations restaurants and foods in Canada and seal hunter David Serkoak from Ottawa speaking about how seals are, in fact, not too cute to eat. Sarain Carson-Fox spoke about the connections between indigenous women, nature and food.

#TBT to this amazing talk by @sarainfox at #Terroir2017! We were so proud to have her participate in our introduction sessions.

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Have you ever heard the phrase “secretly Canadian”? There are so many Canadians in the States and all over the world who I’ve never known were Canadian, and they’re bringing what they’ve learned back home to share with fellow Canadians. Renowned cookbook author Naomi Duguid, for instance, never pretended not to be Canadian, but her place in Canadian gastronomy has recently taken front and center, and she presented her gleaned food travel knowledge at one of Terroir’s main talks. Duguid spoke at Terroir about her extensive travels, which have taught her frugality and survival not so different from those of Canada’s country homesteaders. In the Caucases, where the weather resembles Canada, Duguid learned to dry fruit leather to flavor stews. In southern Senegal, she drew oil from nuts and boiled salty sand to produce salt. “It’s really useful to think about basics,” Duguid said. “In places where people don’t have access, they’re dependent on the local. When we’re pushed to use what’s in front of us, we get to know our ingredients so much better, and it’s a real source of flavor and creativity.”

Like us, Canada has major migrant labor embroilments. Like us, they need migrant labor to feed their bustling population, but don’t always treat hardworking farmworkers as well as they should. Listening to Kristin Marshall, a Canadian immigration lawyer, talk about the regulations that keep migrant farmworkers from having proper rights, I learned that abusive private recruitment firms charge the workers enormous fees of $9,000 to 12,000 for minimum wage jobs, equivalent to two years salary for such a worker. Workers can’t change jobs because work permits are very specific, and are often asked to do different work. Employers threaten to report them, workers aren’t allowed to strike, unionize or bargain collectively. On the emotional side, they long for spouses and family they are not allowed to bring with them. “In this time when we see a really vicious backlash of racism and xenophobia, it’s time to respect our friends and family,” Marshall said.

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Last but not least, Toronto’s got the beer vacation you’re craving. Specifically, in experimental brewery Halo. A visit to Callum Hay and Eric Portelance’s lovely little modern taproom will show you a glimpse of the brewery, where some strange magic rites must be practiced to produce the Blood Orange Shapeshifter, a sour IPA that wears both of its faces handsomely but gives more of that warm, sweet citrus flavor than anything. Halo is working with lactic acid fermentation, using lactobacillus to kettle sour beers like the Blood Orange Shapeshifter, as well as working with their own house cultures of brettanomyces strains. I grabbed a flight of four small ones, including a dry-hopped gose, a New England-style pale ale, a double-dry-hopped IPA, and a pale ale. At another innovative beer spot called Burdock, on Bloor Street West, I sampled the Oria Raspberry, a light, superfunky 5.2 percent sour.

Our snobbery and neglect of Canadian foods may not only be unmerited, but to our own culinary and travel detriment. I’ve long suspected that Canada might be a healthier America — one with healthcare and just as good, if not better, food. These fears may be coming true, but instead of fearing, I’ll just be visiting our neighbor to the north more, because there’s so much of Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, British Columbia and more that I want to see (and taste). If none of its other lures draw you to New York’s cousin across the border, let it selfishly be that due to exchange rates, this is an economical vacation for Americans that will allow you to dine and imbibe in more of Canada’s culinary treasures.

Often, we seek mind-expanding experiences when we travel. I can’t imagine what could’ve been more mind-expanding to me than these Canadian food experiences. I tasted Big Mac baos; and Hungarian-Thai mango sticky rice pastry cones; chips of the dill pickle, maple bacon and ketchup varieties; sweet St. Lawrence market Orri clementines; fire-toasted St. Urbain bagels; creamy peri Toronto Popcorn; rich, uber-almondy milk from The Virtuous Almond; Grasshopper charcoal lemonade; Sweet Olenka vegan cake batter ice cream; King Cole smoked duck bacon; and cider made from local apples.

Walking down the street-art-strewn alleys of Kensington Market, I had a vague twinge of could’ve-been, wherein I wished my parents had immigrated to Canada instead of the States.

There’s never been a reason to be secretly Canadian, but with Canada’s vibrant new culinary landscape, there’s every reason to be proudly Canadian.

Dakota Kim is Paste’s Food Editor. Tweet her @dakotakim1.

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