Ever wonder what people eat in Canada? Here's a look at some Canadian food traditions — the everyday dishes we love — from every corner of the country.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Exploring the local cuisine is always enlightening, wherever you travel. There’s plenty to see on a train vacation or a road trip across Canada, but what should you eat along the way?
Canada has 150,000+ miles of coastline, the most in the world, so we’ve got plenty of fresh fish and seafood, whether Canadian lobster on the east coast or salmon in the West.
There are indigenous foods from the land, too — forest mushrooms including wild morels and chanterelles, fiddlehead ferns, wild berries and game, from venison to caribou.
We have many microclimates to grow tree fruits and wine grapes across the nation, with massive plains for livestock and fields of wheat.
Defining "Canadian cuisine" is an ongoing debate and an ever-moving target. Every corner of Canada is unique in geography, climate, and the culture of both local indigenous people and the waves of immigrants who call Canada home.
And Canadian cuisine is inspired by all that bounty — wild, seasonal, regional and ethnically inspired. You can have arctic char from Inuit fishers in Nunavut, caribou in the Yukon, a perfectly-aged French cheese or maple sugar shack feast in Quebec, and some of the most authentic Chinese food you'll find outside China in the city of Richmond, BC.
So expect the unexpected when you travel across this vast country, and taste the unique dishes each province has to offer.
When they say ‘the world is your oyster’ — or lobster or caribou or chickpea — you must be traveling across Canada, because it's all here to enjoy!
NEWFOUNDLAND – Cod, Berries and Toutons
Newfoundland is another planet when it comes to unique local dishes to try, from cod tongues to seal flipper pie, bake apples (cloudberries) and screech (Newfoundland rum).
But if you’re feeling less adventurous, ease your way into the local cuisine with a plate of toutons, a bit of fried dough, a cross between a pancake and a flatbread.
Served with molasses and butter or wild berry jam for breakfast, fried in pork fat with crispy scrunchions (pork crackling), or stacked into an eggy breakfast sandwich, a touton is a great way to start the day on The Rock.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND – Spuds, Clams and Lobster Rolls
This little island is quaint and pretty — rolling farmland circled in red sand beaches.
While PEI potatoes are the big cash crop, it pays to seek out the fresh seafood while visiting the island. Whether a plate of fried clams, steamed mussels, Malpeque Bay oysters or a lobster supper, PEI is shellfish central.
And the ultimate expression is the PEI lobster roll, a soft, toasted bun piled high with chunks of sweet lobster meat in mayo.
Have one from a local lobster shack by the sea — with fries on the side!
NOVA SCOTIA – Digby Scallops and Donairs
While you’ll find a fleet fishing lobster and famed Digby scallops in Nova Scotia, when The Ocean train arrives in Halifax, a pub crawl followed by a late night nosh is always in order.
A stroll down the wide waterfront to the Historic Properties, inevitably ends with a rousing evening at the Lower Deck, singing sea shanties and hoisting pints of Alexander Keith’s or another local ale.
But when you get peckish, it’s the famous Halifax Donair you need to try. Named the city’s official food, the spicy, spit-roasted meat ground beef is rolled into a pita bread with onions and tomato and smothered in the unique local donair sauce. Savoury, sweet, messy, it’s a Maritime must.
NEW BRUNSWICK – Rappie Pie and fiddleheads
You can roll all of those Maritime traditions into the cuisine of New Brunswick, with its lobster fishery, Atlantic salmon rivers and famed dulse (seaweed) of Grand Manan.
But New Brunswick has its own rich cultural history — from indigenous Mi'kmaq people to the French Acadians who fled here in the 1700s.
Try rappie pie (râpure), a homey Acadian casserole of grated potatoes layered with cooked chicken or clams and salt pork, a very regional specialty that’s still served along New Brunswick’s Acadian shore, with other old-fashioned fare, from Chicken Fricot stew to sweet cinnamon rolls (Pets de Soeur).
If you arrive in St. John in spring fiddlehead season, the tender green tips of the ostrich fern — picked before the fern unfurls, when it look like the scrolled end of a fiddle — are found on all the best menus, in dishes from soups and stir fries to quiche.
Find a local to take you out fiddlehead hunting in the woods (river banks and other shady spots are good choices) or just head to the local farmer's market to buy them fresh. Just make sure to boil your fiddleheads well before eating, this rare wild delicacy is indigestible when raw!
QUEBEC – Maple sugar, Cheese and Tourtiere
With its deep French roots, Quebec is arguably the culinary heart of Canada — or at least the place with the most established and celebrated regional cuisine. Quebec is the biggest producer of maple syrup in the world and there’s a whole culinary tradition around the sugar shack, with feasts of pea soup, baked beans, crispy pork rinds and sugar pie.
You will not find a better selection of local, artisan cheese in the country, and Quebeckers invented poutine by tossing fresh squeaky cheese curds on their French fries and gravy.
But perhaps the quintessential dish to try in the Belle Provence is tourtiere — the famed French Canadian meat pie. A double short crust pastry (made with lard, mais oui!) and filled with ground pork or beef and wild game meats, mashed potatoes and a touch of warm spices, tourtiere is a treat that's unique to every family and region of the province.
ONTARIO – Niagara Wine, Peameal Bacon and Butter Tarts
From the country’s capital to remote mining towns and Niagara wine country, famed for its ice wine, Ontario is a big province with a lot of contrasts.
Toronto sits at the centre of Canada’s corporate and multicultural universe — an urbane metropolis steeped in ethnic diversity. Start with “Little” or “Town” and insert country (Italy, India, Greek, etc.) and TO has a ‘hood.
But the historic Huron and Loyalist roots of Upper Canada still mean Ontarians like their corn and wild rice, Canadian peameal bacon (back bacon rolled in cornmeal) for breakfast sandwiches and classic butter tarts for dessert.
Take a Butter Tart Trail tour to taste sweet, syrupy, gooey butter tarts, and see if you prefer them with raisins and nuts, or without — the debate rages on!
MANITOBA – Wild Rice, Pickerel and Schmoo Torte
Manitoba was an early hub of commerce, from the fur trading voyageurs to the big banks, but it’s that French Canadian, First Nation and Metis heritage that’s often reflected in the food.
Bannock, wild rice and lake fish are classic Manitoba flavours (think smoky Lake Winnipeg Goldeye or pickerel, still with a fresh-water commercial fishery around Gimli).
There’s also a strong Jewish community here, so try Winnipeg Cream Cheese and Schmoo Torte, a nutty angel food layer cake filled with whipped cream and drizzled in caramel sauce, that's unique to this prairie capital.
SASKATCHEWAN – Saskatoon pie
There may be no food as symbolic of Saskatchewan as the wild saskatoon berry (they even named a city for it), and many a displaced prairie person yearns for the sweet taste of saskatoons in summer.
The dark blueberry-like fruit (related to apples) grows wild across this flat prairie province, a native berry that early Indigenous people called “Mis-sask-quah-too-mina” and dried to mix with bison to make pemmican.
Domesticated saskatoon bushes are now cultivated in orchards, and you’ll find saskatoon berry jams, saskatoon berry muffins, even saskatoon berry sauces served with game meats. But the best place to enjoy this prairie fruit is in a saskatoon berry pie — the essence of a Saskatchewan summer.
ALBERTA – Beef, Beer and Perogies
From the Rocky Mountains to the open range, Alberta is known for its farmland and ranching cowboy culture.
Fields of barley feed cattle for that famed Alberta beef — and it's the grain fermented for craft beer — so plan to have a classic ale or a barrel-aged stout with your beefy ribs, burger or T-bone steak.
But as you roll through the province’s parkland, known for its historic migrations of Ukrainian immigrants, it’s the prairie perogy (pierogi) that you'll find on every plate, whether small town diners or supermarket freezers for cooking at home.
Have your perogies the traditional way, topped with fried onions and sour cream, or loaded, poutine-style, with cheese curds and double-smoked bacon. You might even come across a perogy pizza — topped with mash, caramelized onions, bacon bits and sour cream — on a casual Canadian menu!
BRITISH COLUMBIA – Salmon, IPA, Nanaimo Bars
When traveling through beautiful British Columbia, make sure you hug tall tree and feast on local seafood, especially the wild Pacific salmon that’s served grilled or sweetly smoked, in salmon chowder or atop breakfast Eggs Benedict.
There are briny fresh oysters, halibut and kelp from the sea, too, and those ancient rain forests are brimming with edible wild mushrooms.
Wash it all down with a hoppy IPA, as craft beer is a bit of a religion on the left coast.
Then plan to try a Nanaimo Bar for dessert. It’s a sweet square with a crumbly coconut graham wafer crust, topped with vanilla custard and chocolate ganache. In Nanaimo, the city on Vancouver Island where the old-fashioned recipe originated, follow their official Nanaimo Bar Trail and look for variations on the theme, including peanut butter or maple bacon Nanaimo bars, and even Nanaimo Bar martinis!
NUNAVUT AND POINTS NORTH — Caribou, Baffin Berries and Arctic Char
While you won't likely arrive in most northern communities by road or rail, when you make the trek North, you'll find a lot of traditional foods, hunted, fished and foraged from the land.
Across Canada's northern regions — from Nunavut to Yukon and Northwest Territories — caribou, seal and other wild foods are popular, even muktuk, the raw skin and blubber of a freshly harvested whale.
Now another northern delicacy, Arctic Char, is flown direct from fishermen in Nunavut to southern cities. It's pulled from frozen lakes by Inuit families using nets suspended beneath the thick blue ice in winter, then driven by snowmobile to the community of Naujaat, flown to Winnipeg and trucked onward to Vancouver, eventually to land on West Coast plates.
CELEBRATE CANADIAN CUISINE
Whether you're traveling across Canada, marking Canada Day on July 1 — or the new Food Day Canada celebration (which is August 5, 2023) — enjoy our unique Canadian cuisine, from coast to coast to coast.
And when you make it all the way across the country, to Vancouver Island and the BC capital, there's an easy way to revisit some of our favourite flavours on an afternoon jaunt.
Victoria's Off the Eaten Track offers several delicious walking tours around the city, including their Eat like a Canadian food tour with stops to taste iconic Canadian treats, from candied salmon and smoked sablefish, to bannock, poutine and Hawaiian (ham and pineapple) pizza. Of course, there's a maple syrup tasting, a Nanaimo Bar and shot of Canadian icewine along the way, too!