Club House for Chefs

What are the more unusual flavours of Canada?

May 12 2015

When thinking of Canadian flavours, maple syrup, poutine and Nanaimo bars might be the types of food that spring to mind, but there are a number of lesser-known dishes that are more traditionally Canadian that most diners may not have heard of. Until now.

For example - have you ever tasted pennywort? It's an herb related to dill and carrot. Or how about pembina? It's a type of cranberry.

Some restaurants are now making the most of these specialty Canadian ingredients - also known as heritage foods. It's part of a growing trend towards local food and the Globe and Mail reports that these genetically diverse breeds of plants and animals are increasingly prized for their unique flavours and properties.

Jerusalem artichoke

Despite its name, the Jerusalem artichoke is not an artichoke, nor does it originate in the middle east. This tuber comes from a plant related to the sunflower and its natural habitat is North America - in a region spanning eastern Canada and Maine down to Texas and Florida.

The vegetable has an elongated and uneven shape and looks a little like ginger root. It varies in colour from pale brown to red, white or purple and has a crisp texture when raw.

At Legende in Quebec City, chef Frederic Laplante serves local cuisine, with most of his ingredients harvested within 300 kilometres. This includes game meats like bison, as well as wild berries and green alder, which has a peppery flavour.

Chef Laplante may use traditional ingredients, but he pairs them with modern cooking techniques to get the best results. For example, he cooks Jerusalem artichokes sous vide to maintain the tuber's flavours and aromas. He also uses the Jerusalem artichoke to make an espuma, as well as pickles and chips, which are all used to garnish a fresh crab dish.

His co-owner and wife Karen Therrien says that they hope to reintroduce heirloom fruits and vegetables back to the region. The modern cooking methods are used in respect of the food, she explains, "not to change it,but to bring out all the flavours".

Mussels

At Boralia, they serve eclade, a dish featuring mussels under a pile of pine needles. French navigator Samuel de Champlain is said to have introduced the dish to settlers at Port Royal in the 17th century.

Chefs Evelyn Wu and her husband Wayne Morris give the plate a contemporary twist, steaming the mussles in a pine-ash-infused butter and pine smoke.

"We want to contribute something fresh to the food scene by, ironically enough, going back centuries for inspiration," Ms Wu explains.

The pair offers a number of other dishes at their Toronto restaurant, which have been inspired by native cuisines, as well as colonial recipes. For example, their bison bresaola is based on a Cree dish. There's also braised whelk served in its own shell - it is a tribute to Mi'kmaq food. There are also Iroquois popcorn grits in the trout dish.‚Äč

Seafood

Of course, mussels aren't the only seafood that feature in traditional Canadian cooking. We have thousands of miles of coastline and plenty of delicious foods can come from the sea - including sea urchin, see weed, barnacles, prawns and fish.

At L'Abattoir in Vancouver, chef lee Cooper prepares halibut by poaching it with a Meyer lemon marmalade. He also serves up prawns alongside fresh produce like kale shoots, fava beans and cherries.

"Being part Hupacasath, I have a deep interest in the cuisine of the First Nations people of the West Coast and of my childhood," he explains. In his restaurant, he uses many of the coastal ingredients that were part of traditional diets, but updates the cooking methods. For example, he smokes sockeye salmon until it has an almost buttery texture - traditionally prepared, the fish would have more of a jerky-like consistency.

Wild game

At Raymonds in St John's, chef Jeremy Charles seeks out naturally organic, sustainable and high-quality regional ingredients - including wild game like moose, ptarmigan and seal.

To get the freshest ingredients, chef Charles has worked hard to build relationships with local foragers, hunters and fishermen. "I've turned over a lot of rocks trying to find the people living off the land," he told the Globe and Mail. "We've made a lot of relationships and are supporting people and encouraging them to support us," he explained.

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