Quick, what would you consider to be Canadian food?
I already know what you're thinking.
Canadian food means back bacon, syrup, beer and ...
Can't think of anything else, right? I knew it.
We should all feel guilty. Our northern neighbors are hosting the Winter Olympics starting Friday in Vancouver, and when it comes to Canadian food all we can name are a small handful of stereotypes that reduce an entire country's culinary contributions to bacon, beer, and syrup.
All is not lost, though. Canada is a big land and its food is as varied and regionally unique as that of the United States. Just as someone from Milwaukee would have a completely different idea of "American food" from someone from San Antonio, the same is true of Canada.
"Like any country, it's pretty regional," said Randy Shore, a food writer for the Vancouver Sun. "What constitutes Canadian food in Quebec is completely different than what constitutes Canadian cuisine in British Columbia."
Vancouver is about as different from say, Montreal, as New York is from San Francisco. A city of more than half a million — with a couple of million people living in its metropolitan area — it is nestled on the extreme western coast of Canada, just north of the U.S. border.
Mr. Shore said Vancouver is a classic port city with a melting pot of cultures, especially from countries like China and Japan. There are 150,000 people from India living in the city and more than 50
percent of the people living in the central municipality are Asian, he said.
"Our cuisine is defined by the collision of those cultures," he said.
Thanks to its temperate climate, Mr. Shore said, people living in the city are still eating herbs and vegetables from their gardens.
And then there is the seafood.
Not surprisingly, Vancouver is a source of excellent fresh halibut and sockeye salmon, which is where he suggested to start in building an excellent, simple, and healthy Olympic meal made in Toledo, but with a touch of western Canada.
"In our own cooking, we'll take a lot of the Asian flavor palate, particularly Chinese, and blend it into the local ingredients," he said.
We took his suggestion and marinaded sockeye salmon — you can still find it locally in Toledo if you look around; we found it at the Fresh Market, 3315 West Central Ave. Marinate it in a mixture of sake, brown sugar, and ginger for about an hour.
From there, it's a matter of grilling the filets and taking Mr. Shore's advice to be careful about not overcooking the fish.
"Sockeye is the caviar of the west coast and we don't like to see it destroyed."
The result is an exceptionally tasty meal. The marinade forms a sweet and salty caramelized coating on the fish that accents the flavor. A perfect Toledofied side dish is asparagus and tomatoes sauted in garlic and olive oil and seasoned to taste.
There is no other choice for a western Canadian dessert than Nanaimo bars, addictive, super sweet, buttery concoctions that are the perfect complement to a strong cup of coffee.
Mr. Shore said they're served all over the area, often on the ferries that transport people from the mainland to Vancouver Island. "It's so totally British Columbia. It's in any coffee shop, and any of the ferries of which there are dozens running up the coast," he said.
According to the city of Nanaimo's Web site, the original bars were created by a local woman who entered a baking contest and won with what she dubbed as "Nanaimo Bars."
Other variations exist with different names, including more Americanized versions, but we tried the recipe on the Nanaimo Web site and don't see any way it can be improved upon.
An old standby
OK, so let's say you want true Canadian comfort food that's not as pricey as sockeye salmon (about $12 a pound) and something that the kids will gobble up on a cold day.
You could go for tourtiere, which is basically a meat pie with the usual crust and vegetable fillings, but that's so Quebec. Instead, we'll let Mr. Shore — who has worked in professional kitchens as a sous chef prior to his journalism career — handle things with a most excellent macaroni-and-cheese variation that has a Canadian kick.
It's his wife's recipe for something called Darcy's Donkey-Kickin' Mac and Cheese. Writing on his blog, www.vancouversun.com/randyshore, here's how he describes it:
"If Canada has a national dish this has to be it. You can stuff your fiddleheads in a sockeye maple syrup tourtiere and light it on fire for all I care. Mac and cheese is my national dish."
How do you make it truly Canadian, though?
Easy: chop up about a half cup of Canadian bacon, fry it, and toss it into the dish, giving you a heaping, bubbly, creamy concoction with a smoky taste that is sublimely satisfying.
Best of all, it gives us comfort that we're not such rubes that we can't revel in real Canadian food.
Contact Rod Lockwood at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.