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It's all Canada, eh?

The search for the quintessential Canadian dish
food_glenda1

It all started when I read that poutine was voted this years' quintessential Whistler dish in Pique's annual "Best of Whistler." That, along with an interview I heard on CBC Radio with Frédéric Morin and Dave McMillan, the boys creating a flurry with their Joe Beef resto in Montreal, and their subsequent book based on same.

Joe Beef is a small room (only 30 seats) making a big splash. It's located in Montreal's funky Little Burgundy district, where Oscar Peterson grew up.

It — the resto, and the area — smack of an authenticity people gobble up. On any night you can find the place packed with hipsters and oldsters; English and French; the pretentious and unpretentious. Basically, people who like food and a vibe that says hi, I'm good; I'm relaxed; I'm fun and down-home, and unique to my creators, in this case Fred and Dave, who riff on things that catch their fancy: marjolaine they engineered their own pan for; cauliflower gratin that turns out like Kraft Dinner; Maple Leaf's tinned Vienna cocktail sausages in a martini.

But back to the poutine shouting, Whistler! or so readers said, upstaging sushi, previously voted the best all-Whistler dish two years in a row, and nachos, this year's runner-up.

Sushi? Nachos? Quintessential Whistler? At least poutine is from Quebec.

So what the heck is the quintessential Canadian dish?

Meat and potatoes, like my mom says? But that's so British Isles (like she is). A grilled cheese sandwich? Kraft Dinner? Hawkins Cheezies? After all, they're made in Bellevue, Ontario, from real Canadian cheese. Cheddar cheese, straight up? Or anything cheese? After all they don't call us cheese-heads for nothing.

Maple syrup? Baked beans? Back bacon? Canadian beef?

Hamburgers? No, they're from the States.

Don't forget First Nations' food. But then you have to navigate regional variations. Salmon on the West Coast, cedar-planked or not, doesn't cut it in central Manitoba. And even if you aren't native, we still have miles of regional diversity, including lobster out east, and 101 local dishes in-between: Perogies on the prairies? Mennonite sausage? Surely not sushi.

Then there's the lens of time, since food trends come and go, and come back again, like a retro meat loaf gone wild. Plus the urban/rural divide. What with most Canadians, in fact, most people on Earth, now living in cities, dishes that made sense on farms get a rewrite or are obliterated completely with urbanization.

These many questions were puzzling my little grey cells. So I started asking around.

The first person I called was Rolf Gunther, chef and owner of RimRock Café, voted time and again as best resto in Whistler. With its big food, bigger fireplaces and unpretentious vibe, it seems like one of the most authentic, and Canadian, places around. Like Joe Beef, only in the mountains.

Rolf easily names wienerschnitzel as quintessential Germany, which is where he's from. As for what's Canadian, he bandied that question around with his staff. The conclusion? It's hard to pin down.

"Are you from back east? Or the west? If you're from Quebec, it's probably tourtiere, right? And out here it's probably something to do with salmon," Rolf says.

But when he first arrived in Canada in the 1970s, what stood out was apple pie with cheddar cheese (there's that cheese again), along with clubhouse sandwiches made with back bacon.

"I never saw those made anywhere else," he laughs. "People were eating those like crazy." Along with prime rib, Cornish hens, and big steaks — all part of that era, eh?

But when I ask him to name the most Canadian dish he has on the menu, he doesn't hesitate: it's the wild game — the venison, the caribou, the bison — they love to feature.

Eric Pateman, founder of Sea to Sky Seasonings which evolved into an exciting locally-focused bistro/shop on Granville Island, aptly named Edible Canada, has another take: "We are one of the only countries in the world where you'll have sushi one night, Italian another night, Indian another," he says.

"With the multi-cultural influences of what Vancouver is, what B.C. is, and what Canada is, it really speaks to what Canadian cuisine has become."

He cites Vij's Restaurant, an Indian fusion hotbed in Vancouver. "He [Vij] grows his own tomatoes, he only uses local lamb, he's using local sustainable seafood," says Eric. "Is it a Canadian restaurant?

"I would argue Vij's is what quintessential Canadian cuisine is all about."

In Halifax, Chives Bistro is doing things like pulled pork perogies. (Eat your hearts out, Edmonton.) In Newfoundland, they're doing that quintessential Newfie dish, cod tongues, with spices that aren't traditionally Canadian. At Edible Canada, they make a soup with local seafood and a Thai-influenced coconut broth.

It's all about taking what's around you from who's around you, and putting it to good use. Maybe that's what spells C-a-n-a-d-a.

But I couldn't end my search without talking to somebody from a First Nation. So I dialed up the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre and spoke with Ken Wright. He's a cultural ambassador who works in the café, where he makes pemmican using smoked venison, berries and nuts; smoked salmon that's candied or wind-dried; and unique dishes with a native twist, like bannock pizza.

Ken, an elder from the Squamish Nation, grew up in North Vancouver. He's been hunting and fishing for 30 years, so we both laugh when he tells me that growing up, he mostly ate Western food. The exception was big family feasts, where salmon was barbecued and served with potatoes and oolichan grease (very nutritious!).

Sure, pemmican might be from the Plains peoples but, he explains, "First Nations always traded.

"We had salmon and fish on the coast and they had large mammals inland. And when you traded, you traded methods too." Like how to make pemmican.

I guess that counts for pulled pork perogies, too, and most things we eat.

When I ask Ken what he would call the No. 1 Canadian dish, he doesn't hesitate: "Anything in the water or land that's there naturally." The fish and seafood on the coast, the animals, the wild mushrooms, the berries, and spruce tips and fiddleheads.

It all sounds pretty Canadian to me. So bring on that poutine, with a side of venison quesadillas, and a cocktail wienie martini to wash it down.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who misses her grandad's pheasant and jackfish.