What to eat and drink in Canada
English Canadians may be mystified if you ask where you can get Canadian food. English Canadian cuisine varies from region to region. Some specialties include maple syrup, Nanaimo bars (chocolate-topped no-bake squares with custard or vanilla butter filling and crumb base), butter tarts (tarts made with butter, sugar, and eggs), beaver tails (fried dough topped with icing sugar), fiddleheads (curled heads of young ferns), peameal bacon (a type of back bacon made from lean boneless pork loin, trimmed fine, wet cured, and rolled in cornmeal; eaten at breakfast with eggs or for lunch as a sandwich), and Halifax donairs (sliced beef meatloaf wrapped in pitas and garnished with onions, tomatoes, and a sweet condensed milk sauce). They are an important, if somewhat humble, part of the Canadian culinary landscape. In other respects, English Canadian cuisine is similar to that of the northern United States. Canadians may be unaware that they even have national dishes, especially in the more urbanized areas; that said, there is a rising trend among Canadian chefs and restaurateurs to offer locally produced ingredients, and most major cities have bistros that specialize in local and national cuisine.
To many Canadians and non-Canadians, Maple syrup is the prominent element of Canadian cuisine. It is most often used on breakfasts (e.g. pancakes or crèpes), but can also be used as a sweetener for baked goods, warm milk for coffee, mixed with mustards or other sauces, etc. However, a lesser known tree syrup that is produced in the more northerly parts of Canada, closer to the boreal forests, is Birch syrup (which some from parts of Scandinavia may also recognize). It is usually not commercially produced to the same extent as maple syrup, but can be found in certain specialized stores in the southern cities, although typically at a higher price point than it’s maple counterpart. It is almost always darker and has a more intense, molasses-y flavor than maple syrup.
French Canadian cuisine is distinctive and includes such specialties as tourtière, a meat pie dish that dates back to the founding of Quebec in the 1600s, cipaille (vegetable pie), poutine, a dish consisting of French fries, cheese curds and gravy (its popularity has spread across the country and can be found from coast to coast), croquignoles (home-made doughnuts cooked in shortening), tarte à la farlouche (pie made of raisins, flour and molasses), tarte au sucre (sugar pie), and numerous cheeses and maple syrup products. Staples include baked beans, peas and ham. French-Canadian cuisine also incorporates elements of the cuisines of English-speaking North America, and, unsurprisingly, France.
One peculiar tradition that you may notice in nearly every small town is the Chinese-Canadian restaurant. A lot of the reason for this is the role Chinese immigration played historically in the early settlement of Canada, particularly in the building of the railroad. These establishments sell the usual fast food Chinese cuisine, adjusted for Western ingredients and tastes. In Toronto and Vancouver, two large centers of Chinese immigration, one can find authentic Chinese cuisine that rivals that of Hong Kong and Shanghai. In Toronto, visit the Chinatown area of Spadina-Dundas; if north of the city, consider a visit to the Markham area, which has recently seen an influx of newer Chinese immigrants.
Montreal is well known for its Central and Eastern European Jewish specialties, including local varieties of bagels and smoked meat. In the prairie provinces you can find great Ukrainian food, such as perogies, due to large amounts of Ukrainian immigrants.
If you are more adventurous, in the larger cities especially, you will find a great variety of ethnic tastes from all over Europe, Asia and elsewhere. You can find just about any taste and style of food in Canada, from a 20 oz T-Bone with all the trimmings to Japanese sushi (indeed, much of the salmon used in sushi in Japan comes from Canada). Consult local travel brochures upon arrival. They can be found at almost any hotel and are free at any provincial or municipal tourist information centre.
What to drink
The drinking age in Canada varies from province to province. In Alberta, Manitoba and Quebec the age is 18, while in the rest of the provinces and territories it is 19. A peculiarity of many Canadian provinces is that liquor and beer can only be sold in licensed stores and this usually excludes supermarkets, corner stores, etc. In Ontario alcoholic beverages can only be sold in licensed restaurants and bars and “Liquor Control Board” (LCBO) stores that are run by the Province; although you can also buy wine in some supermarkets in a special area called the “Wine Rack”. Supermarkets in other provinces generally have their own liquor store nearby. Québec has the least restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and one can usually find alcohol at convenience stores (depanneur), in addition to the government-owned Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ) stores. Alberta is the only province where alcohol sales are completely decentralized; so many supermarket chains will have separate liquor stores near the actual supermarket.
Canadians are known for their love of beer, although wine and hard alcohol or spirits are also popular.
Canadian mass-market beers (e.g., Molson’s, Labatt’s) are generally a pale gold lager, with an alcohol content of 4% to 5%. Like most mass-market beers, they are not very distinctive (although Americans will notice that there are beers made by these companies that are not sold in the States), however, Canadian beer drinkers have been known to support local brewers. In recent years, there’s been a major increase in the number and the quality of beers from micro-breweries. Although many of these beers are only available near where they are produced, it behooves you to ask at mid-scale to top-end bars for some of the local choices: they will be fresh, often non-pasteurized, and have a much wider range of styles and flavours than you would expect by looking at the mass-market product lines. Many major cities have one or more brew pubs, which brew and serve their own beers, often with a full kitchen backing the bar. These spots offer a great chance to sample different beers and to enjoy food selected to complement the beers.
The two largest wine-producing regions in Canada are the Niagara Region in Ontario and the Okanagan in British Columbia. Other wine-producing areas include the shores of Lake Erie, Georgian Bay (Beaver River Valley) and Prince Edward County in Ontario, and the Similkameen valley, southern Fraser River valley, southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia. There are also small scale productions of wine in southern Quebec and Nova Scotia. Imported wines from France, Italy, the US, Australia, and others are also popular and available in large varieties
Ice wine, a (very) sweet dessert wine made from frozen grapes is a Canadian specialty, with products made by Inniskillin vinery in particular found at airport duty-free stores around the world. In contrast to most other wine-producing regions in the world, Canada, particularly the Niagara Region, consistently undergoes freezing in winter and has become the world’s largest ice wine producer. However, due to the tiny yields (5-10% compared to normal wine) it’s relatively expensive, with half-bottles (375 ml / 13 fl oz) starting at $50. It is worth noting that Canadian ice wine is somewhat sweeter than German varieties.
Saké, or Japanese rice wine, is also growing in popularity. Most market share goes to imported brands, but Ontario Spring Water Sake Company in Toronto‘s Distillery District and Artisan SakeMaker of Vancouver‘s Granville Island are some of the most distinctive locally produced variants.
Cider, sometimes called “hard cider” in Canada to distinguish it from non-alcoholic apple cider, is growing in popularity in Canada. Many imported brands such as Somersby, Magners, and Strongbow can be found in many parts of the country. But “craft cider” is also growing to the same extent as “craft beer” during it’s earlier revival. Examples of these include Merridale, Dukes, Spirit Tree, Thornbury, and County Cider/Waupoos. Québec also has a distinctive and well established estate cidery industry, with many prominent smaller producers with lower production.
Canada is famous in other countries for its distinctive rye whiskey. Some famous editions include Canadian Club, Wisers, Crown Royal to name just a few. In addition to the plentiful selection of inexpensive blended ryes, you may find it worth exploring the premium blended and unblended ryes available at most liquor stores. One of the most-recognized unblended ryes is Alberta Premium, which has been recognized as the “Canadian Whiskey of the Year” by famed whiskey writer Jim Murray.
Canada also makes a small number of distinctive liqueurs. One of the most well-known, and a fine beverage for winter drinking, is Yukon Jack, a whiskey-based liqueur with citrus overtones. It’s the Canadian equivalent of the USA’s Southern Comfort, which has a similar flavor but is based on corn whiskey (bourbon) rather than rye.
Ungava Gin is also distinctive in that it uses botanicals found in Québec‘s far north, including Labrador tea, crowberry, and cloudberry. There are many other local distilleries producing distinctive spirits, including (among others) Dillon’s in Ontario, Victoria Gin in British Columbia, Lucky Bastard in Saskatchewan, etc.
You can find most nonalcoholic beverages you would find in any other country. Carbonated beverages (referred to as “pop”, “soda” and “soft drinks” in different regions) are very popular. Clean, safe drinking water is available from the tap in all cities and towns across Canada. Bottled water is widely sold, but it is no better in quality than tap water, so you’ll save a lot of money by buying a reusable water bottle and filling it up from the tap.
A non-alcoholic drink one might drink in Canada is coffee.