So we’re back from a week-long vacation in Canada.
I could write about how different the culture is there (spoiler alert: not very, actually, outside of the average person being slightly more friendly than I’m used to. I could write about the absolutely beautiful country. (SO MUCH GREEN.)
But at the moment — maybe because I’m returning to home, and by extension to normality — I’m a little preoccupied with food. Partly because we had to visit the grocery store and buy food that we’d be preparing ourselves for the first time in a week. Partly because, since we hadn’t been preparing our own food for a week, that meant we’d been eating exclusively in restaurants — i.e. eating like garbage. But mostly because — to put it bluntly — food in Canada is weird.
To loosely quote John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, they have the same stuff over there that they have here, but it’s just there it’s a little different.
And look, I’m not a foodie or anything; even typing that word makes me feel like a pretentious tool. I have no doubt there are intricacies at play here that I am oblivious to. That’s okay. Like any good American, that won’t stop me from voicing my displeasure.
That’s right, displeasure, because just one week was enough for me to get sick of some of this stuff, so I can only imagine what it must be like living there full-time.
There are three primary offenders: Poutine, Donair (or donairs? I’m not even sure) and Dulse (which looks and sounds like it should be spelled with a “c” but it isn’t because this is Canada and they don’t care about such things — they can’t even decide on a national language for goodness’ sake).
Let’s start with the least offensive: Poutine.
Poutine is actually delicious, even if it doesn’t sound like it would be at first: you take standard-issue French Fries, smother them with gravy, and melt a bunch of cheese over the top of the whole thing. Why this little treat hasn’t caught fire in America is beyond me. It’s salty and satisfying and indulgent and sits in your stomach like a brick after you’ve eaten it: comfort food of the highest order.
But it’s still annoying, because like anything good, it’s saturating the culture. Poutine is everywhere, from burger joints to fancy restaurants to food trucks and everything in between. Well, you might say, french fries are everywhere in America, isn’t that the same thing? Yeah, sure, if chihuahuas and Great Danes are the same thing. But you can’t compare poutine to french fries like that, because french fries are adaptable: you can put them on a plate, toss them in a cup, funnel them into a newspaper fan, whatever. Poutine comes exactly one way: on a plate, and anything else is a catastrophe.
Which means that the poutine you get at, say, McDonald’s, comes served pretty much the same way as it might at a classier joint, which has the effect of making you feel like a schlub for ordering it in a classier joint. Let’s also point out that having a runny, slimy food like this available at a fast food place totally defeats the purpose of eating at a fast food place, because poutine is not a food that can be eaten quickly or cleanly or when time is any sort of factor. Try and eat poutine with your lunch combo when you’re running late and you will arrive back to work doused in gravy (which, I dunno, maybe that’s your thing, in which case, Canada may be for you).
Also, nobody knows how to pronounce it, which may be an issue in your reading at this point. I’ve heard it as poo-TEEN, poo-TAN, poo-TEN, and that was all by family members living in the same household. (Again, to Canadians I say — get on one page when it comes to language.)
In short, delicious, but so ubiquitous you’ll be tired of it after a day.
Then, there’s donair, or donairs.
Donair seems to be a concept as much as it is a thing. (By the way, it’s pronounced like “donut” except instead of a donut, you have donair — and that’s where the similarity ends.) Because you can go to places (usually sandwich shops, but often, strangely, pizza places) and order donairs, but you can also find “donair sauce” on store shelves and in recipe books, and in the same way, “donair meat”. “Donair meat”, by the way, is not the meat of a donair (some rare Canadian beast) but rather meat for a donair. What type of meat is it, then? This is the question that, when you ask it (and well, I think, you should ask it) a Canadian will look at you oddly and reiterate, “it’s meat that goes in a donair”. This happens to be a thing Canadians just do, on a lot of subjects, not just donairs. You ask them a question and get a circular answer. (“Where is the cave?” “It’s in Saint Martin.” “Where’s Saint Martin?” “It’s down by the caves.” When you look at them oddly, they just look at you oddly right back until one of you apologizes (usually the Canadian, because if there’s one thing they do well and fast, it’s say “sorry”).
Anyway, the meat is tangy and salty as meat should be, but the sauce that they pair with it is creamy and sweetish — almost like a tzatziki sauce, but way sweeter and not at all herby. Actually, it feels like it would go really well with a donut, so maybe I was wrong about donuts and donairs having nothing in common but the letters. (Canadians will insist that this clash of sweet-n’-salty is delightful, I will counterargue that it is confusing, but then I don’t understand “trendy” or “daring” food combinations like “jalapeno peppers with chocolate sauce” or “half-cooked mice with a spritz of maraschino cherry”, so I dunno, maybe I’m not hip enough to play this game.)
You slap the “meat” and the “sauce” together with some tomatoes or peppers into a toasted pita, and bam, that’s a donair. In other words, it’s basically a weird gyro sandwich. Except I didn’t know this, so the first donair I had was in pizza form, which might be adding to my overall confusion about the whole thing.
Sidenote: I think I can be forgiven, though, because the conversation went something like “hey you should try some donairs” and I was all like “what’s a donair” and they were like “Pizza Delight has good ones” and I said “okay but I still dunno what a donair is” and they said “let’s go.” (I’m not sure if that’s an all Canadians thing or just a my wife’s Canadian family thing.) When we got to the restaurant I ordered the first thing I saw that said “donair” which happened to be a donair pizza. I ate it. It was weird. Not bad, and not something I’d order again. Just weird. So when I asked them if donair is just a pizza topping they said “well no, that’s just a pizza with donair toppings,” and when I asked well what’s a donair they said “they don’t just serve donair here.”
Then, later in the week, one of our hosts brought home some donair fixings and made up basically a sauceless pizza topped with donair meat to dunk in donair sauce. This I ate, and it was slightly better than a “donair pizza”, but it did nothing to aid my confusion about donairs. I didn’t fully understand what a donair was supposed to be until I got back to America and googled it.
In short, when a Canadian tries to tell you about an exciting food they want you to try, do your research first.
Third, and most offensive, is Dulse. Do not make the mistake, as I did, of associating “dulse” with “dulce”, as they are not the same thing, and the fact that they seem to have the same root is a bug, not a feature, of language.
Dulse is seaweed.
That’s all. It’s seaweed. They dry it out and salt it, and then they eat it. Like potato chips, but horrible. It’s somehow simultaneously crispy and chewy, tough and brittle, all at once. You put it in your mouth (your first mistake) and the edges of it immediately flake off and melt to the inside of your cheeks and gums, while you have to keep working the main “leaf” like a piece of jerky. It tastes like fermented fish urine, which it basically is, because it’s seaweed.
I pointed out to the Canadian who tricked me into eating dulse that it tasted, in fact, exactly as you would expect dried-out seaweed to taste, and she responded, “no, it tastes like dulse.” My inclination was to argue the point by asking her what, exactly, dulse was, but the donair incident was fresh in my mind so I just smiled and refused another piece.
To fully explain how bad it tastes, here’s a little anecdote:
My wife’s grandmother picked up a bag of it in Market Square in Saint John. Very excited about it, too, she was. As it turns out, Saint John is a tourism stop for cruise lines sailing in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, and a cruise ship happened to be in port that day — so the square was flooded with tourists. Mostly Americans, so I didn’t feel quite the fish out of water that I usually did.
Anyway, she was offering me a bit of dulse and I, not wanting to appear rude, was (tentatively) accepting it, when a pair of nearby Americans asked her, “what’s that?” (They looked sixty or so, with matching visors. Sweet little old ladies.) “Dulse,” my grandmother-in-law replied cheerily, around a mouthful of the stuff. “A Canadian delicacy. Want to try some?”
I was just working my way through my first (and only) piece, the fish-pee taste slowly spreading across my tongue. Apparently, the expression creeping across my face didn’t deter them, so they said “sure” and took a piece. Two seconds later, one of them said, and I quote, “nope, that’s coming out,” and spit it RIGHT ON THE FLOOR, while the other rushed to the nearest stall to purchase an overpriced Pepsi to wash the flavor out.
My grandmother-in-law watched this with a chuckle like she’d played some great prank on all of us, all the while stuffing the horrible purple stringy stuff into her mouth.
You can buy this stuff by the bag, if you want, but I also saw it in spice form: a tiny, roll-of-quarters-sized tube which you could sprinkle over your steak or your breakfast eggs. You know, for when your food has that “fine, but not enough fish-pee” quality about it.
To sum up: avoid.
At any rate, these are only three of the most visible food faux-pas on display during my week in Canada. I’m sure there are others, and possibly worse ones (though if there’s something out there worse than dulse, I want it caught and shot).
I will reiterate: if you’re going to try a new and exciting food while on vacation in Canada, do your research first.
Thank goodness I’m back in the states, where we have NORMAL food.
One thought on “An American’s Guide to Canadian Food: (or, Don’t)”
The first time I went to Canada, being from New Orleans, I was expecting a bunch of bland food I’d hate. Then we got Poutine in a restaurant. I had never heard of it. I loved it! I’m starting to see it more and more on menus here in the south. In fact I recently did a report on a place called Toup’s where I had a Poutine with smoked oxtail meat.
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