What is true Canadian cuisine?

Canada is developing its own voice in cooking and probably it is too early to talk about a traditional Canadian cuisine. The good news is that we have a great kitchen that is open and probably the best cooks.

Toronto is experiencing a formidable growth of its gastronomic offer. Photo: Canoe Restaurant. Toronto

My grandmother Eva used to call me from time to time mi melocotón, which in English can be translated as “my little sweet peach.” Perhaps one of Lorca’s short writings was the inspiration for that nickname, maybe it was the one that said, August facing the sunset, peaches and sugar, and the sun inside the evening like the stone in a fruit… Eva wasn’t a professional chef, but she mastered the art of cooking, she gave her heart every time she orchestrated pots, wooden spoons, vegetables, the cut or the catch of the day, fresh herbs and spices. She cooked and it was poetic, as poetic as Lorca can be. She also was the first one reading my very first manuscript, a short story about a boy traveling around the world. I probably was ten or eleven years old at that time, and I remember we were in her kitchen while she was stirring in an old saucepan the ingredients for strawberry jam; we had to get ready to prepare lonche, what is the Peruvian equivalent of the tea time, but instead of tea a nice cup of coffee is served, cured meat and sausages, fresh bread and sweet baked goods.

Eva was very emotional after reading my story, she told me that she loved it, and she asked me if I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what to answer at that time. It was the Peru of the eighties, a country fragile and vulnerable, and as kid I dreamed with being many things, I wanted peace and I didn’t want to compromise with anything specific. What I knew is that the room where my grandma cooked was the space that congregated family and friends, we all gather around her to chat, there were interesting conversations, we shared, we grew up, we laughed and we cried; that room with a big window looking at her garden was the inspiration of the kitchen in my first novel.

We moved to the north to the continent to a very welcoming young country, and we were told that Canadian cuisine was basically poutine and meat pie.  

Eva was a mother of seven children, an extremely generous, charming, attractive and independent single woman that was ahead of her time. I learned from her how to cook.  She taught me that every ingredient was important in order to create something delicious and that we have to taste everything just to make sure; she never cut corners. Early in the morning she visited the market and every time it was an adventure; she enjoyed talking with her favorite vendors, some of them were farmers from the Peruvian Andes, she wanted to know the stories behind the origin of those beautiful produce, while gently, with a slight pressure she explored fruits and vegetables. Eva allowed her creativity to discover colours, flavours and smells.

Now, so far away from that kitchen I close my eyes to remember that inspiring atmosphere.  I see myself with her in that magic room, the fire from the stove, reading a book and in between paragraphs trying to memorized her smile, her happiness, her moves, the aromas, the cuts, the sound of the spoon, the crunch of the lettuce, every gesture and every move … I allowed myself to be thankful for having the luxury to learn from her talent and her ability to create. The result of all of that preparation was always a feast, it was a celebration, like dining at the finest restaurant, and I never thought that those memories were going to stick with me for the rest of my life. From grandma I learned how to prepare my favorite dish, Ají de Gallina (Chicken in a Spicy Yellow Sauce) a traditional Peruvian stew with French roots and Italian Parmesan Cheese. One day she told me, “you start with heating a generous amount of olive oil in a frying pan, stir in some shallots finely chopped and some fresh garlic. Stir frequently until the shallots becomes translucent. Add some sea salt, fresh black pepper, and one tablespoon of Ají Amarillo (Peruvian Yellow Chile Pepper). This can be the base of many adventures, the rest belongs to your imagination.”

The inspiration of this lamb chops was the base of the “Ají de Gallina” (Chicken in a Spicy Yellow Sauce), a traditional Peruvian stew with French roots and Italian Parmesan cheese. Photo by José Antonio Villalobos.

While in university, Professor Jorge Salazar, Coco, a journalist, writer, world traveller, flamenco dancer and excellent cook, was also an inspiration for me in both literature and gastronomy; he encouraged my curiosity about food, books and wine. Coco used to invite some of his students to his apartment in Lima and prepared an exquisite dinner and uncorked a special bottle of wine. Our conversations over dinner were about books, history, politics and food, to be more precise the origin of food.  Sitting at his table we explored with curiosity the legends around food, we discussed the Romans, the mystery of the Last Supper, the conquerors to the new world and the sophistication and complexity of the millenary Peruvian cuisine. We talk about authors like Balzac’s passion for fine dining, García Márquez, Neruda and many others love for food.

I found that cooking and writing have the same magical effect on me and I like the smell of food as much as the smell of books. In both cases I use the best I have on me, every ingredient becomes a character, and creating a dish is creating a story. In both cases we developed a language, we communicate. When I eat and when I read I experience the same pleasure, the same sense of opportunity. So often there is food in literature and literature in food, in both cases there is a lasting memory. Literature is a powerful representation of a time, is a testimony and it can be a witness. And here is where I think food is also all of those things; both are capable to master the interpretation of a time, a time that we can’t ignore.

The first ingredient is to listen to those that welcomed us to this land first, it is impossible to have a Canadian cuisine lacking from their traditions.

Years later, Canada became my new home. My husband and I completed all the requirements for the Skilled Worker Program offered by the Government of Canada and we immigrated to start a new life together. We didn’t know any people, online we found a place to rent in Toronto and between many other things we also managed to get some winter clothing just in case, even though we were arriving in spring. With the excitement of the new beginning we thought about everything except for one thing: what is Canadian food?

We moved to the north to the continent to a very welcoming young country, and we were told that Canadian cuisine was basically poutine and meat pie. But I thought, how we could forget that we inherited a collection of traditions and cooking practices not only from the British and French colonizers, but more important from the Native Canadians, from hunters, fishermen, including those men involved in the competitive fur trade business, and of course the influence from many cultures from around the globe that Canada welcomes every year.

Many of us brought to Canada our culture and traditions, family recipes and our culinary expertise, because food is very important in many cultures to levels that are not too seeing the same way in North America. Canada is developing its own voice in cooking and probably it is too early to talk about a traditional Canadian cuisine, the good news is that we have a great kitchen that is open and probably the best cooks. The first ingredient is to listen to those that welcomed us to this land first, it is impossible to have a Canadian cuisine lacking from their traditions and not cultivating our own culture, ignoring those flavors that are engraved in the pallets of those old generations.

I remember that one of the suitcases that we brought with us was full of books. In that one piece of luggage I managed to save in one corner space for a plastic bag with a couple essentials spices from Peru, Ají Amarillo (Peruvian Yellow Chile Pepper) and Ají Panca (Peruvian Red Chile Pepper). This reminded me all the efforts that the Chinese immigrants did to bring to Peru the essential ingredients for their cooking in the late eighteen hundreds, and now are blended in a magical and exceptional cuisine.

Photo by José Antonio Villalobos.

Our first meal in Toronto, thirteen years ago, wasn’t very promising, and from that moment I decided to put in practice what I learned from Eva and Coco when I was young, I decided to explore, to discover and put on practice that appreciation for what is around me, new colours, all the new things that a new land can offered to us.

In Canada, without any doubt, the number one restaurant is any of my friend’s homes.  It is at their tables were I tasted the best traditional cuisine because the most important ingredient is the story behind each preparation, where every detail counts. What a privilege we have in this country, the joy of each meal brings us together, writing stories that are unique and precious. Sometimes I wish I could visit again my grandma’s house to give her a kiss, tell her that I became the boy of my first story, that I travel, I cook and I write stories, and also show her all the new things I learned, like that Tortilla de Patatas my good friend Juan prepared while we were putting together the anthology of short stories Historias de Toronto (Toronto Series Anthology).

I also have this fantasy of inviting Coco over to my kitchen, open a good bottle of wine and perform for him a new recipe. With that base of many adventures that my grandmother taught me, you stuff individually some Ontario lamb chops previously marinated on ice wine, garlic, olive oil, pimentón de la Vera, sea salt, black peeper and a touch of cumin. After carefully grill the chops, you finish adding a touch of maple butter. I am wondering of a good wine to pair this dish with, maybe one with the same sweetness, with the same tones, maybe one from British Columbia can be a good option, one that can share some of the story of this wonderful country.

Finally, while setting the table I ask Coco his opinion about the movement of the new-cuisine in the world, the new literature written in Spanish in Canada, the connection between our origins and the adoptive land and new home. The table is finally served, please have a sit and enjoy.

José Antonio Villalobos
José-Antonio is a writer and an accredited Leadership & Executive Coach born in Lima, Peru. The exposure to a global reality helped him lay the foundation to create his own organization: JAVSmundo Leadership Coaching - Learning & Development. José-Antonio is an active community leader, in 2014 he founded IMAGINA, a community of hispanic authors in Canada, and is actively engaged working as a consultant with cultural and non-profit organizations, and local leaders. José-Antonio is a passionate traveler and a gastronomy lover. He lives in Toronto, Canada.