Home sick for Manitoba food
Sampling the cuisine of a country or region is one of the delights of travelling. Although most Canadians can identify a few regional specialities, we generally don’t think there is anything particularly unique about the food we eat. After spending two winters away from my home in Manitoba, I am more aware that there is, indeed, something that can be called Manitoba cuisine.
The first thing to mention is farmer’s sausage, a type of seasoned pork sausage. Some varieties are smoked, some are not. It is served roasted, grilled, or broiled. There are a few larger companies that supply grocery stores across the Canadian prairies. Many local butchers make their own versions. Locals develop strong attachments to a particular brand. I’ve not found anything close in Arizona. One of my first meals when I get back home to Manitoba in spring will be farmer’s sausage.
Manitoba is home to many lakes, including Lake Winnipeg, the sixth-largest freshwater lake in Canada. Pickerel, a white and flaky fish known as walleye in other parts of the continent, is found in Lake Winnipeg and other Manitoba lakes. Although all of the fish is delicious, the cheeks are considered a special delicacy. The sweet, boneless coins of meat are usually served pan-fried. Goldeye is a small fish, averaging less than one pound, that is served smoked. Its taste is somewhat similar to smoked salmon.
Lean bison meat has become popular in recent years. Local berries are eaten fresh in season and frozen or turned into jams and jellies for the rest of the year. Varieties include raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, saskatoon berries, and chokecherries. Wild rice, a grain of wild grass plants, has been harvested by North American natives for centuries.
Immigration played a major role in Manitoba’s history and has impacted the foods we eat. Thanks to Polish and Eastern European influences, cabbage rolls and perogies (also spelled pierogi, pierogy, pyrohy, or pyrogy), dumplings traditionally stuffed with potato and/or cheese, boiled and then fried, grace many family holiday dinner tables, alongside the turkey or ham.
Beet borscht is also a legacy of Eastern European immigration. A variety of other borschts, aka soups, have made their way onto the menu via the large Mennonite population. A personal favourite is summer borscht, a ham bone based broth containing potatoes and beet leaves or sorrel. Pluma moos, a purplish cold desert soup made from plums or dried fruit, is a Mennonite dish loved by many, but one that has never held much appeal for me.
Manitoba has the largest ethnic Icelandic population outside of Iceland. The dish most Manitobans associate with our Icelandic heritage is vinarterte, a torte with six to seven layers of a cookie-like dough separated by a prune filling spiced with cardamon. Popular at Christmas, it is considered traditional Icelandic food in Manitoba. However, I recently learned you are unlikely to find vinarterte in Iceland. Vinarterte was popular in Iceland at the time Icelandic immigration to Manitoba occurred in the 1870s. The fad passed in Iceland, but was kept alive in Manitoba.
Manitoba has a large Francophone population, bringing a French-Canadian influence to the menu. Tourtière, a meat pie originating from Quebec, is now popular across Canada. Ground pork, or combinations of ground pork, ground veal, and ground beef are seasoned with savory, nutmeg, clove, and/or cinnamon. Many recipes exist with variations on the mixture of meat and combinations of spices, family recipes passed down through generations. Another French-Canadian dish found in Manitoba, and other places across Canada, is poutine. Poutine is a dish made with French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. It may sound odd to someone who’s never tasted it, but it is delicious. True comfort food.
Then there is Winnipeg-style rye bread, a soft bread made with cracked rye or coarse rye meal added to wheat flour. Caraway seed is not added. Kub Bread and City Bread are two popular sources for Winnipeg-style rye bread. As with farmer’s sausage, locals develop a strong attachment to one brand.
A tray of dainties serves as dessert on many Manitoba occasions. Dainties, a term that may be unique to the Canadian prairies, refers to an assortment of squares and cookies. Popular items on the dainty tray include:
- matrimonial cake, a date square with an oatmeal crumb topping
- Nanaimo bars, a dessert bar with a wafer crumb-based bottom, a custard middle layer, and a melted chocolate top layer
- butter tarts, a pastry tart shell filled with a mixture of butter, eggs, brown sugar and flour, optionally containing raisins
- butter tart squares, a variation on butter tarts
What food(s) do you associate with Manitoba?