Think of food, and then think of Alberta. What comes to mind?
You can be from a rocky mountain town, bustling city centre, or a ranch, but the answer is usually the same: beef, beef and more beef. Or maybe throw some grains in there, too. While Alberta is the second largest agricultural producer in Canada and known worldwide for its top-quality beef, our province has deep culinary roots spanning further than just meat and wheat.
In celebration of Canada 150, we looked past our rolling canola fields and grazing cattle to dig into the culinary history of Alberta. Not only did these foods keep the province’s earliest inhabitants alive, they’ve paved the way for contemporary culinary culture today.
There’s no disputing who was here first. Indigenous tribes in Canada date back 10,000 years, which means their food does too. While restaurants dedicated to indigenous cuisine may be few and far between, survival tactics (today’s food trends) like smoking and curing meats, all started with Alberta’s first people.
Before European and U.S. settlers stumbled across Alberta in the 1600s, First Nations (formerly known as The Plains People) grew potatoes, corn and squash. But their main source of sustenance was bison. Bison yielded a huge amount of meat, which was typically roasted on a spit, and then preserved through salting and drying. Rich, nutritious soups were also made by boiling meat in a skin bag with hot stones.
Developed by indigenous tribes and a staple in the diets of early fur traders, was pemmican. A pure protein surge, dried meat is pounded into a powder, and then mixed with melted buffalo fat and berries. Many will be familiar with bannock, a simple flatbread made from wheat flour. When wheat was unavailable, bannock could be made with anything from cattail pollen to moss.
While these survival foods aren’t as lavish as the combinations of taste we see today, this truly was the original culinary scene in Alberta.
One of the earliest cuisines in Canada, it’s not surprising we have a fever for French-inspired dishes like poutine, Montreal-style bagels and macarons.
To the unilingual eye, Alberta may seem predominantly Anglophone. But French was the first European language spoken in Alberta, and we’re still home to one of the largest Francophone populations in Canada. Peddlers from Montreal landed in Alberta in the 1780s during the early fur trading days. They set about establishing colonies like Leduc, Beaumont and Lacombe (to name a few), and a new mixed-race population — the Metis — emerged when French settlers married the Cree women living off the land.
In the 1900s, fancy food was often equated with French cuisine. It may have been pricey, but gorging on tourtière (a meat pie filled with diced beef, veal or pork), escargot, and duck confit, in upscale French restaurants was well worth it. And yes, where and how you consume French cuisine has relaxed over the years — you can grab a messy poutine just about anywhere, and even casual pubs have escargot on the menu.
But seeing thousands of poutine dishes sold during Poutine Week in Calgary and the flocks of people celebrating French culture and cuisine at annual events like Heritage Park’s Festival Des Sucres, it’s clear the French are still very near and dear to the hearts (and stomachs) of Albertans.
Chop Suey on the Prairies
Where there’s a small town, there’s likely Chinese food; the first restaurants ever established in Alberta were Chinese “cafes.” We’re grateful now for the multitude of Chinese restaurants and takeout places across the province, but Chinese immigrants had a less than welcoming start in western Canada.
Arriving in Alberta as the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) advanced across the country in the 1800s, many Chinese workers perished from disease and intolerable working conditions. Even after the railway was completed, Chinese immigrants continued to be persecuted; until 1923, they were the only ethnic group forced to pay a tax to enter the country. Despite these hardships, immigrants earned money by working in laundries or running Chinese eateries.
This led to a new cuisine in Alberta: Western Chinese food. Adapting traditional Cantonese flavours for the Alberta palate, dishes like chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and fried rice, became hugely popular. Calgary has its own claim to fame when chef George Wong from the Silver Inn created the dish to end all dishes: ginger beef.
There’s no denying these crispy pieces of fried beef slathered in a tangy, ginger sauce is a favourite everywhere. The Royal Alberta Museum even held a special exhibit a few years back called Chop Suey on the Prairies, which celebrated iconic Chinese restaurants and dishes in Alberta.
Perogies and Pysankas
Perogies, cabbage rolls, borscht… these hearty dishes would be nearly non-existent if it wasn’t for the arrival of Ukrainian settlers back in the 1890s. Founding land northeast of Edmonton, many of the first Ukrainian immigrants were agriculturists.
With Alberta soil prime for planting and growing, the Ukrainian population flourished as they found their niche in farming. In just a few years, Ukrainians had settled the largest colony of its kind in central Alberta, and by 2006, Albertans of Ukrainian descent made up more than 10 percent of the province’s population. It wasn’t long before sour soups, potato dumplings, and fermented cabbage became popular with the prairie palate.
While you can get these dishes almost anywhere in Alberta, you might as well try them in a few special spots dedicated to Ukrainian culture and cuisine. Vegreville is home to the world’s second largest pysanka (a Ukrainian-style Easter egg), and the town’s annual Ukrainian Pysanka Festival has visitors feasting on Mundare sausage (made from lean, smoked ham), “kubbie” burgers (hamburgers made with Mundare meat), nalysnyky (cottage cheese crepes), and poppy seed rolls.
Drive an hour north and you’ll hit Glendon, which boasts the world’s largest perogy. The small Alberta town also takes serious pride in their Glendon Pyrogy Festival — the annual event even commences with a special anthem dedicated to perogies!
Bún, Bánh and Vietnam
Arguably one of the most popular cuisines in today’s culinary climate, Vietnamese food wasn’t on the Alberta map until the 1970s. Like many refugees coming to Canada nowadays, it was war that had Vietnamese immigrants fleeing their home country. Oriental Phoenix — one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in Calgary — was started by the Du-Huynh family, who lived in refugee camps before arriving to Canada by boat.
It was then that Albertans had a taste of food never seen before: rice vermicelli with fish sauce, rice noodle soup (pho), and salad rolls stuffed with shrimp. Unlike Chinese food, which was westernized to appeal to the people of the prairies, just about everyone seems to like Vietnamese food just how it is.
Around 32,500 Vietnamese people live in Alberta (with more than half that number living in Calgary), and this newish segment of the population has had a huge influence on Alberta’s contemporary food scene. Just look at Raw Bar at Hotel Arts, Foreign Concept, Pure Contemporary Vietnamese Kitchen + Bar, and the smattering of quirky, hole-in-the-wall joints serving up traditional recipes passed down from generations of Vietnamese families.
Whether it’s quick-order bánh mì or fancy fusion dishes, it’s no surprise that Alberta is reputed to have some of the best Vietnamese food in North America.