Welcome to our series, Iconic Canadian Food! You may know which classic Canadian dishes you like, but do you know the stories behind them? And how can we define Canadian cuisine if we don’t know its past? Gabby Peyton will be sharing the back stories of a smorgasbord of iconic Canadian dishes to celebrate the country’s 150th birthday this year. This month Gabby explores a dish that features in the history of both First Nations peoples and Scottish fur traders, bannock.
Who doesn’t love fried bread? It would be hard to find a culture around the world that doesn’t have an archetype that's devoured right out of the pan, but bannock is iconically Canadian. Beloved by the First Nations peoples, a staple on every Girl Guide camping trip, and a new fixture at restaurants across the country, bannock has become synonymous with Canadian gastronomic institutions.
Like most bread-y fare, there are dozens (nay, probably hundreds) of recipes for bannock, but it’s very simple to prepare. Bannock is an unleavened bread that’s shaped into oval patties and then fried or baked, typically in a cast-iron pan. But it’s bannock’s ability to accommodate any type of edible accoutrement that makes it so delicious. A base made for dessert or breakfast or dinner makes it work with whatever you’re in the mood for.
A Bread by Any Other Name Would Be Just as Fried
There are so many names for bannock, it’s hard to keep track. The term bannock itself comes from the Gaelic word bannach, which literally translates to “morsel.” In Old English, the word bannuc was used. There are also several Indigenous terms across the country: in Inuit it’s palauga, the Mi’kmak call it luskinikn, and the Ojibwa say pass the ba’wezhiganag when they want more. Across the United States it’s colloquially known as fry bread.
From Scottish Staple to First Nations Icon
There’s no definitive date for when bannock landed in Canada. One thing is for certain: the need for sustenance was paramount to the rise of bannock’s popularity. Its high-fat content and the long shelf life of its components were essential to the survival of the early fur traders.
Historians say Scottish fur traders brought the recipe with them in the 18th or 19th centuries to fuel their expeditions. The Scots initially made bannock with oatmeal or peameal and it was almost scone-like. In fact, back in Scotland the term bannock and scone are used interchangeably. The bread was made on a bannock stone placed before a fiery hearth.
Although First Nations peoples adopted bannock, there's historical evidence indicating that they made a pre-colonial version of it. Known as sapli’l, it was made from ground bulbs of a plant called camas cooked on an open flame, which resulted in a much denser and flatter version than we know today.
The later wheat flour-based version was adopted by the indigenous populations, especially the Métis in Western Canada, and bannock is now an integral part of the culinary culture.
Bannock Goes High-End
For generations, bannock was only served at powwows, but in recent years many restaurants have opened across the country featuring the pillowy buns we know and love. Kokom’s Bannock Shack in Dryden, Ontario, opened to fill an underserved niche: people who wanted to eat bannock 24/7; they’re known for their bannock burger with all the fixings. Winnipeg’s Feast Café Bistro serves up bannock in a variety of ways, from their “Eggs Banny” to bannock pizza. Meanwhile, Kekuli in Merritt, B.C. serves bannock tacos, commonly known as Indian Tacos, as does the PowWow Café in Toronto.
There are also upscale restaurants across the country featuring bannock. In Hurons by Wendake, Quebec, La Traite restaurant features it on their prix fixe menu devoted to First Nations’ flavours. There’s even a restaurant named after bannock in downtown Toronto. Chef Joel Lyons features it all over his menu at his eponymous restaurant with creations like the BLT Bannock.
From its humble beginnings (wherever they may have been) to an upscale menu item, bannock has truly become an iconic Canadian dish.
Want to Try Making Your Own Bannock?
Check out this recipe for Lazyman's Skillet Bannock (pictured above) from Kitchen Frau that you can whip up quickly. She shares two other bannock recipes in the same article so be sure to check those out as well and you can make your own bannock at home!
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Iconic Canadian Foods: The History of Bannock was written by Gabby Peyton. Gabby is a Toronto-based Newfoundlander who blogs at The Food Girl in Town. She’s a culinary adventurer and freelance writer, focusing on travel, food and drink writing with a dash of historical work. You can follow Gabby on social media at Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.