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Iconic Canadian Foods: The History of Bannock

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.

Iconic Canadian Food: The History of Bannock

Image Courtesy of Margaret at Kitchen Frau. Click the link for her easy skillet bannock recipe.

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.

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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.

 

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5 Responses to Iconic Canadian Foods: The History of Bannock

  1. A Canadian Foodie April 14, 2017 at 12:00 pm #

    Excellent series!!!
    Been my work for the past 10 years (as many know) – not just the iconic foods, but the heritage recipes.
    Sure hope that Onion Cakes are included as an Edmonton Iconic food (as its hard to not go regional with iconic Canadian foods) – haha – but not kidding! ….as there are few other places on the planet outside of China that you will find onion cakes on every Asian Menu and at every outdoor event as a favourite local street food! Making them with Ming on Monday as part of my heritage recipe/ canadian food project – cooking in the kitchen with …
    Just made Pemmican with Chef Chartrand a couple of weeks ago. Only in Canada!!
    Look forward to the next one!
    :)
    V

    • Melissa (FBC Admin) April 17, 2017 at 8:11 pm #

      Unfortunately no, they’re not. It was really really hard to whittle it down to only 10 different foods but Gabby has a great list that she’s put together and is working on and there’s going to be some really interesting posts all year long!

  2. Lyndsay Sung April 15, 2017 at 5:08 pm #

    Always wondered how to make bannock – looks deliciously simple but the cast iron pan seems to be the crucial element!

    This is a post by my friend on bannock: it’s a beautiful post, there’s no recipe but I loved the post.

    https://teaandbannock.com/2016/08/17/making-bannock/

    (the website is awesome, too!)

    • Melissa (FBC Admin) April 17, 2017 at 8:06 pm #

      Thanks for sharing the link Lyndsay! And yes, it’s so simple to make – and yet you can dress it up with all kinds of toppings and make it while camping!

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