De-Railing Québec’s Pâté Chinois
Ask my mother. I was not a fan.
But hey, it’s iconic. In Québec, poutine aside, it’s hard to find a dish more famous or celebrated than pâté chinois. So… here’s a historical ode to a dish I grudgingly accept as part of my culinary heritage.
Now there’s this problem with a lot of dishes that are closely identified with Québec society. The origins of these dishes’ recipes and names are hotly disputed. Was tourtière originally meant to pass off bird meat (and I don’t mean chicken)? Was poutine derived from pudding? What about nuns’ farts and Christ’s ears? Ask two or three friends for their thoughts and you’ll get twice as many theories.
It was therefore a pleasure to see, a few days ago, an investigative piece by reporter Amanda Béland, who delved into the mysterious origins of Chinese pie. Béland, a Franco-American, wanted to set the record straight. We love the attention that poutine has gotten in the U.S., thanks in part to a little annual tradition we call PoutineFest; now it was time for pâté chinois to shine.
Béland reminds us that there’s nothing particularly Chinese about the dish. She quickly debunks the “railway thesis”: the notion that French Canadians (specifically) borrowed the dish from Chinese railway workers in Western Canada in the late nineteenth century. Nor does she seem persuaded that pâté chinois spread from the kitchens of wealthy Québec residents who had hired East Asian domestic servants.
We should take a step back here and at least tell the uninitiated what pâté chinois is. Like poutine, the classic version has no more than three ingredients: ground beef, corn, and mashed potatoes, which are layered in that order. Some bold souls add a few slices of cheese; the adventurous will sprinkle – wait for it – pepper or paprika. But few cooks will stray from the core elements. Like other comfort foods, simplicity is part of the dish’s charm.
Now, I’m no culinary historian, but North Americans of European descent were already well-acquainted with meat and potatoes and corn and needed no reintroduction, at the end of the nineteenth century. And surely this was not a dish to be prepared in the kitchens of those who could afford whatever they pleased. This was a poor person’s food—and, ingredients obliging, much more likely to be brought over by European immigrants.
Editor’s note: Fearing he might make lifelong enemies, the author has wisely chosen to excise any connection between pâté chinois and shepherd’s pie.
Okay, a few other possibilities. One lies in the common expression “c’est du Chinois,” the French version of “it’s Greek to me.” The phrase refers to something unintelligible—a mess or a jumble. Now, that might work for the hot mess that is poutine. But pâté chinois is anything but that. It’s steak, blé d’inde, patates – in that order if you please.
Others have suggested that the dish’s origins lie in the expatriated French-Canadian communities of New England. In 1881, taking his cue from disgruntled Irish workers, a Massachusetts public servant identified French Canadians as the “Chinese of the Eastern States.” That did not go over well to put it mildly. Migrant French Canadians objected to the string of invective that came with the label—and objected to this identification with a non-white minority.
Might they not have reappropriated the term as a form of ethnic affirmation (and, of course, as a giant middle finger to les Yankees)? They might. But why apply the term to this specific dish? Why did it become much more prevalent in Québec, where the controversy registered only briefly? Was pâté chinois even around back then?
We don’t have easy answers or evidence that might cement the connection. In lieu of that, I’ll add a few ingredients of my own to the conversation.
Happily, we have a great tool in the newspaper database of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, which helps us track certain expressions across time.
According to BAnQ search results, though “pâté chinois” appeared at least as early as 1917, use of the term spiked in the 1930s and 1940s. It truly became a common dish in the province during the Great Depression and the Second World War, when people had to save everything they had and ration. Corn and potatoes were about the cheapest things you could get. What’s more, as Béland’s report suggests, pâté chinois was (and is) the perfect vehicle for leftovers. All of this accords with the timeline Laurent Turcot offers on L’Histoire nous le dira. Thus far, the economic explanation is far more compelling than the ethnic one.
Published recipes help us track the evolution of the dish – and get us much closer to an answer. Here is a recipe published in Le Samedi in 1943 – it’s a little different from what we know today.
More than three ingredients? Despite their limited means, these folks knew how to live.
Okay, now let’s turn the clocks back even earlier. The following piece is from the same publication, but dates from 1931. Here, pâté chinois is a richer mix with crushed crackers instead of flour. But notice that in this iteration, the dish isn’t covered with potatoes.
A layer of rice, a layer of meat, and another layer of rice.
Riz, steak, riz: it’s not as catchy, but in that simple version we may have the explanation for the dish’s name.
Rice was not a part of the traditional French-Canadian diet; it was still associated with East Asian culinary cultures. From an early twentieth-century perspective, adding rice may well have made a dish “Chinese.” The name may have stuck even as the pâté evolved and its recipe was slowly standardized, accommodating cheap, accessible, and familiar foodstuffs like corn and potatoes.
That doesn’t preclude economic necessity or perhaps the influence of Chinese eateries in Montreal. In fact, further research would be welcome to pierce through the fog of history and settle the argument definitively.
But hey, there’s no harm in a dish also serving as a conversation piece. That too might be part of its charm.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Guest contributor and picky eater Patrick Lacroix is a historian and the author of the Query the Past blog.
For another culinary take on a traditional Québec dish, check out Moderne Francos’ post on poutine.