It was a brisk night in Old Quebec. The restaurant was buzzing with live music, mixed with the cheers and laughter of the other patrons. We chose to sit outside on the back patio for a bit of quiet, and there, I was lost in thought as I took in mouthfuls of mashed potatoes, topped with a layer of creamed corn, and then another layer of shredded beef. I was trying the classic French Canadian dish - and their take on shepherd's pie - pâté chinois. The literal translation of its name is Chinese pie.
I always do my research on good eats to try when I travel (because I love to eat) and I did the same when I found out that I would be spending a few days in Quebec City. Pâté chinois piqued my interest as I researched. Why would a classic French Canadian dish be named Chinese pie?
While the origins of pâté chinois have not been confirmed, it is generally believed that this dish got its name from the Chinese labourers that came to Canada in the 1880s to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway, the railway line that connected eastern and western Canada. In total, about 15,000 Chinese men were recruited as they made for cheap labour. It is said that the Chinese labourers were taught how to make this variant of shepherd's pie by the British, with tinned creamed corn being used in place of gravy and other vegetables like carrots and peas, as it was an easy and cheap substitute. After their work on the railroad ended, it is said that French Canadian workers took this recipe back home with them, calling it pâté chinois as it was the Chinese workers who made this dish. Over time, it became a classic.
One of those 15,000 Chinese labourers was my boyfriend's great, great grandfather. Coming from a poor part of China, he had signed up to go to Canada to work on the railroad to earn money for his family. What we know was that he had actually decided that he had made enough money and was about to return to China to reunite with his wife and children, when a friend asked him to stay a little longer. His friend wanted to stay to earn more money, and asked my boyfriend's great, great grandfather to do the same so that they could make the long trip home together. He agreed but unfortunately, he never made it back home. He ended up passing away while working on the railway, which sadly wasn't uncommon as the Chinese labourers were often tasked with the more dangerous work.
I have no way of knowing if he ever had pâté chinois while he was working here in Canada, and even if he did, the version I ate of it with its well-seasoned meat and side of homemade fruit ketchup, is probably very different from any Chinese pie he would have eaten. The Chinese railway workers were known to have lived in very poor conditions after all. But as I sat outside that restaurant in Old Quebec savouring the comforting, creamy mashed potatoes and sweet creamed corn that complemented the flavours of the beef, I couldn't help but think of him and the what ifs, had he left Canada as he had initially planned and made it home to his family.
I tried pâté chinois at La Buche, located at 49 Rue Saint Louis, in Old Quebec, Quebec City.
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