Le paté chinois, a scene in the TV show La Petite Vie

Paté chinois

Ground beef, corn, potatoes” is a funny little saying about a favourite local dish that the matriarch in the popular TV show La Petite Vie, which was followed by millions of Québecers in the 1990s, incessantly repeats to poor Thérèse, who just can’t get the simple dish right. Pâté chinois, often called shepherd’s pie in English, is neither a pie nor exclusive to Québec, but, in 2007, it was still voted Québec’s national dish by readers of Le Devoir newspaper and a panel of political and food experts.

Québecers call it pâté chinois, Anglo-Saxons call it shepherd’s pie or cottage pie and the French call it hachis parmentier, but the dish’s origins remain unknown. Does the name refer to the food served to Chinese railway workers in the 19th century? To a speciality served to Québecers working in the town of South China, Maine? To the rice that was added to certain recipes in the early 20th century? Or to the arrival of ground beef and canned corn in supermarkets in the early 20th century, making the ingredients accessible and inexpensive? No one really knows!

One thing is certain: pâté chinois is a cinch to prepare! A layer of cooked ground beef covered with canned corn or canned creamed corn and topped with mashed potatoes. The dish is popular across the province and has appeared in countless works, including novels, plays and anthropological essays.

The true sign of how important pâté chinois is to Québec’s food heritage is the fact that there are so many different home recipes for it: vegetarians use legumes instead of beef, others add carrots or other vegetables and some add Mexican spices to the meat. There have also been fancier, more gastronomic versions of pâté chinois made with guinea fowl, duck and even venison. Whether it is a weekday comfort food or a dish served at a fine restaurant, pâté chinois expresses the history, family togetherness and collective currents of Québec cuisine.

 

Photo: Michel Tremblay, photographer - with broadcasting authorization by Avanti Ciné Vidéo.