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Pâté chinois
Pâté chinois.jpg
A pâté chinois; half nibblets, half cream corn
Type Savoury pie
Casserole
Place of origin Quebec, Canada
Main ingredients Ground beef, onions, maize or creamed corn, mashed potatoes, vinegar

Pâté chinois ("Chinese Pie" in French) is a French Canadian dish similar to the English shepherd's pie or French hachis Parmentier. It is a traditional recipe in both Québécois cuisine and Acadian cuisine.

Ingredients

The dish is made with layered ground beef (sometimes mixed with sautéed diced onions) on the bottom layer, canned corn (either whole-kernel, creamed, or a mix) for the middle layer, and mashed potatoes on top. Seasonings may be added to the top. Variations may include reversing the layering of ingredients with potatoes at the bottom, then meat, topped with cream corn; adding diced bell peppers to the ground beef, and serving the dish with pickled eggs or beets. Once served, ketchup may be added.

Origins

There are no confirmed appearances of pâté chinois before the 1930s. This has led many to be believe it was created in the 1930s, but its origins are widely debated and there multiple hypotheses.

All current theories is rejected by Jean-Pierre Lemasson, author of the book Le mystère insondable du pâté chinois. According to his research, Chinese workers simply ate rice and soybeans during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (ruling out the Railway Hypothesis). In addition, he notes that pâté chinois had only appeared on the tables of Quebecois families in the 1930s, which makes it difficult to believe that it appeared during the industrial revolution in Maine (ruling out the South China Hypothesis). According to this author, the origin of pâté chinois remains a mystery.

Railway Hypothesis

This hypothesis suggests that pâté chinois came into existence at the end of the 19th century during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. At the time, railway workers, mostly of Asian origin, were said to be fed on the job with only ground beef, potatoes and corn as these ingredients were readily available and inexpensive at the time. While working on the railway, these workers created, by force of circumstance, a unique blend, named pâté chinois in their honour. French Canadian railway workers would have adopted this new dish shortly thereafter.

South China Hypothesis

Another hypothesis suggests that this dish originated from the city of South China in Maine. Many French Canadians had emigrated there to find work during the industrial revolution. The “China pie”, a local specialty, would have become popular among the French Canadians and been translated into pâté chinois.

Pemmican Hypothesis

Some believe that pâté chinois may have evolved from pemmican.

“Europe took a long time to develop the pie hash. He had to consider both the potato and the ground beef. The discovery of America would open even more avenues and push the boundaries of culinary geography further. Because, while Europe concocted its popular [pie hash] recipe, here in America, we married "pemmican" (corn and meat) with minced meat from the old countries. This gives the modern pâté chinois. As such, in terms of traditional stoves, pâté chinois should be classified, approved, protected by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. "

- B. Arcand and S. Bouchard, Du pâté chinois, p. 15.

La Salle's Failed Expedition Hypothesis

In his Genesis of Quebec cuisine, published by Editions Fides, Jean-Marie Francœur goes further. He argues that the famous name "pâté chinois", the origin of which remains obscure despite the popularity of the dish, could be linked to a missed expedition.

In 1669, René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle settled in New France at the foot of the fiery rapids of the Sault Saint-Louis in Ville-Marie (now called Montreal). La Salle's dream, even his obsession, was to find the passage west to the "Vermeille Sea" -what he called the Pacific Ocean- to reach China. Two Native Americans, it seems, had told him about this passage, and he liked to remind anyone who wanted to hear it. He didn't want to leave to any other "the honor of finding the way to the South Sea and by extension China". Selling his land in Ville-Marie, he set out at the head of a flotilla of 14 men and a few canoes. Contrary to what he had suggested, he did not speak the language of the Iroquois nor that of the Algonquins. He was unable to use a compass and had no knowledge of survival in the forest. The crew members had a difficult time reaching Lake Ontario, to say the least. Once there, one of the crew members informed La Salle about a nearby Amerindian nation, the Potawatomi, telling him they had not been evangelized yet. Feeling burned out, La Salle pretended to feel sick and quickly returned to Ville-Marie. There, he claimed to everyone that he explored Ohio and discovered the Mississippi.

At Coste Saint-Sulpice (now called Lachine), people witnessed the return of this crew, equipped to be gone for months, return barely a few weeks after they left. Many wondered if "China" was actually closer to Ville-Marie than they had previously thought. This would make "China" very close to Coste Saint-Sulpice. It was thought that perhaps people got into the habit of referring to Coste Saint-Sulpice as "China", hence resulting in its change of name from Coste Saint-Sulpice to Lachine. Moreover, La Salle's men had eaten corn during their entire expedition, and, according to Francœur, the iconic name "pâté chinois" may have been an invention of Francois Dollier de Casson, who wanted to make fun of La Salle's failed expedition. Members of the expedition were also ironically nicknamed the "Chinese" as they brought with them "chinese" costumes in case they met oriental dignitaries.

Échine Hypothesis

According to Jean-Marie Francœur, the pâté chinois has for another suggested origin the pâté d'échine de porc, a pâté made of corn, pork loin and turnip. This dish appeared towards the beginnings of New France. At the time, corn and pork loin were common, with potatoes not being available. As such, turnips were taking their place. The name is hypothesised to have changed from échine to Chine and then finally to pâté chinois, with the composition of the pâté also changing with time to switch to potatoes and to use other types of meat.

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