There’s a giddiness to Nova Scotia. The locals are extreme extroverts. At times, you can barely get into a restaurant without being invited to join a table of new friends, or leave one without jotting down your email to “stay in touch.” And the people here sing with abandon. A lot.
There’s a similar exuberance to the food culture. First Nations people, who have called this land home for centuries, still cherish their traditional dishes and recipes. Immigrants from places like France and Greece adapted old favorites from their home countries to suit the palates and produce in Nova Scotia. And new chefs have an abundance of uncommon or Maritimes-specific ingredients to get creative with.
If you’re a foodie and a first-timer to Nova Scotia, you’re in for a treat. Actually, you’re in for many treats that you won’t find anywhere else on earth—like evaporated milk poured over Middle Eastern–spiced beef, cheese on seafood, and seaweed that tastes like bacon. Here are six can’t-miss dishes.
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Season: Year round
The donair was declared the official food of Halifax in 2015. You’ll find this pita, filled with spicy rotisserie beef, chopped tomatoes, onions, and shredded lettuce, in pizza shops and specialty restaurants all over the city. It’s a variation on the traditional döner kebabs served in Turkey and Greece, with one very crucial difference.
“What singles us out in the Maritimes is our sauce,” says Leo Salloum, who, alongside his father, Abraham, owns Halifax’s venerable Tony’s Pizza. The little, no-frills restaurant has been serving donair (and pizza) for more than 40 years. “All donair sauce is made with a base of Carnation-brand evaporated condensed milk,” Salloum says. “We like our sauce sweet and add garlic, vinegar, more sugar, and a secret ingredient.”
Try it: Tony’s has two locations in Halifax, and the lines can get quite intense. “Donair is a drinking food. On our busiest night, after the Rolling Stones concert, we sold more than 2,500,” he says. Also be sure to stop by one of the pizza shops on Pizza Corner; the intersection is a famous donair destination.
Season: Year round
They’re not granola bars. They’re not scones or biscuits or cakes. They’re beloved snacks made from a recipe that’s highly open to interpretation, so long as you use oats as the base. Brought over by European settlers in the 1700s, oatcakes were traditionally cooked on a griddle, but now can also be baked. You might find some darkened with chocolate, others hit with a dash of salt. In Halifax, they are robust and chewy. To the north, in Cape Breton, they come thin and crunchy and are served with jam. When you see a roadside shack with a sign that reads “Bakery” or “Coffee Hut,” pull over—wherever you are on the island, oatcakes are excellent with a warm beverage and a beautiful view.
The Acadians are descendants of French settlers who arrived in the Maritime provinces in the 17th century. Rappie pie is a traditional Acadian dish. It’s made with very finely grated potatoes that are compressed in a cheesecloth to remove all the moisture. Then hot stock—chicken, beef, or seafood—is added, along with meat, onions, and summer savory spice. The casserole is baked until the top is golden brown, producing a perfect belly-warming meal on cold, blustery nights.
Try it: While the recipe for rappie pie is an important piece of southwestern Nova Scotia’s culinary heritage, the dish can be hard to find. It’s mainly served in Yarmouth and along the Acadian Shores, and only in winter. You can buy it frozen in some grocery stores or try your hand at making it yourself, but be sure to keep your eye out for it as a special in restaurants during this season.
The Bay of Fundy has the world’s highest tides. The water levels change by more than 50 feet twice a day. Dramatic, red cliffs are visible at low tide, and adventure-seekers flock to race the rapids at high tide. It’s also the best place to find dulse, a dried, red seaweed that’s high in vitamins. While some say it tastes like bacon, this savory, salty alga is an acquired taste. Most locals buy bags of the snack at grocers around the Bay of Fundy region. You might also find it sprinkled on sandwiches or served as tea in restaurants in summer.
Try it: Book a full dulse tasting and harvest experience with the local tour operator Fundy Adventures.
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Season: December to May
Classic poutine—heaping piles of warm french-fried potatoes topped with a thick layer of beef gravy and dollops of creamy cheese curds—is a point of pride for Canadians. Just about every taproom serves the dish, but chefs on Nova Scotia’s South Shore make it their own by adding lobster. The meat gravy is replaced with a thickened cream sauce brightened with a dash of wine, and the whole thing is finished with a sprinkling of herbs, the lobster, and those famous curds.
Try it: The sun-soaked picnic tables at the South Shore Fish Shack in Lunenburg offer views of the fishing boats in Lunenburg Harbor. Pair your lobster poutine with a dry, crisp rosé to cut through through all the fat and sauce.
Delicious in muffins, chutneys, smoothies, and ice creams, these oblong, dark-blue berries grow in the north and taste like a tart hybrid of a blueberry and a raspberry. They are packed with vitamin C and potassium, making them a favorite of health-minded folks, and their bright flavor is great in cocktails.
Try it: Mateus Bistro in Mahone Bay swaps lime for haskap juice in its margarita.
Want more information on Nova Scotia’s traditional foods? Pick up a copy of Nova Scotia Cookery, Then & Now: Modern Interpretations of Historic Recipes. Published in late 2017 by Valerie Mansour in conjunction with the Nova Scotian Archives, it’s a collection of 83 recipes sourced from old newspapers, hand-written notes, and out-of-print cookbooks, revived and reimagined by current Nova Scotian chefs.