(Accents used in a blog’s title line, like in Pâté Chinois, causes garbled print images, but, I tried to include most of the correct accents in this narrative.)
AUGUSTA, Me– Some thoughtful guests who attended the Franco-American forum at the University of Maine Augusta on February 11, were kind enough to bring a dish of Pâté Chinois, for the attendees to enjoy during lunch.
We enjoyed the recipe and the subsequent conversation about the origin of the name
Pâté Chinois. A literal translation means “Chinese pie”, although there’s little that is Chinese about the ingredients. In fact, the traditional recipe is a variation of the English, “Shepherd’s Pie”. In this recipe, the ingredients call for creating a casserole. So, it’s not a pie, in the traditional sense. Rather, the ingredients consist of layered meat mixed with seasons like onions, salt, and pepper and topped with a covering of corn ending with a crust made from mashed potatoes.
Yet, in my experience, after Tourtiere (Meat or Pork Pie), there is no other subject in the French Canadian and Franco-American cuisines to generate more conversation than the origin of the name Pâté Chinois and the ingredients about what goes into the recipe.
In fact, an entire publication was written about this very subject, titled ” LE MYSTÈRE INSONDABLE DU PÂTÉ CHINOIS“, by Canadian Professor Jean-Pierre Le Masson. He recognizes the recipe with title of Le Plat National du Quebec! In other words, Quebec’s national dish.
A reader sent me a copy of this treasured publication many years ago. It’s a joy to read because of the creative French writing. After all, how many ways can Pâté Chinois be described? Beaucoup façons et recettes.
Although several hypotheses exist about how the recipe came to be named ” Pâté Chinois” or translated to “Chinese Pie”, one popular theory originated in the Maine Town of China, near the state’s capital in Augusta.
Apparently, the name came from the Quebec laborers who were temporarily living near Augusta, during the early 1800’s, at the time when they were among the builders of Maine’s capitol building. Those who were residing in boarding homes in nearby China, were often served variations of Shepherd’s Pie. As is often customary with the people of Quebec (also among other ethnic groups) the men named the Shepherd’s Pie after the place where they were at, when they ate the pie. Therefore, “Chinese Pie”.
Nevertheless, the book’s author gives equal time to the detractors of this theory because, as is explained in the photograph from the book, the Quebec workers would have named it “China Pie” and not “Chinese Pie”. And so, the mystery continues! Regardless of why the recipe is a Shepherd’s Pie in the English cuisine but Pate Chinois in French-Canadian “chez nous”, the fact of the matter is, the recipe is whatever the cook puts into the layered ingredients. Included in Le Masson’s reporting are several interesting recipes. A few include using “canard” meat rather than beef. In recognition of the diversity of ingredients in this particular recipe’s culinary history, I decided to create my own personal recipe “chez nous”, using our Sunday’s leftover pot roast.
Here are the essential ingredients to include in Pâté Chinois:
1. Saute a meat base– in the past, I’ve used mixtures of ground beef, pork, shredded turkey and leftover pot roast. The base is cooked with 11/2 TBSLP butter, adding chopped onion and garlic. This saute is cooked and stirred until the onions are translucent and the meat is browned. Season to taste with salt and pepper (or experiment with other seasonings).
2. Layer the meat with corn. I’ve used frozen corn but, honestly, canned corn works fine. Sometimes, I combine a can of whole kernel corn with a can of cream style corn.
3. Spread a thick layer of mashed potatoes over the top. My recipe for the leftover “chez nous” (“like home”) pot roast, a personal Pâté Chinois creation, included adding some of the gravy, reserved from the roast,, to spread over the meat layer. When the Pâté Chinois is layered and topped with the mashed potatoes, the assembled pie (casserole) is baked in a 350 degree F oven, for one hour, or until the ingredients are bubbling hot and the mashed potato layer has a lightly browned crust.
Cook’s note: Regardless of how many pretty photographs are posted showing how Pâté Chinois is cut into pretty slices, like the servings were somehow baked in individual molds, the fact is, the “pie” is really a casserole. Therefore, it looks beautiful when it is fresh out of the oven, but the servings, at least in my experience, never “slice”. We enjoy eating our helpings like they are petite casseroles.