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The Daring Kitchen December Cooks’ Challenge: Pâté Chinois

Looks good, eh?
As some of you know, I have been participating in The Daring Kitchen’s Challenges for about a year now. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, The Daring Kitchen is an online community of cooks and bakers who commit to making one dish — the month’s challenge — and posting their results on their blogs on the same day.

I took a hiatus from the Daring Cooks (there is a corresponding Daring Bakers group) during and following my dissertation. In the interim, I missed out on some pretty great challenges. I especially regretted missing the Brazilian Feijoada and the Paella challenges. In addition, there were many more that passed me by as I just watched and salivated on the sidelines. This month, after a period of decompression and relaxation, I finally felt ready to jump back in and cook something new.

So imagine my reaction when I pulled up December’s challenge PDF for a mysteriously named dish called Pâté chinois and saw that . . .

Pâté chinois is essentially shepherd’s pie with a layer of canned creamed corn in-between the meat and the mashed potatoes.

That’s it.

And its traditional accompaniment is ketchup.

Yes. That’s it.

As Pâté chinois generally calls for ground beef, it is perhaps more accurate to say that it is a variation of cottage pie not shepherd’s pie. However, the more pressing question is why is it called Pâté chinois considering there is not much in it that can be either construed as pâté (ground meat alone does not a pâté make) or Chinese.

According to Wikipedia, the origins of Pâté chinois are rooted in the assumption that the name refers to Chinese cooks who came to Canada to serve the workers who built the North American railroad system in the late 19th century. These cooks were instructed by their railway bosses to prepare and serve something that was not only inexpensive, but that the railway workers would recognize and therefore eat As wood ear fungus and black chicken soup was probably out of the question, the Chinese cooks put together a version of cottage pie using canned creamed corn in place of the more expensive gravy.

Of course, this is all anecdotal. Alternatively, the name Pâté chinois might also refer to a variation of hachis Parmentier, which is basically cottage pie too. This is a dish that French-speaking families in Maine would refer to as Pâté chinois in reference to the towns where they ate it: China and South China, Maine.

I also read somewhere that Pâté chinois could also be an allusion to the dish’s preparation. When I read about the possible connection to Chinese immigrants, this was actually my first thought. Much like how chop suey is inauthentically Chinese and refers instead to the chopped items in the dish, I imagined that Pâté chinois got its name from the chopped meat and corn kernels that could be commonly found in Chinese stir-fry.

Regardless of when, where, and how Pâte chinois came to be, it is one of those quintessential Québecois comfort foods that everyone is familiar with, yet it is unknown to outsiders as it is hardly ever served outside of the home.

If you understand French (or even if you don’t), this is an truly awesome Youtube clip about Pâté chinois in Québec. It is narrated by a man with the dang coolest Québecois accent ever.

Given that I have made cottage pie numerous times (and even blogged about it here), I thought this challenge would be a easy one.

Wrong! Can you believe it, dear Readers? My first attempt at Pâté chinois was a dismal failure!

First of all, my fancy schmancy neighborhood supermarket does not carry canned creamed corn. Oh the class warfare! Consequently, I was forced to improvise with frozen corn and fresh heavy cream. Although my homemade version of creamed corn looked and tasted superior, it completely separated while cooking. To my horror, my cottage pie had morphed into a cream of potato soup with little bits of hamburger floating in it.

In my defense, it tasted amazing, but anything that is more than 50% heavy cream is almost always guaranteed to taste amazing.

Back to the drawing board! Still no creamed corn in a can. This time, instead of blending the corn with heavy cream, I put some corn kernels with a little bit of milk in the food processor. Once puréed, I folded in more corn kernels for better texture. The result was a mass of corn about the same consistency of my mashed potatoes.

The final result yielded three distinct and yummy layers. Pâté chinois is still a fairly bland dish, which explains the predominant use of ketchup to kick it up a notch. However, since I find ketchup generally too sweet for my tastes, I substituted a healthy squeeze of Sriracha. Can’t go wrong with that 🙂

Many thanks to this month’s host, Andy of Today’s the Day and Today’s the Day I Cook!, for the challenge. I had a so much fun learning about Canadian comfort food. Your challenge was also a great reminder that it doesn’t matter how many times you make something, there is always something more to learn!

Blog-checking lines:

Our Daring Cooks’ December 2012 Hostess is Andy of Today’s the Day and Today’s the Day I Cook! Andy is sharing with us a traditional French Canadian classic the Paté Chinois, also known as Shepherd’s pie for many of us, and if one dish says comfort food.. this one is it!

Ingredients:

4 Yukon Gold potatoes (5 if they are small), peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons of butter

Milk

Salt and pepper

1 pound of frozen corn kernels, thawed and divided in half

Milk or heavy cream

One medium onion, finely chopped

1 pound of lean ground beef

1 teaspoon of paprika

1 pinch of cayenne pepper

Worcestershire sauce

1 cup of shredded Gruyère or Comté cheese

Sriracha or ketchup

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°.

2. Put the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover them with water. Generously add salt. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until they are tender. You will know that they are ready to mash when you can crush a potato piece easily against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon. Drain the potatoes. In the same pan, mash them with the butter. Add the milk a 1/4 cup at a time until you get the right consistency. You don’t want the potatoes to be dry, but you don’t want them to be soupy either. Aim for a texture that is loose enough to spoon out, but not so loose that the potatoes add a lot of excess water to your dish. Adjust the seasoning.

3. While the potatoes are cooking, purée half of the corn kernels in a food processor with about a quarter cup of milk. Add more milk if the mixture looks too dry, but not so much that you end up with a corn slurry. The texture of the puréed corn should match that of the mashed potatoes. Turn the puréed corn out into a large bowl and fold in the remaining whole kernels. Adjust the seasoning.

4. Heat some olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions until they are translucent and begin to brown. Add the ground beef to the pan, breaking up bigger chunks of ground beef with your wooden spoon as it cooks. Continue to cook the beef until there is no longer any visible pink. Sprinkle it with the paprika, cayenne pepper, Worcestershire sauce to taste. Cook everything until the sauce has thickened, about another two to three minutes.

5. In an oven-proof dish, spread the ground beef out in an even layer on the bottom. Carefully spread the corn mixture on top of the beef. Gently spoon the potatoes on top of the corn. Sprinkle the shredded cheese evenly over the top and bake until bubbly, about 20-30 minutes.

6. Let it rest for about 20 minutes before serving with Sriracha or ketchup.

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42 Comments

  1. J’adore l’accent québecois 🙂
    Very interesting to learn what Pâté chinois is! I would never have guessed!

  2. That’s interesting… I knew cottage/shepherd’s pie was called Pate Chinois in Quebec, but I’d never heard of the ‘China, Maine’ connection. I lived in New Brunswick many years, but I’m not sure if they used the name ‘Pate Chinois’ in northern NB.

    BTW … I like the Acadien accent much better than Quebecois 🙂

    • I had never heard of pâté chinois before. I’m not sure what I was expecting . . . maybe pâté made of twenty different animals and soy sauce or something . . .

      Technically, any pâté I make would be chinois . . . 😉

      But bad jokes aside, I’m always a little skeptical of Wikipedia. This article refers to a China Lake, Maine:

      http://www.pressherald.com/archive/pate-chinois-isnt-from-china-but-the-tradition-of-it-is-fine_2010-02-02.html

      And then this one that cites a linguistics student named Lionel Guimont and a language historian named Claude Poirier for connecting China and South China, Maine to the dish.

      http://www.thefullwiki.org/Chinese_pie

      And then I read somewhere that Pâté chinois might also refer to the dish’s preparation. Much like how chop suey is inauthentically Chinese and refers instead to the chopped items in the dish. I should add that to the post . . .

      • Interesting articles… I wonder if the truth has nothing to do with China, Chinese… or anything related, but is rather just a totally made up name like ‘Chinese Checkers’, in the sense that it the ‘Chinese’ just meant something unusual or slightly exotic?

        Interestingly… ‘Chop Suey’ may have its origins in an actual southern Chinese dish involving offal. I am still investigating 🙂

        • I read that somewhere too! Funny how things come around like that.

          Pâté chinois just may be a totally made up name. It’s hard for me to think that anyone would consider it unusual or exotic though … Maybe canned corn was really weird back then!

  3. Very interesting! Great post! I grew up eating this dish. I’ve never had it with cheese but it sounds pretty darn tasty and I love the addition of ketchup. I’ll have to give that a whirl. The key to this dish is the Yukon potatoes, I think. Find the best, firmest, and freshest Yukons you can. Also, don’t skimp out on the lean ground beef. Fatty ground beef will lead to greasy soupy yuckiness.

    I can’t believe you don’t have easy access to canned cream corn. Good grief! I think half of the population would starve up here if their supply of canned cream corn was cut off. It’s like the #4 staple food after beer, chips, and donuts.

    Glad to see you blogging about the Daring Kitchen again! 🙂 Happy holidays!

    • Yes, I added the cheese 🙂 Because cheese is awesome 🙂

      So true about the ground beef. You can’t really drain it, can you? In any case, I bet your version is amazing and your mashed potatoes are perfect!

      And yes. No canned cream corn! I couldn’t believe it either! But do you know what is even more ridiculous? When I asked the person at Whole Foods where the creamed corn was, he replied, “What’s that?”

      Yep. I am surrounded by gentrification! Ps. Imagine a Pâté chinois composed of a crumbled donut base, creamed corn in the middle, and topped with potato chips. Beer on the side 😉

  4. brie

    Wow! this sounds like something I could ACTUALLY make myself 🙂 !! (my supermarket upstate does indeed carry creamed corn…took me years of begging the produce manager to get some organic and exotic fruits into the produce section-LOL! growing up in the city spoiled me with its vast array of exotic foods and everything available 24/7!)

    Will have to try it out once the bustle of the holidays is over…thanks! and I am so happy to have “stumbled” upon your blog so that now I can broaden my culinary horizons :)!!!

    • Good for you! Yes, I imagine that it is hard to be surrounded by everything you could possible want and then not having the same availability! I’m sure that there were many other grocery market patrons who were thankful for your efforts!

      I’m really glad you stumbled upon my blog too 🙂 Really, food, wine, and perfume are not so dissimilar . . .

      Okay, maybe you can’t wear your food like you can perfume 🙂

      Thank you so much for the support!

  5. A dish I have never had but have heard of. Our summer cottage in Maine is not far from China…Maine that is. I like your sriracha addition to the dish.

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes, I took a bite and thought it needed some fish sauce-tinged spice 🙂

      That’s funny about your summer cottage being close to China, Maine. Strange how small and big the world is at the same time.

      I was actually unfamiliar with what Acadian French sounded like until I was encouraged by John’s — aka Sybaritica — comment. Very different! Do you hear it up there?

  6. Never heard of it, but I am sure I would eat it. I never really considered creamed corn to be a Chinese ingredient, but I probably ate more creamed corn as a kid thn my non-Chinese friends.

    • Now that you mention it, I had to eat a lot of creamed corn as a kid too! My mom would just dump a can on top of rice and hand it to me. Probably why I don’t touch the stuff today.

      • I don’t use creamed corn because I’m scared The Koala will think it looks like um…vomit. But My parents used to cook it with chopped chicken and stir in egg whites and serve it with rice. I wonder if it’s a dish or a strange family concoction?

        • It does kind of look like vomit 😦

          The more and more I think about it, I guess my mom really did use creamed corn a lot growing up. It went into soup. I think my parents made that same dish that you described too.

          When I see my mom over Christmas, I’m going to ask her what’s up with the creamed canned corn business!

  7. Reading some of these comments, it struck me that maybe creamed corn *is* exotic in some parts…. BTW, you may remember from the post I did on cottage pie, I put ketchup *and* HP sauce on mine 🙂

    • I remember that! Like a Anglophone Pâté chinois!

      Yes, creamed corn is a strange thing. I don’t think I ever saw it in Europe, but then again, I wasn’t looking. You have easy access to it, no?

      • Oh yes …. It’s really common all across Canada as far as I know. It is actually useful for making a corn chowder if you don’t want to go to the bother of processing fresh corn from the cob… Surprisingly, I have also seen it used in some Chinese recipes for thick soups.

        • All these comments are making me remember all the things I ate as a child and had forgotten. As a matter of fact, my mother did make egg drop soup with canned creamed corn. So funny, I never thought of it as particularly Asian before.

  8. So colorful~ love that sriracha on top – and what a funny story 🙂 It’s always the simple things that trip me up anymore, so I can relate 😉 Good luck at the cookie take down this weekend!

    • Thanks, Hannah!

      Yes, imagine how dismayed I was to have screwed up something so easy! But it’s true that the simple things are the hardest the get right. Don’t even get me started on eggs. It’s super easy to cook eggs, but really technically demanding to cook eggs correctly!

      Thanks for the Takedown wishes! I lost 😦 But I had a great time and learned so much about baking. More to come — including the recipe for my weird cookies!

  9. mjskit

    What a great looking Pâté Chinois! Loved the history of it and I’ve enjoyed seeing all of the different variations. I didn’t serve mine with ketchup but, like you I added some spice by adding red chile sauce to the meat mixture. Great post!

  10. Learned something new today! How interesting. Never heard of Pâté Chinois before. And what a hoot that Holy Foods doesn’t carry creamed corn. I’ll have to look to see if our Southern outpost has it.

  11. I’d never heard of pate chinois but love the story behind it — thanks for doing the research and sharing!

  12. i come from a Quebecois French/Maine family and I make this dish quite often for my family. I always knew it as Pate Chinois or Chinese pie, up until i worked for the New England supermarket, Shaw’s, where they call it “Shepherd’s Pie”. One of my favorites growing up, and still continues to be one of my favorite foods. I tend to spice it up, though, using “Italian seasoning” and garlic salt (or garlic powder) when i cook the hamburg. When in a rush, i sometimes use the garlic or cheese instant potatoes (both packets), and combine with 1 part creamed corn and one part whole kernel corn (to help with consistency, mix together before layering). Once you’ve layered the meat/corn/potato mixture, try sprinkling mozzarella cheese or even bacon bits on top before baking!

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