February 26, 2010

Pate Chinois isn't from China, but the tradition of it is fine

— Pate Chinois is a food subject dear to the heart of Franco-Americans. Translated to English, the recipe's name means Chinese Pie. Yet, there is nothing Chinese about Pate Chinois. Rather, the recipe's unusual Franco-American name may have a connection to China Lake, Maine.

Pate Chinois is the Franco-American version of the comfort food traditionally known as Shepherd's Pie. It's a hearty dish tasty enough for even the fussiest eaters. Key ingredients include a potato base layered with chopped or ground meat, diced onions, seasonings and corn. This medley is baked in the oven until heated. Although it has a reputation for being high in calories, there are low-fat and vegetarian recipe variations. It's one of the first dishes to be scraped clean at a pot luck dinner.

Brian Lacompte is one of the thousands of Franco-Americans who grew up eating Pate Chinois. Lacompte is a Lewiston native who lives and works in Montreal.

''We had Pate Chinois regularly at home until my mother began cooking healthier fare in the mid-'70s. Then, I had it at mostly my memere's house,'' he says. During the 1970s, Lacompte says he recalls when Lewiston High School served Chinese Pie for lunch in the cafeteria.

He says the familiar dish he ate in high school is now the subject of much discussion in Quebec. Pate Chinois was recently named the unofficial national dish of Quebec. This distinction was given following a contest launched by Le Devoir, a Montreal newspaper.

When Lacompte was in college, his maternal grandmother Rose-Anna St. Amand-Lapointe showed him how to make Pate Chinois when he came home on break. ''It's been part of my diet ever since,'' he says.

Living in Montreal, Lacompte says his co-workers enjoy seeing him bring Pate Chinois to work to eat for lunch.

''I certainly fit in with my co-workers when I pack Pate Chinois!'' he says. Most of his co-workers have only a vague understanding of his experience growing up as a Franco-American. ''My co-workers are amazed to hear that their national dish survived the passage of time and resisted the forces of America's Great Melting-pot,'' he says.

Lacompte gives one important piece of advice about Pate Chinois. Never add peas or carrots to the recipe medley. Peas or chopped carrots change the recipe to Shepherd's Pie. There is even the expression ''steak, blé d'Inde, patates,'' literally meaning ''ground beef, corn, potatoes.'' These specific ingredients were popularized in a successful late 1990s television comedy called La Petite Vie. In the story line, the daughter-in-law could never get the ingredients in the right order.

Interest in Pate Chinois has grown since the launch of a book called Le Mystere Insondable du Pate Chinois (roughly translated: The Unfathomable Mystery of Pate Chinois). A Facebook page discussion dedicated to the book describes Pate Chinois recipes as the kind handed down through generations of families because, ''Ce goute bon!'' (It tastes good!) Moreover, it's universally enjoyed by people regardless if they are rich or poor.

Why do Franco-Americans call the dish Pate Chinois? One story says the name originated from French-speaking Quebecois who lived and worked in the factories around the China Lake region, near Waterville. They ate Shepherd's Pie in local restaurants but called it Pate Chinois. They easily taught the recipe to their families back home in Quebec.

Our family adds minced garlic to the Pate Chinois recipe. We saute the chopped onions and garlic in a little butter before layering the meat, potatoes and corn.

Bonne appetite!

Juliana L'Heureux can be contacted at:

juliana@mainewriter.com

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