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Great Canadian Foods: Nanaimo Bars

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Most of our dietary intake is made up of common North American cuisine – vegetables, pasta, Hot Pockets – the list goes on and on. But some of the things on our menu are distinctly Canadian. Great Canadian Foods is a new weekly feature on SmartCanucks exploring the tastier side of Canadian living.

From Tim Horton’s to maple-flavored… well… everything, Canadians have a well-documented sweet tooth that’s seemingly impossible to satisfy. Case in point: Nanaimo Bars.

This no-bake dessert starts out with a graham wafer bottom, a midsection made of custard, and a top made out of chocolate. There seem to be infinite variations, ranging from mint to Grand Marnier, but that doesn’t make the original any less delicious.

As you can probably guess from the name, the Nanaimo Bar was popularized just outside of Nanaimo, British Columbia — but was it actually born there? The origins of this delicious chocolaty treat are a subject of great debate amongst dessert loving food historians.

The first time a recipe for Nanaimo Bars showed up in print was in the 1952 “The Woman’s Auxiliary to the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook.” At that time, the treat was referred to as “Chocolate Slices.” Two years later the term “Nanaimo Bars” began showing up in print — a term that some suggest was popularized by US tourists who would indulge in the tasty treat when vacationing in the region. But where did this recipe actually come from?

One claim suggests that the treat originated in New Brunswick. Another suggests it was a New York recipe from the 30’s. Some even think the treats may have originated in England in the late 1800’s, with the bars being shipped by relatives to coal workers in Nanaimo (though considering the lack of adequate refrigeration back then, this seems to be an unlikely scenario at best.)

The most compelling evidence suggests that these date back to the early 1930’s in Alberta, where “smog bars” were relatively common, and shared a virtually identical recipe.

Regardless of it’s origins, few Canadian treats are as sweet or as tasty as a Nanaimo Bar. Why not try to make your own? Try this recipe from Joyce Harscastle — it was declared the ultimate Nanaimo Bar recipe by the City of Nanaimo back in 1986!

36 responses to “Great Canadian Foods: Nanaimo Bars”

  1. mlongboat says:

    not a fan…. and i love sweets.

  2. Jen says:

    hey jim, if most of your dietary intake is made up of hot pockets, you got a problem!

    not too sure this new feature fits for this site.

  3. Janine says:

    you must do donairs!!

  4. nscouponchick says:

    The nanaimo frozen yogurt by chapmans is delicious!

  5. eriluo says:

    I must say I have really liked your last two blogs! But then again, I am a FOODIE, through and through :) Keep up the good work!

  6. Cheers says:

    Hey jen, if most of your written output is made up of useless comments, you got a problem!

    Not sure why people who aren’t interested in a subject on this site bother reading a post about said subject and feel the need to post negative comments.

    Don’t want to start a war here but seriously, if you have nothing nice to say, what’s the best policy?!?

    I love the variety on the blog, keep up the good work!

    Oh and I find Nanaimo bars delicious – albeit in small quantities because they’re quite sweet.

  7. Minou says:

    I grew up calling this dessert New York Slice or New York Special. I kind of thought it looked glamourous and tuxedo-like, though a brown tuxedo with a yellow shirt sure would be seventies!

  8. L. Wilson says:

    Minou – I think I’ll start calling them seventies tuxedo bars from now on, that made me giggle.

  9. Katherine says:

    I just had one today after suppeer, so good!!!

    And I agree with Janine, mmmmmm donairs!

  10. sandra says:

    I have never tasted a Nanaimo bar before but it looks yummy. Has anyone tried this recipe before? Do you have to put the coconut in because I am not a coconut fan? I probably wouldn’t buy or eat a Nanaimo bar if it contained coconut.

  11. amandamck says:

    The coconut is more of a texture thing, it doesn’t really have an overall coconut taste. I love eating them but have never made them before. Thanks for the recipe, might give it a try!

  12. I love love love nanaimo bars!!! I could eat a whole batch of them…then again I have a huge sweet tooth!

  13. Leanne says:

    Nanaimo bars are awesome! Never made ’em but even Costco used to sell them in Calgary. I could use some right about now…

  14. Tiffany says:

    I live in Nanaimo! And I love Nanaimo Bars lol. I agree coconut is for texture and the chocolate def. Takes over for the coconut.

  15. matrix82 says:

    Yum Yum Yum…it has been a couple months since I had one…so yummy but so unhealthy.

  16. nc says:

    I had no idea that Nanaimo bars were a Canadian thing. Thanks for sharing!

  17. T says:

    I love Nanaimo bars!

    And are donairs Canadian? I wouldn’t think so…

  18. wayne905 says:

    you can also buy these at M&M’s (if you’re like me and don’t feel like making them from scratch)

  19. Lori says:

    Great, now I’m craving Nanaimo bars. lol I love homemade ones but no one likes to make them anymore. :(

  20. Sarah says:

    I love Nanaimo bar!!! I always buy them at Fortinos. Thanks for the information. I am already hungry for Nanaimo bar.

  21. denise lee says:

    Oh my gosh,ns couponchick, I bought Chapman’s Frozen Yogurt Nanaimo Bar flavour the other night. It is soooooooo good! Everyone absolutely has to try it!

    And sandra, I really don’t like coconut either, but it really does belong in the nanaimo bars–it’s in the Chapman’s too, but just a pinch.

    coupondiva :)

  22. Katherine says:

    Chapmans makes a Nanaimo flavour?? I never knew that, I think I’m going to make a trip to the store tomorrow and see if I can find it.

  23. Natalie says:

    Yay for nanaimo bars! Love them, but they are so sweet, can only eat such a tiny piece, so that’s why I like it when people have them for weddings or other gatherings. When I make them, I end up giving most of them away!
    For those who don’t like coconut, you can add quick cooking oats chopped up fine; it gives a similar texture.
    I’ve never seen a recipe with almonds used in the base, usually it’s walnuts.
    Most people don’t have custard powder in their cupboard, so often don’t think of making nanaimo bars. Some store bakery ones are ‘okay’.
    But actually, the Robin Hood mix is pretty good – so if you want to still get a bit of the ‘home-baked’ taste, give that a try.

  24. 2010 says:

    The Chapmans icecream is to die for! I love it!:-) I think I might try making these sometime! Thanks for the post!!!

  25. jen says:

    too sweet…feels like eating a chunk of sweetened butter :S not healthy.

  26. Dee says:

    Now I have to have some tomorrow, it’s been too long!

  27. Abby says:


    I’m from Nanaimo, grew up in Departure Bay, then on Protection Island (for fellow Nanaimo peeps here 😉 ).

    My mother got the cookbook where Joyce’s recipe (the one linked to here) was published back when it was originally announced, and I’ve had it countless times growing up. YES, it’s definitely good! I just finished off the last bar from a batch yesterday!

    <3 Thanks for posting this!

  28. momoforever says:

    I was never a real fan of them until I found the peanut butter version….sooo much better!!! Been making these for years!,1946,FOOD_9936_37295_RECIPE-PRINT-FULL-PAGE-FORMATTER,00.html

  29. twinmommy says:

    Growing up and attending all the various family functions like bridal showers and baby showers my aunt would always add these to the sweet table and I would never ever eat them thinking the yellow portion looked “gross”. Fast forward about 20 years and my best friend put them out at one of our get togethers and when I told her I didn’t like the look of the yellow layer she told me I was crazy and had to try one. I’ve been in love ever since and will have them whenever available and always request my friend make these for any of our gatherings. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the Nanaimo bar!

  30. SavingMentor says:

    I’m definitely a fan of Nanaimo Bar and, as someone else mentioned, they’d probably be great without the coconut because I don’t really like coconut either. I’ll have to try that sometime!

  31. Albug says:

    Best ever!!! Being that I am from Nanaimo might make me love them even more though!!!!

  32. mlongboat says:

    I hope to read about Pea Soup and Peameal Bacon:)

  33. KMP says:

    I have to disagree with previous posters. If you’re a coconut hater, the chocolate does not disguise the flavour :( Naniamo bars look great, but I can’t stand the taste!

  34. tpulliam says:

    I make these quite often. I can do a whole 8×8 pan in about an hour and a half if everything is set out. I use Birds custard, it does make a difference. Everytime someone goes to canada, I end up with a cans of Birds they bring back (currently have 3 cans).

    This is a rich food, but its not really made from anything too processed. The graham crackers and Birds are, but most of the rest is whole type foods (coconut, egg, heavy cream, butter, cocoa, sugar, more butter, chocolate). I think they digest much better than any candy i ever eat.

  35. No room in your piece for a credit to, from whence most of the info clearly came?

  36. april coquilla reambonanza says:

    i love nanaimo!!!

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