The Sweet History Of Canada's Iconic Nanaimo Bars

Throughout history, countries and cultures have used their own unique culinary prowess to create some of the world's most iconic desserts. France has the creme brûlée. Italy has gelato. The United States has apple pie. Japan has mochi. Belgium has waffles — yes, over there they are considered dessert, not breakfast (via Delish). These are just a few of the diverse range of desserts you'll find if and when you choose to travel. But maybe you don't make it to some of the places we just mentioned, so let us encourage you to start a little closer to home. If you live in the United States, one of the easiest ways to begin your international journeys is to head to our northern border to visit our friend, Canada.

Though we share many differences — Canadians are very proud to be separate from the United States — we do share not only the longest international border in the entire world at 5,525 miles but also have one of the closest bilateral relationships of any sovereign nations, per U.S. Department of State. And though the Canadian border may be closer to some than others — drive down Casewell Avenue Derby Line, Vermont to see what we mean — it still stands as probably the easiest foreign nation to visit from the United States. And when you do visit, you're going to want to try a Nanaimo bar, which stands proud as Canada's most iconic dessert.

Seven decades of sweetness

The origins of who first conceived of the Nanaimo bar are hazy. What is certain is the fact that this delectable treat was created in, and named for, the city of Nanaimo in British Columbia. According to The New York Times, Nanaimo was a major coal mining city before it became the namesake for Canada's favorite dessert. The first written evidence available of the recipe for what would become the Nanaimo bar is in the 1952 edition of the Women's Auxiliary "Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook." Though it was only referred to as a chocolate square, the basic recipe was present. A year later, a similar recipe was published in "Edith Adams' Cookbook" this time under the label of Nanaimo bar (via British Columbia Magazine).

The Nanaimo bar remained fairly exclusive to its namesake until the 1970s. During her time at university in Vancouver, Susan Mendelson sold Nanaimo bars to pay for her tuition. Finding success, she founded The Lazy Gourmet cafe and catering company, which lays claim to being the first business to sell Nanaimo bars. A Nanaimo bar recipe contest held by the city, the creation of city mascot Nanaimo Barney, sales of Nanaimo bars on British Columbia ferries, and the creation of a Nanaimo Bar tasting trail throughout the city of Nanaimo all added to the publicity. Once the bar exceeded its reach beyond British Columbia, there was no stopping its popularity (via The Canadian Encyclopedia).

What is a Nanaimo bar?

Now it's time to see what all the fuss is about. The Nanaimo bar is a perfect example of a no-bake dessert. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, no-bake desserts have a long history stretching back to the oldest known cookbook, the Apicius De Re Coquinaria. A more recent example would be something like an English trifle. Though you are likely to find a fair number of Nanaimo bar recipes that tell you to bake the base layer, the traditional way of making these bars requires no oven time. The basic structure of a Nanaimo bar is as follows: coconut and graham cracker base, yellow custard center, and a chocolate top. There is some debate over which layer should be the thickest, but the official recipe, as laid out by Joyce Hardcastle (who won Nanaimo's recipe contest), has the central custard layer as the heftiest (via The City of Nanaimo).

That central layer is the most Canada-specific part of the recipe. Purists might even say it's not a true Nanaimo bar if it wasn't made with Bird's Custard Powder. According to The New York Times, it's this instant custard powder (once prevalent throughout the British Empire) that gives the Nanaimo bar its distinctive hue. We say this is Canada-specific because you're not likely to find Bird's at any American grocery store, though you can purchase it online. So, if you're visiting our northern friends anytime soon, be sure to buy and try a Nanaimo bar.