Nanaimo Bar - Gastro Obscura
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Nanaimo Bar

From postwar dessert to sweet slice of Canadian identity.

Nanaimo bars are dense, sugary bars of soft yellow custard, sandwiched between coconut-graham crust and chocolate ganache. They’re basically famous for being famous in their city of origin. Located on the eastern shore of Canada’s Vancouver Island, this misty port is home to fewer than 100,000 people, but more than 40 area establishments sell Nanaimo bars and related paraphernalia.

The origins of the city’s beloved bar go back to the post–World War II era of easy, no-bake desserts. While Jell-O ruled in the United States, a chocolate, coconut, and graham cracker bar was taking off in Canada. Though similar-sounding recipes appeared earlier, the name “Nanaimo bar” made its cookbook debut in The Edith Adams Prize Cookbook of 1953 (Adams, like Betty Crocker, was a fictional kitchen persona).

The bars became forever linked with their eponymous city in 1986, when Nanaimo’s mayor held a contest for the best recipe. Nanaimo bar fever took over, and it didn’t go away. In the years following, the bars became a piece of local identity, spreading from church gatherings and birthday parties to bakeries, restaurants, and even ferries.

Those wishing to venture beyond the traditional form can opt for gluten-free, deep-fried, maple-bacon, or mint versions. Establishments also reach far beyond the confines of pastry to pay homage. Think Nanaimo bar–inspired spring rolls, waffles, coffee, martinis, and pedicures.

Need to Know

Visitors to the city can also hit the 34 stops on the Nanaimo Bar Trail.

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