There are three layers to a traditional Nanaimo bar.
The bottom has graham wafers, coconut, almonds, cocoa, sugar and butter.
The middle is the gooey custard filling, usually comprised of cream, butter, vanilla custard powder and icing sugar.
The top is chocolate and butter.
It’s a simple recipe, without added exotic ingredients.
There are many variations of the Nanaimo bar in the city from traditional bars to martinis and ice cream.
The sweet dessert was also served when U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a state dinner for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie, in early March. Also former Nanaimo mayors have been known to bring the treats when visiting other municipalities as a gift.
So what makes the sweet treat so popular?
For Deidre Tansey, a food blogger who runs the site Just a Pinch of Ginger, the treat is tied to childhood memories.
“It’s kind of this iconic Canadian dessert,” said Tansey, as a Nanaimo bar sits in front of her at Riso Foods in Lantzville.
The restaurant’s Nanaimo bar is one of her favourites. She said it has a more subtle flavour and instead of almonds in the bottom layers there are walnuts.
Tansey remembers as a child her mother had a Canadian cookbook with the Nanaimo bar recipe. It made her want the treat, but her mother didn’t really bake and she couldn’t get it in her hometown. Whenever the family travelled to British Columbia she would get a Nanaimo bar.
“I was a big fan of the custard. I find that flavour really comforting,” she said. “When you get the texture and get the flavours right it is just amazing.”
She ate so many as a child that by the time she was an adult she was sick of it. But moving to Nanaimo changed her mind. With so many variations she doesn’t have to get a sweet version anymore.
“I like the ones that are more subtle,” she said, adding she likes the ones that use good quality chocolate. “There are so many different versions. It’s fun seeing chefs come up with things.”
Chelsea Barr, destination marketing manager for Tourism Nanaimo, said when people talk to her about the Nanaimo bar it is often tied to a memory.
“People love to have that nostalgia,” she said, adding people talk about the treats their grandmother or loved ones used to make. “When something is tied to a happy memory it’s big.”
She said another aspect that makes the Nanaimo bar so popular is that the recipe is flexible.
“It appeals to so many diverse palates,” said Barr. “It’s a bit of a fun one to change up with different flavours.”
People can taste different versions of the Nanaimo bar by taking the self-guided Nanaimo Bar Trail, a partnership between Tourism Nanaimo and city businesses. A brochure is available to download at www.tourismnanaimo.com/nanaimo-bar-trail. The tour offers a variety, from traditional recipes to a Nanaimo bar tea latte at Tea Desire, Nanaimo bar fudge from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and Nanaimo bar cheesecake from the Longwood Brew Pub. There are more than 30 locations for people to visit.
More and more the Nanaimo bar is being recognized as a Canadian food, said Barr. It’s getting recognition among other fare such as maple sugar and poutine, she said.