The perfect Nanaimo bar isn’t all that complicated. There are three layers: a base of graham crumb and coconut supporting a layer of creamy custard topped with a chocolate crust.
“It has to be decadent,” says Samuel Hartono, chef and founder of Northern Bars. “You know, feel rich, not too sweet, and chocolatey and custardy and with coconut. That’s my idea of the perfect Nanaimo bar.”
If anyone knows a good Nanaimo bar, it’s Hartono. The 32-year-old from Port Coquitlam spent two years before the start of the pandemic developing his own recipe and perfecting its top-secret production methods.
Back in 2017, Hartono stepped away from his job in corporate sales with a transportation company and into the field of culinary arts.
“I’ve always loved cooking and doing something with my hands,” he says, “After a while I realized this is what I want to do. Culinary arts, I want to perfect like a craft.”
Prior to leaving his job, he and partner Michelle Avelena travelled a lot for work. They struggled to find unique treats to bring when visiting friends and family abroad. When it was their turn to host, guests also had trouble locating different food. Most common was mass-produced maple syrup and maple cookies, says Hartono.
He would brainstorm ideas for his business and pitch them to friends in the immigrant community. No one knew what a Nanaimo bar was. Hartono had to Google pictures for them. He felt there was a niche in the market that he could fill with Northern Bars.
As it turns out, there was a very good reason Nanaimo bars hadn’t been made to travel the world. Nanaimo bars require refrigeration and are difficult to transport; the longer they’re not chilled, the softer they get. They would have trouble surviving an hours-long flight and still be both presentable and edible.
The Nanaimo bar has a dubious history.
Jean Paré, author of the popular cookbook series Companies Coming, says the bar originated in Alberta under the name “Smog Bar.”
But the City of Nanaimo has certainly staked its claim to the confection. “Of course we know that Nanaimo bars originated in Nanaimo, or they would be called New York Bars, or New Brunswick Bars,” the city’s website states.
In 1986 then mayor Graeme Roberts ran a contest alongside Harbour Park Mall to find “the ultimate Nanaimo Bar recipe.” The four-week contest generated nearly 100 variations and Joyce Hardcastle’s recipe was declared the winner. It remains the city’s official recipe today.
The origin of the first recipe remains contentious. A few sources credit the 1952 Women’s Auxiliary of the Nanaimo Hospital Cookbook as publishing the first recipe with the name “Chocolate Square.” A year later, it was published in an Edith Adams cookbook under the name “Nanaimo Bar.”
Susan Mendelson is credited with popularizing the treat. She wrote the official cookbook for Expo 86 which included her recipe for a Nanaimo bar.
The bar has been studied by academics and made it into a Canada Post stamp collection in 2019. It was also featured in the New York Times, although both creations came under fire for improper layer ratios.
Stay true to the layers
“You’re allowed to change it and alter it, but you still have to respect the crust, filling, chocolate topping,” Food Network Canada host Anna Olson told the New York Times.
Hartono’s version of the classic dessert is less sweet than most bakery versions. It’s also bite-size so people can have “just enough,” says Hartono.
His creation starts with using high-quality ingredients such as chocolate and Canadian butter.
The 1.25-inch squares are surprisingly soft and not too sweet. They’re sold in boxes of four ($11.99), nine ($21.99) or 16 ($32.99). For now, the confection is only available online at northernbars.ca, but Hartono is in talks with the airport authority. He’s optimistic that by May, Northern Bars will be available at the airport’s Discover BC store.
In addition to the classic flavour palate, Hartono is developing a series of special release flavours.
“The opportunity to become creative is limitless,” he says. “You can have any combination of flavours that you can possibly want out of those three layers.”
The first round is inspired by other Canadian flavours including saskatoon berries and lemon, smoky maple and apple and cinnamon.
“I think it’s fun,” he says. “I love doing it. I love thinking about new flavours.”
After taking a break from the business over the past two years due to challenges with the pandemic, Hartono recently moved Northern Bar’s production to a kitchen on Granville Island.
There’s no retail space, but the bars will be created there by the companies’ two employees. Hartono is hoping that more Canadians get on board with sharing Nanaimo bars with other regions.
“Outside of North America, I think the Nanaimo bar isn’t that well known, so I’m tak[ing] it upon myself to make this my thing,” he says. “I want to promote Nanaimo bar to the world.”