The Canadian identity is often celebrated as an amalgamation of cultures — made up of the traditions of those who have immigrated here both recently and generations ago. This blending of cultures is apparent in Canada’s culinary scene, however, the food history of this great nation truly began with the First-Nations’ people.
While bannock and game meats are perhaps the most iconic of First Nations’ dishes, they’re only a part of a deep and rich culinary history, one which people have had limited exposure to. This was the inspiration behind Christa Bruneau-Guenther’s First Nations-focused restaurant, Feast Cafe Bistro, in Winnipeg. “It was shocking to find there really aren’t many indigenous-focused restaurants or cafés when there are so many Italian restaurants and Chinese and sushi and all of these other amazing cultures,” she says. “So, I thought there needs to be more.”
That said, there has been a recent swell in the number of entrepreneurs and chefs opening restaurants that honour their First Nations’ heritage, while others have begun to recognize the synonymous relationship between First-Nations’ cuisine and eat-local initiatives. “[This has happened] because this is the land of the First Nations’ people and a lot of chefs are really inspired by what grows around them,” offers Bruneau-Guenther. “A lot of chefs are digging deeper and when you think of local, you think of what grows on this land, what animals are from around here — that’s the stuff they want to cook.”
Because the native peoples were the original Canadian locavores, the quest for local, truly Canadian cuisine has led several chefs to explore the culinary traditions of Canada’s indigenous population. Ryan O’Flynn, executive chef of The Guild in Calgary, is one such chef. O’Flynn has spent time with the Dene people (an aboriginal group of First Nations who inhabit the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada), learning traditional cooking techniques and incorporating what he learned on to his menu. “I want to be the best Canadian chef that I can be and I don’t think that I could be that without learning the ways of the land,” he explains, adding, “We need to start realizing there are traditions and generations that were on this land much more than 150 years ago.”
First Nations across the country traditionally relied on a combination of hunting/fishing, foraging and farming to provide sustenance, resulting in a diet of regionally and seasonally available products. This way of life gave way to the development of a range of regional traditions and specialties. For example, salmon was a staple in the coastal regions of B.C., while moose was the preferred protein in the northern regions of the province. The tribes of the prairie region, such as the Plains Cree, followed the buffalo herds; the peoples native to many areas of Ontario and Quebec grew corn, beans and squash, as well as hunting deer and small game. Moving towards the east coast, ocean life becomes an increasingly important part of local diets, while seal meat remains a staple among northern tribes.
Regional foods would have been supplemented with traded goods — even before European contact, says Art Napoleon, bush cook and co-host of the APTN TV-series Moosemeat & Marmalade. “There was a lot of trading between tribes, even those that never met directly,” he explains. “So, a lot of trade items made it across the whole country.” Despite regional differences, several processes and preparation techniques were common throughout Canada, including the smoking and drying of fish and meat, as well as rendering animal fat to make lard. A wide range of wild berries were also utilized, though the types of berries varied by region.
Another common factor is a dedication to the use of all parts of an animal. Growing up in the Saulteau First Nation on Moberly Lake in B.C., Napoleon recalls using this practice in everyday cooking. Moose colon and other fatty parts of the animal would be mixed in with the meat, which is usually quite lean. “Bone marrow is still a big hit, but they don’t slice up the bone like Anthony Bourdain would and throw it in the oven,” he adds with a chuckle. “They leave some of the meat on and slow roast it over an open fire…and then you get to break that bone in half and dig [the marrow] out with peeled willow sticks. They eat the marrow with bannock, other cuts of meat or even with dry meat — it’s a big-time condiment.”
WINDS OF CHANGE
“When you look at a lot of the traditional ways [of preparing food], most of them were focused on preserving,” notes David Wolfman, Culinary Arts Professor at George Brown College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto and member of the Xaxli’p First Nation in B.C. “A lot of the traditional foods were influenced by necessity.” Before refrigeration, smoking and drying were two of the few ways to make food last. Modern technology/equipment has significantly influenced First Nations’ cooking techniques. As Napoleon explains, the availability of items such as metal pots and grills offered simpler, more convenient cooking techniques that largely replaced several time-honoured traditions. Some of these largely abandoned techniques include cooking on coals, wrapping food in clay, pit cooking (with coals or hot rocks) and boiling in skins or wooden containers.
However, among the Saulteau First Nations, using a smokehouse to smoke meat is one of the few traditional cooking methods still common practice. “That process takes about five days and a lot of work,” Napoleon says. “So, when they’re out doing that, it’s pretty convenient to cook your meals out there. Those are the times when families are cooking really traditionally/ rustically over the fire with willow spits — or on a grill, nowadays — over the fire.”
Martin Gagné, executive chef of La Traite in Wendake, Que., points out that it is nearly impossible to implement most traditional cooking methods within a restaurant setting. “For the regular menu, with the number of [dishes] we have in the restaurant, we cannot afford to use traditional [cooking] techniques, so we use more modern techniques,” he explains. “We do use traditional techniques for some special events — such as cooking bannock or rabbit over a fire.”
Beyond technology, the colonization of Canada greatly impacted the evolution of First Nations’ cuisine, introducing items such as flour, sugar and tea. Several political factors have also affected the development of First Nations’ foods. Residential schools are often cited as an impediment to passing down of traditions — including recipes and hunting methods — as well as causing gaps in knowledge.
Before opening her restaurant, Bruneau-Guenther spent many hours seeking out traditional recipes, but found there were virtually no First Nations’/Aboriginal cookbooks available and little to be found online. “I would look on Google and go to the library to see if there was anything that could offer me some sort of inspiration,” she explains. “There really wasn’t a lot, so a lot of [my menu] had to come from recipes that were passed down to me, or just making up my own.”
Laws limiting or prohibiting the sale of wild game have also significantly impacted the way consumers experience First Nations’ cuisine. Although seafood and domesticated versions of several proteins can be sourced, significant staples for several First Nations’ communities, such as beaver and moose, cannot be sold or served in restaurants in most provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia are two exceptions which allow licensed restaurants to serve wild game.
Even for people wishing to get in touch with their aboriginal roots by cooking traditional meals at home, the price of traditional products can be prohibitive. As a result, Bruneau-Guenther chose to highlight bison and pickerel on the menu at Feast. And, as she explains, meat isn’t the only ingredient that can demand a hefty price. “The most difficult part about designing the menu was that indigenous cuisine is very expensive. If you go deep into what is indigenous cuisine, there are so many rare berries and herbs, such as wild ginger and wild garlic, that are hard to source and expensive.”
At Gagné’s fine-dining restaurant, price is less of a factor. The chef says finding suppliers for some of the more unique items, such as seal, isn’t that difficult. “We don’t have any trouble finding suppliers for the game meats. The only thing is that maybe we won’t have any caribou meat this winter,” he adds, citing a shortage as the cause of this concern.
WHERE OLD MEETS NEW
Today, First Nations’ owned/operated businesses tend to focus on either traditional home-style meals or First Nations’ fusion. Dishes such as stews, chillies and “Indian tacos” are reflective of the foods many, including Bruneau-Guenther, grew up on. She says she used a lot of recipes passed down from her father when designing the menu at Feast, including the bison chilli ($9.75) and burger ($10.95) recipes.
On the other side of the coin, Wolfman has long been a practitioner of Aboriginal-fusion cuisine. “I remember one of the elders saying what’s really important in taking these traditions is remembering the process in which things were done,” he explains. “You can change it slightly and add your own flare to it, but don’t forget the ways in which it was done.”
Wolfman kept this in mind when designing the menu for the You Are Welcome food truck, which the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation operated during the 2015 PanAm Games in Toronto. Dishes such as Nish Kabobs, featuring marinated venison; and curried elk and sweet potato in puff pastry, reflect the traditional diet of the Mississauga while incorporating modern techniques and influences.