Canadians are turning back to indigenous ingredients after eschewing them for generations. For a James Beard House dinner, Arctic food forager Steven Cooper served caribou, muskox, sea urchin, Arctic char, ptarmigan, seaweed, clams, star fish, mussels and sea cucumbers. “For someone who’s food-curious, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as being out on the ice drilling holes, harvesting a sea urchin and eating it right there,” he said at this year’s Terroir Symposium, Canada’s largest gastronomy conference.
Canadian Traditions in Cooking
At Colette Grand Café in Toronto, Ontario, former Maison Boulud chef Jennifer Dewasha incorporates ingredients like maple syrup, wild berries, ramps, fiddleheads and mushrooms on her menu. Though many people don’t consider them "native", they were growing wild and being harvested wild in Canada long before European settlers came – a fact that the Wahta Nation-raised chef came to appreciate during her studies at the now-defunct George Brown College Aboriginal Cuisine program.
“Indigenous ideology of food and community is exploding across Canada,” she says. “It’s not just the food it is a whole culture for me that got lost for a few decades after a large generation was sent away to residential schools and were told to stop practicing their culture and speaking their native language. But the stories of food and ceremony are being told again.”
Dewasha is happy to cook Native dishes for her customers and expose them to new ingredients and techniques, but behind the cooking there’s always a story and a tradition that each wants to honour. “Natives believe that food is a gift from the creator,” she says. “We give thanks in daily ceremony for all these things available for us. This ideology translates for me into my career. We seek out farmers and growers and communities who care and gift us the opportunity to use these products. We need to make smart decisions over the amount and quality of food we hunt, farm, fish, gather and grow. This will be the key to sustainability of our resources across Canada.”
A special fine dining experience
At Sage restaurant in the River Cree Resort in Edmonton, Alberta, Chef Shane Chartrand of the Enoch Cree Nation cooks two-prong antelope and fry bread for people looking for a different kind of fine dining experience. While his restaurant serves plenty of non-Native-sounding dishes, one Native dish that’s always on the menu is bannock – a flatbread he often serves with lobster bisque or deep-fries and serves with a Saskatoon berry reduction and maple ice cream.
“Bison heart, tongue, rump – it’s a big part of the tradition,” he says. “Bison is lean meat and it’s smaller than a beef flank. The taste profile is way better. It’s earthier and stranger, but in a good way.” Elk, on the other hand, is mild and big horn sheep is lean and flavourful. “I’d take that over any steak, and we have the best steak in the world,” says Chartrand.
Alberta yak was the game meat of choice for Steven Cooper when he was planning a meal for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. “Yaks were here before cows,” says Cooper. There’s no word on whether Kate and William liked the meat, though, or if they ever read the hand-written note from the sea urchin diver in Kikitarjuaq, who’d harvested the urchin for the meal from glacial waters that morning.
Then there’s ptarmigan. “Up north, it’s even called chicken, but it doesn’t taste like chicken,” says Cooper. “It has a mineral, iron taste. You cook it confit in duck or goose fat and it’s perfect. My dad would cook it into Chinese fried rice.”
Whale blubber? It’s “nature’s energy bar,” he says. Inuit people in Nunavut, one of Canada’s northern territories, cut it into two or three centimetre square chunks and dip it in soy sauce then into OXO beef bouillon powder before popping it into their mouths. “If you’re cruising across tundra on your dogsled, this is pure energy. But now, Inuit have started throwing it in the microwave. It makes it a little more tender.”
A more modern interpretation of beluga whale involves breading and deep-frying the naturally brined meat and serving it with gravy in a dish called “KFB,” or Kentucky Fried Blubber. Cooper also loves Indian food expert and chef at Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel Joshna Maharaj’s polar bear masala – which also works well with walrus.
Game meat, wild plants and corn
Back down south in Ontario, Chef Dewasha likes venison cooked with cranberries in winter. And while game meats might be easier than mushrooms and vegetables to consider traditional Native foods, both Dewasha and Chartrand look forward to the first spring perennials, including ramps, a kind of wild onion. “The Natives would use ramps to help flavor and tenderize animals like beaver, muskrat and catfish,” says Dewasha. “Last year I fermented them for a few weeks and the results were amazing.”
And while Ontario and Quebec are known for their sweet corn steamed and soaked in butter at barbecues, the original Native American corn harvest involved thick-husked white corn soaked in lye similarly to the traditional process used for making Mexican tortillas. Though rare nowadays, the white corn is still grown in a community garden in the Wahta Mohawk territory in Muskoka, Ontario. “It has a longer growing time of 120 days and less sugar and more protein then yellow corn,” says Dewasha. “It’s traditionally dried in braided ropes on the cob and rehydrated in a lye bath of hardwood ashes. One of our elders, Terry Sahanatien, will braid and hang the corn and use it in the winter.”
Corn is such a central part of her culture that Dewasha even served corn soup at her wedding. “One of my fondest memories was having a Mohawk marriage ceremony,” she says. “I made the soup as an offering for the community.”