The Nisga’a people of Northern BC once survived on salmon, oily oolichan fish and sea lion.
On the Canadian Prairies, it was buffalo meat and Saskatoon berries, dried over smoky fires and pounded together for pemmican. And in Québec, Huron hunters combed the boreal forest for caribou, wild onions and Labrador tea.
It’s not easy for anyone to find these wild Aboriginal delicacies today, but a new generation of First Nations chefs is melding tradition with modern technique to create a truly Native Canadian cuisine that you’ll find in restaurants across the country.
Keriwa Café in Toronto is chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe’s creative vision for contemporary Native-inspired cuisine. A protégé of Calgary’s River Café and Ontario’s Michael Stadtlander, his knowledge of local, sustainable food comes from the best purveyors in the land. So it’s not surprising to find tender braised bison with Saskatoon berries – an elegant take on Prairie pemmican – smoke-kissed Ontario whitefish blinis and rustic, house-made Red Fife bread on the menu.
In Wendake, just 10 minutes outside Québec City, La Traite Restaurant, in the Huron-Wendat Hotel and Museum, offers a similarly elegant dining experience. From the Origins herbs, foraged in the boreal forest, to dishes ranging from deer noisette with conifer jelly to cattail tapenade, chef Martin Gagné creates a kind of Native haute cuisine that reminds you of the Nation’s connection to this land.
And Phoebe Sutherland is the Cree chef behind the Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro in Ottawa’s Byward Market, where the seasonal menu offers casual fine dining. A tranquil spot featuring Native art and both modern and traditional dishes, it’s a place to explore all things Aboriginal.
In Vancouver, chef Andrew George has mentored many First Nations chefs. He inspired Whistler Four Seasons chef Scott Dolbee, an American, to create dishes for Whistler’s Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre, like their caribou tacos and bison carpaccio. But you can also enjoy some traditional First Nations flavors here – from Soapallallie berry juice to herring roe on kelp.
But the hottest new First Nations eatery in Vancouver is Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro, where traditional Haida art and all things salmon – salmon skin chips to scoop salmon mousse and smoky Indian candy – share the menu with bison burgers and braised venison shank.
In Kelowna, BC, the Aboriginal-owned Kekuli Café focuses on bannock – the traditional Native fry bread – and it’s both fried and formed into “bannock buns” for burgers here, as well as served with their squash, corn and beans three sisters soup.
Bannock crosses all nations and Toronto’s Oliver and Bonacini restaurant group has borrowed the name for it’s latest venture, Bannock Canadian Comfort Food, at Queen & Bay Streets. Sandwiches are served on their signature version of this indigenous flatbread.
But for the real deal head to the traditional Indian Village at the annual Calgary Stampede, where everyone lines up for the puffed pieces of deep fried Native “fry bread”, topped with jam and sugar, or all the beefy, cheesy fixings for an “Indian Taco.”
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