It’s always a bit embarrassing when foreigners ask what Indigenous Canadian food is. After long, torturous pause, most Canadians might stumble out an answer like poutine, tourtière, bannock, Saskatoon pie or Nanaimo bars.
Of course, none of those is really Indigenous. They came with explorers and settlers who brought flour and sugar.
Yet, long before they arrived, Indigenous people had lived for centuries eating local plants and animals.
Initially, smart newcomers relied on their local knowledge to initially survive in this unfamiliar land. Others like Sir John Franklin and others tragically learned the folly of attempting self-reliance.
But because of colonization much of that knowledge has been lost along with other cultural practices and Indigenous languages.
“Even Indigenous people don’t understand what Indigenous food is,” chef Shane Chartrand told me when we talked recently. “We don’t know our own food. Powwow food is bannock, burgers, gravy and fries. That’s not Indigenous in my humble opinion.”
Recovering those foods, recipes and cooking techniques is something that Indigenous chefs like Chartrand are now in a position to explore.
In the style of Anthony Bourdain, three award-winning chefs fanned out across Canada to Indigenous communities that they didn’t know to help prepare and eat food that included unusual ingredients like cougar, bison tongue and seal.
Answering the question of what is Indigenous food is the premise of a six-part series called Red Chef Revival, available on the Storyhive YouTube channel and to Telus Optik TV On Demand subscribers.
Chartrand visited Nisga’a people near Prince Rupert and was served chow mein buns.
“I thought it was ridiculous. No way is it part of Indigenous culture. But they told me that along Cannery Row, there were Japanese, Indigenous and Chinese and they shared recipes so it becomes Indigenous,” he said.
“I don’t agree. But they think it is.”
He feels the same way about “powwow food” — bannock, burgers and fries with gravy.
But the seal stew prepared by Nisga’a fishing families in Port Edward fits Chartrand’s definition to the letter.
Not only did it taste really good — better, Chartrand said, than the other four ways he’s eaten seal — it’s sustainable and healthy.
One of the tragedies of lost Indigenous food and cooking is that it’s been replaced by sugar-, fat- and carbohydrate-laden diets that have contributed to skyrocketing rates of diabetes and heart disease.
(For the record, the chef is opposed to a commercial seal hunt. He supports sustainable hunting with every part of the animal used.)
The genesis of Chartrand’s personal journey of discovery is a desire to connect with the Cree culture denied him as a child. Taken into foster care at two, he was adopted by a Metis Chartrand’s family at seven.
His father taught him about hunting and fishing. But it’s only as an adult that Chartrand began learning about his own people’s traditions.
By then, he was already a rising star in the kitchen, having apprenticed at high-end restaurant kitchens. He’s competed on the Food Network’s Chopped and, in 2017, was the first Indigenous chef to win the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championships and is the chef at the River Cree Resort on Enoch First Nation’s land near Edmonton.
This fall, Chartrand’s cookbook — Tawaw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine — will be published by Anansi Press. It’s about his life, his travels and includes more than 70 recipes using traditional foods.
Top Chef finalist and Haudenosaunee chef Rich Francis seems less of a purist. While he acknowledges in the series’ first episode that bannock doesn’t really fit the definition of Indigenous food, Francis made both bannock and risotto on his visit to the Osoyoos band.
For the risotto, Francis used sage and cactus gathered on the Osoyoos lands that he described as “the Hollywood of rezs.” Both were cooked to accompany cougar seared over an open fire. The cougar was shot because it was deemed a threat to residents.
Like Chartrand, Francis isn’t promoting commercial hunting. But last year he
did threaten to sue the Ontario government for the right to cook wild game in his restaurant because government regulations are one of the many barriers to Canadians’ understanding, knowing and even tasting Indigenous foods.
Elk, deer, moose, bison, seal and the like can only be served at specially permitted events and not in restaurants. Only farm-raised meat can be served and that requires finding suppliers who can raise enough to guarantee a steady supply.
The idea of eating what the Canadian land alone can produce aligns perfectly with concerns about climate change and a sustainable food supply.
Rediscovering traditional foods with Indigenous chefs guiding the way seems a perfect way to learn how to do that.
Beyond that, there’s reconciliation. So many attempts at it are so earnest, so political and so difficult for some people to swallow, that sitting down and eating together may provide a new pathway because who doesn’t love a good meal?