Traditional aboriginal food establishments are offering dishes infused with modern culinary innovations.
Native American people of the Pacific Northwest were immersed in the “100-mile diet” long before it became “trendy.” Little wonder, for they lived in an astonishingly bountiful environment. Forests overflowed with deer, elk, berries, flowers and greens. Seas and rivers teemed with salmon, prawn and crab. Shorelines were rich with clams, oysters and seaweed. Food was central to traditional life and connected Native people to family, community and even the afterlife.
Then came the white man and everything changed. Today, nutrition has too often been replaced by sugar, salt and glitzy packaging. And, as is well documented, the health of Native peoples has spiralled downward.
But there is good news. Although eating establishments offering traditional Native food are rare, they’re making a comeback. Even better, the dishes are being infused with modern culinary innovations.
I was in the Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro in Vancouver with a Haida canoe suspended from the ceiling and Native art adorning the walls. I tasted a spicy game chorizo sausage from the Game Sampler platter … wonderful! Then I spread barbecue salmon mousse on bannock and ladled blueberry chutney onto a piece of bison carpaccio.
Inez Cook, Nuxalk Nation, owner and manager, explained, “My bistro is unique. It’s the only restaurant in Vancouver offering 100 percent First Nations’ food, and it’s staffed entirely by Native people. She continued, “I want to shout out: ‘Try it! Eat it!’” I acquiesced spearing a piece of musk ox prosciutto.
The bistro opened in 2010 and is winning accolades on the hotly competitive Vancouver dining scene. “None of our food contains preservatives or additives,” Cook said. “Nothing is raised in factory farms or is genetically modified. We source all fresh and wild foods so it’s very healthy.”
“The most popular dishes are salmon, elk pot roast and bison ribs with red wine gravy,” Cook said. These are paired with wines from Indigenous World Winery and Nk’Mip Cellars, Native-owned-and-operated wineries.”
When I remarked that the menu featured mostly fish and meat, Cook answered with a laugh …
“Yes, Natives think vegetarians are just lousy hunters.”
The Thunderbird Café, part of the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Centre in Whistler has grown significantly since opening in 2008. The Indian Taco with venison chilli and bannock is popular and generous in size. Other favorites are salmon chowder and wild-boar-and-bison smokies. They also make a venison pemmican with local berries and nuts.
A Feast is presented On Tuesdays and Sundays where you can savour sockeye salmon on a cedar plank and watch a traditional performance with drumming, songs and dance.
With locations in West Kelowna and Merritt, Kekuli Café offers traditional cultural ambience, light pow-wow music, aboriginal art and, best of all, aboriginal cuisine. You can guess the Kekuli’s specialty from the slogan, Don’t panic, we have bannock! Dozens of flavours are offered and Kekuli has made over a million pieces in ten years of business. The Café is so popular that Sharon Bond, owner and chef, Nooaitch First Nation, is looking at franchising.
In 2016, the Songhees Seafood & Steam truck became the first permanent Indigenous food truck in Canada. (One operated temporarily in Toronto during the Pan Am Games in 2015.) Located in Victoria, the truck, emblazoned with a bold red and green Native design, has proven very successful, offering fresh food sourced from southern Vancouver Island. Favourites include wild salmon burgers and Indian tacos. It also offers First Nations youth training and a culinary career path.
Mr. Bannock, which opened in 2018, is the first and only aboriginal food truck in Vancouver. Paul Natrall, owner and chef, says, “We take pride and joy in sharing fusion Indigenous cuisine, using traditional ingredients from Squamish Nation such as juniper berries, smoked wild salmon and meats, and traditional methods such as clay baking and stone baking.”
Keenawaii’s Kitchen in Haida Gwaii is small and remote but with outstanding Indigenous cuisine. A typical meal may include sguu (dried seaweed), dried K’aaw (herring eggs on kelp), and gilgii (dried salmon) and other in-season foods.
The future looks bright. The ha’me’ Restaurant has recently opened in the new aboriginal Kwa’lilas Hotel in Port Hardy and is receiving good reviews, and an indigenous restaurant is planned for Skwachays Lodge in Vancouver.
You can also cook at home guided by Where People Feast – An Indigenous People’s Cookbook by Dolly and Annie Watts. The cookbook presents traditional and modern aboriginal recipes, from hot buttered halibut to juniper berry sauce to bannock and also includes instructions for smoking and drying wild game, preparing seafood and preserving berries.
It seems clear. To enjoy good health while tantalizing the taste buds, turn to traditional aboriginal foods.
If You’re Hungry, try one of these aboriginal food restaurants in B.C. …
Thunderbird Café in Whistle
Kekuli Café, West Kelowna
Seafood & Steam Foodtruck in Victoria
ha’me’ Restaurant, Port Hardy
Keenawaii’s Kitchen in Haida Gwaii