In the centre of Toronto’s Koreatown on Bloor Street West, one block east of Christie Pits, sits one of the only restaurants in the city that serves traditional Indigenous food.
On today’s menu, detailed on a chalkboard next to the cash register, is a bison sausage plate with wild rice and salad, duck breast with duck egg, and wild rice casserole and salad, and bison, boar, or veggie breakfast sandwiches, among other offerings.
The menu (specifically Anishnawbe cuisine) varies daily, depending on the product that is sourced. The restaurant at the corner of Clinton and Bloor streets is tiny – two long picnic-style tables with benches, and three bar stools and a counter next to the front window.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People hangs on a wall, along with photography and artwork, and a small collection of First Nations handmade goods and products: medicine woman soap, bath bombs, books on how to grow food on your balcony, moccasins and ballcaps, bags of Moccasin-Jo coffee.
NishDish Marketeria and Catering is the brainchild of chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette, who is Anishnawbe: Ojibwe and Algonquin First Nations.
“It’s not just a restaurant,” Whiteduck Ringuette says.
The original mission was to build on his successful catering business going back 12 years and continue to reclaim native food sovereignty — which aims to support and build Indigenous economies of food, including producers, suppliers and sellers — and bring traditional, healthy food back to his people. Diabetes runs rampant across the First Nations population. Whiteduck Ringuette says NishDish stays away from gluten and dairy, and cooks a lot with grains, vegetables and the protein that comes from fish, buffalo, elk and bison.
The response from non-Indigenous people to the restaurant and its menu has been, in Whiteduck Ringuette’s words, “truly extraordinary”.
When NishDish launched two years ago, Clinton Street was shut down for a party for 800 people from the neighbourhood. Whiteduck Ringuette calls NishDish more of a community place where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can gather, in a relaxed environment. An education about Indigenous food is the impetus.
There are four restaurants in the city now that offer Indigenous food.
Hywel Tuscano, Whiteduck Ringuette’s business partner and also a chef, says that NishDish, located next to several Korean restaurants and close to a corner spot that serves shawarma and across the street from a taco place, is part of the culinary richness of Toronto. But Indigenous food is still new to many Canadian palates.
“When I describe the restaurant to people, using the word ‘aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’, they don’t know what that means,” he says.
That is reflective of a “lost culture”, Tuscano says, and a lack of visibility that native culture has in larger Canadian culture. What was lost, he says, was a food foundation for his culture, with native people “not being connected to the land anymore because of removal.”
His friend Whiteduck Ringuette was given a mission to bring traditional food back to his people.
“That is romantic in a sense,” Tuscano says. A heavy diet of refined wheat, sugar and salt made people sick over time. Whiteduck Ringuette, who grew up north of North Bay, Ont., where his father was a hunter and fisher, has reimagined what traditional Indigenous food could look like.
He was raised on wild game, fish and seasonal berries. He tapped local maple trees and cooked over outdoor fire pits at hunt camps.
Identifying, sourcing and reclaiming the traditional Anishnawbe diet is one small way of countering the effects of the oppressive residential school legacy and generations of trauma in the Indigenous community.
“But the First Nations food sovereignty journey will take all the efforts of many allied Nations to complete the circle of healing,” Whiteduck Ringuette says. “Each generation will learn and benefit greatly through this understanding.”
June is the busiest month for the catering business – not surprising since National Indigenous Peoples Day is on June 21.
A big seller these days is Three Sisters Stew, a native nutrient-rich dish made of three “symbiotic plants” – squash, beans and corn. Corn provides the foundation for the beans to climb, beans provide nitrogen for the soil and squash protects the ground around them, retaining moisture.
For Whiteduck Ringuette, and others, food serves as a bridge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, especially as people gravitate more to farm-to-table eating and seek out healthy and holistic nutrition.
“It’s the best way to bridge it,” he says.
In Halton Region east of Toronto, Jody Harbour of the Indigenous Education Advisory Council, says Indigenous cuisine is an ideal platform for reconciliation, “considering the social characteristics of the restaurant and hospitality industry.”
“There is nothing like a meal made with love and shared while nurturing relationships,” she says.
Lori Harris, who runs a Six Nations of the Grand River Territory catering company, says the growing popularity comes down to the fact Indigenous people simply want a healthier relationship with food. Her menu includes corn soup, Three Sisters Soup, Indian tacos, Indian cookies as well as wild game, venison with wild rice, mushrooms, onions and bacon.
“We need to do ourselves a favour and start eating the old way,” she says.
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