How a new guard of Indigenous chefs is sharing its traditions
Despite our pride in multiculturalism, many Canadians have a limited understanding of Indigenous dishes and the stories behind them
Shantel Tallow pulls a batch of golden bannock out of the oven. Made with a traditional formula of flour, baking powder and water, it's baked in a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan, the way her grandfather made it.
In the next room, strips of thinly sliced beef flank are draped over a wire rack. They've spent four days there, dehydrating easily in Calgary's dry climate, and will be finished off with a day in the smoker out back. "It would be nice if we could build a smokehouse in the backyard like my grandma's," Tallow says. "They aren't allowed in the city."
Tallow and her partner, Paul Conley, cook at home for their three children, but also rent a commercial kitchen to cook for parties and special events through their catering company, Aahksoyo'p Indigenous Comfort Food. With the help of friends and community members, they serve up the dishes of Tallow's youth – she grew up on the Blood Reserve in Stand Off, Alta. – to groups of up to 1,500. Theirs is the only Indigenous catering company registered to do business in the city of 1.3 million, and business is good. Facebook reviewers are elated with their food, and the couple dream of opening a small café some day.
The couple chose to live and run the business off reserve so they could share the cooking, and traditions tied to it, with more people. "That's been our goal," Tallow says, "to reach as many as we can – Indigenous and non-Indigenous."
Tallow and Conley are part of a new guard of Indigenous cooks and chefs hoping to share their food traditions with a broader audience. The dishes and the stories around them reveal a cuisine that the country – one that despite taking pride in its multiculturalism – has a limited understanding of.
The Blood Tribe First Nation, located between Fort MacLeod and Cardston in southern Alberta, is one of three Indigenous nations in the Blackfoot Confederacy. Aahksoyo'p (aah-k-soy-op) means "we're going to eat" in Blackfoot. As Tallow returns to the stove and flips the bannock whole, she tells me that she doesn't speak the language, but she does understand it.
Bannock, a quick bread fried on the stove top, baked in the oven or turned on a stick over an open fire, is among the most recognizable Indigenous dishes. As with most recipes, there are variations from nation to nation and family to family. Tallow follows her grandfather's technique of baking the mixture in one piece and flipping it to make it crispier on both sides. The next morning, she says, she'll slice it and brown the pieces in a skillet to make Indian toast. Most of her dried meat is destined to be ground, along with dried Saskatoon berries, into pemmican – a blend of meat, fat and berries.
Many of Tallow's recipes are based on dishes she prepared with relatives as an only child. "In my house, laughter was always medicine, and food is a big part of our family," she says. "I learned how to dry meat from my grandparents and great-grandma, how to make pemmican and Indian popcorn [the crispy bits left over after rendering beef or bison fat they get from the butcher], and my auntie taught me how to make fry bread and pies."
Dishes such as these are turning up on restaurant menus, too. Indigenous eateries have been popping up across Canada, including NishDish and the Pow Wow Cafe in Toronto, Kekuli Cafe in Kelowna, B.C., Little Chief Restaurant in the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino in Calgary, and Feast Cafe Bistro in Winnipeg. Vancouver's first Indigenous food truck, Mr. Bannock, opened at the end of January, with three generations of chefs from the Squamish Nation combining traditional ingredients and methods with new food trends.
Beyond the restaurant scene, others in the food world are finding ways to explore and promote Indigenous cuisine as well. An outdoor school affiliated with the University of Alberta provides an opportunity to earn credits out on the land, learning traditional skills with elders. Chef David Wolfman, well-known host of Cooking with the Wolfman on APTN, released a debut cookbook, Cooking with the Wolfman: Indigenous Fusion, which he co-authored with his wife, Marlene Flinn. And later this spring, a new documentary series called Red Chef Revival brings Top Chef Canada finalist Rich Francis to three First Nation communities across Canada – Mackenzie Valley in the Northwest Territories, Haida Gwaii in British Columbia and Six Nations in Ontario – to give viewers a better understanding of pre-colonial Indigenous cuisine and the impact of colonization on First Nation traditions and their relationship with the land.
These chefs and many others are sharing their culinary traditions with a growing audience. Some have credited the controversy surrounding Canada 150 with directing more attention to the country's deeper history. But others talk of a broader cultural shift: After all, food is a door-opening mechanism, a common ground we can all relate to and express our personal histories through.
"For Canada, it's such an important part of our collective history," says Anita Stewart, food laureate at the University of Guelph and the author of several books dedicated to the history of food in Canada.
A variety of factors have sparked interest in Indigenous culture, she says, including efforts towards reconciliation, additional CBC funding (or at least a shift in focus), Gord Downie's strident support and more First Nations representation in government. Social media and a generation of image and thought sharing has also helped spread information while traditional languages are simultaneously being relearned. In many ways, it's about preservation. "In order to protect their ingredients, they're serving them forth," she says.
And while some chefs who focus on Indigenous cuisine stick to tradition – with hunted, fished and foraged ingredients that are prepared using traditional techniques – others embrace more current food trends. Tallow, for example, incorporates dishes such as bannock pizza and Indian tacos, which have become popular with younger generations, particularly at festivals and pow wows.
Shane Chartrand of the River Cree Resort and Casino in Enoch, Alta., is another chef eager to spread the message: In fact, he's been vocal about Indigenous cuisine for more than decade. He's interested in not only the food of his childhood in central Alberta, but the broader range of culinary traditions and protocol of other First Nations communities across Canada. As much as he cooks, speaks and encourages others to do the same, he travels to learn more, generating and collecting shared experiences.
"First Nations cuisine is something we overlook. It's something we need to dig further into," says Chartrand, who was born on the Enoch Cree nation and, after spending his early years in foster care, adopted at 7 by a Métis family who taught him to hunt and fish and never forget his roots. "Why is it important? Food is culture. It's us, it's who we are."
One of the obstacles, Chartrand says, is a lack of information in print. In the process of writing his first book, Marrow: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine with co-author Jennifer Cockrall-King, he has tried to seek out published recipes and resources, but knew there were few to find. "There's nothing written down. There's no going out and learning about Indigenous techniques," he says. "You learn by stories. That makes it even more exciting." But now, as Chartrand and others are writing books, teaching courses and appearing on cooking shows, the stories, customs and methods are being documented for others to find and reference.
Non-Indigenous Canadians still have a long way to go to understand and accept some of these ingredients. For instance, when Toronto's Kukum Kitchen served a seal tartare last year, some diners found the idea of seal meat objectionable because of controversies around the hunt. But chef Joseph Shawana, of Manitoulin Island's Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve and other Indigenous activists defended the hunt, calling it economically important to Inuit communities. The criticisms left Shawana feeling let down, he said, by a society that wasn't as culturally educated about the issues around Indigenous food as he had hoped.
For Chartrand, the tradition and history behind food should also be shared. He tells the story of how, at a recent event, he was given 50 pounds of chum salmon from the Haida Gwaii to prepare for dinner guests. "It has a big jaw, they fight the through the rivers, they battle," he explains.
"The Haida Gwaii believe that if you ingest chum salmon, the strength of the fish is in your body and in your mind. These are the kinds of stories I share when I cook Indigenous dinners for people. Those are the things we'll remember. That's what matters to me."
As people pay more attention to the sources and cultural relevance of the food they eat, it will undoubtedly lead to deeper conversations about the Indigenous experience. "I believe in the next five to 10 years there will be young chefs, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, who make a big stand for the spirituality of eating," Chartrand said at a talk last year, referring to the understanding and preservation of traditions. "In the First Nations world, we have a massive responsibility to take those traditions and carry them on. The more we talk about it, the more exciting it gets."
Art Napoleon, a Cree bushman and former chief of the Saulteau First Nation in northeastern B.C., also focuses on the Indigenous food sovereignty movement, advocating for land rights and the ability to pursue traditional cultural livelihoods.
"There's a resurgence happening," Napoleon says. "A lot of young people are interested now. It's great to see young people saying show me a moose hide, I want to learn how to tan. They're doing demonstrations in big cities where anyone can go watch, and forming little non-profit societies all centred around cultural resurgence."
Napoleon is co-host, with British chef Dan Hayes, of Moosemeat & Marmalade, a food documentary series airs on the Aboriginal People's Television Network. Moosemeat & Marmalade brings the Victoria-based chefs from different cultural backgrounds together; Napoleon introduces Hayes to the back country to hunt, forage and cook wild game, and the London chef brings his classical French training to the table. It's all unscripted, allowing each host's personality and humour to draw the viewer in to unfamiliar territory.
Growing up, Napoleon got a taste of the old way of life by following the cycle of the land. "We had to follow the seasons – berry season, bear season, moose season," he says. "The forest is our supermarket, it's our drugstore, it's our church."
Considered one of the traditional knowledge keepers in his community, Napoleon has been teaching and speaking about Indigenous culture since he was a teenager. He now helps newer generations connect with their roots by participating in workshops and real-life culture camps. "You'll see an entire village out in the woods," he says. "Teepees and trapper tents, people setting up smoking racks to dry out their meat, cooks sitting around the fire, kids being sent out on berry picking expeditions. It's coming back."
Although Napoleon still hunts, it's not a practice he expects to become mainstream. "You don't need to be a hunter to try some of these recipes," he says of the dishes he shares on Moosemeat & Marmalade. "Grass-fed local meat is a good substitute." Farm-raised elk is becoming easier to find, and he suggests ungulates like deer or moose can be replaced with beef or bison, lamb or goat.
Later this month, he'll head up to the Yukon to talk about food sovereignty and to cook with local youth and elders. "Life is a collection of stories," he says. "Food is a common denominator. Sitting around the table, conversations are taking place. It breaks down barriers. It's always a potential act of reconciliation, just sitting around the table and eating together."
Back near Edmonton, Chartrand feels the same. "We are a multicultural country," he says. "Aboriginal cuisine is a big part of who we are. I keep thinking of what the value of First Nations cuisine means to me, and ultimately it's Canadian cuisine. I believe that Canadian food is aboriginal food and the spirituality that follows it – which means it's about following the trends of the food and the terroir we live in, and respecting it with all our hearts."
Indigenous recipes to try at home
Shantel Tallow and Paul Conley often pick saskatoons outside the city, or source the berries from a local grower at the farmers' market. Some are dried for pemmican, others go into the pie Shantel's aunt taught her how to make.
"There's a difference between aboriginal food and food we've inherited," chef Shane Chartrand says. "We inherited bannock from the British. We've also made it part of our culture, so is it part of our culture? Of course it is. We've made it our own. When you're gifted something, it's yours."
This one-pot dish is designed to be cooked on an outdoor fire in a Dutch oven, but will also work in an indoor oven.