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Indigenous chefs share food from the land — and the heart

Recipes showcase traditional ingredients, methods

About a half-dozen guests watch with eager anticipation as Jessica Rain makes bannock.

“Real simple, only requires three ingredients,” the Alexander First Nation member said of the recipe.

Rain dumps flour, salt, and baking soda into a mixing bowl with a practised hand. She barely needs the measuring cup. A bit of water, hand mixing, and cutting later, and she’s plucking white squares of dough from a tray and slipping them bare-handed into a wok of sizzling oil. After just 10 minutes, the dough has become crispy, golden brown, ready-to-eat bannock. The guests say it’s the best they’ve ever tasted.

You can put anything you want on or in bannock, whether it be garlic, raisins, jam, or butter, Rain said. Her kids stuff theirs with baloney.

“We call that ‘Alexander steak!’” she joked.

Rain (who states, “I reserve my inherent rights, all rights under treaty, as a Red Indian, St. James’s Palace, April 10, 1710, I remain”) was the guest chef for the St. Albert Food Bank’s Cultural Kitchen event on March 19. Food bank director Suzan Krecsy said Rain was the first First Nations expert to lead the event since it started eight years ago.

Rain told the guests bannock is a staple of First Nations culture, featured in many meals and community gatherings.

“It’s very important and part of our heritage.”

Food as culture

Traditional foods are a vital part of Indigenous culture in Canada, University of British Colombia researcher Tabitha Robin said in Frontiers in Communication.

“Through the practice of hunting, gathering, fishing, and foraging, Indigenous peoples have the opportunity to not only practise their culture, but also invoke spirit.”

Indigenous peoples were long banned from exercising these practices and cooking the traditional meals associated with them, Rain noted. Today, she’s free to grab ingredients off the shelf and make bannock with her daughter, Deziree Cardinal.

“Now in 2024, we don’t have to be ashamed of who we are,” Rain said.

Rain said she learned how to make several types of bannock, pemmican, and other traditional dishes from her nôkum (grandmother), Beatrice Sr., who would make bannock for her seven kids every day. She herself typically whips up two or three batches a week.

“It doesn’t last long at all!”

Scott Iserhoff, owner of Pei Pei Chei Ow (pronounced “pe-pe-s-chew”) Indigenous food and education company in Edmonton, said he learned First Nations cooking from his grandparents, who would often serve him hot bannock cooked over a fire.

“That right there was [saying], ‘Hey, I love you,’” he said.

Iserhoff said he was inspired to delve into Indigenous cuisine by the APTN show Cooking with the Wolfman, where Chef David Wolfman espoused the benefits and importance of traditional First Nations ingredients. Today, he serves up dishes such as bison tartare with pickled wild apples, mixing First Nations knowledge with modern cooking techniques.

Shane Chartrand of Edmonton’s Nehiyaw Cuisine has showcased Indigenous cuisine on shows such as Chopped Canada and Iron Chef Canada. While he grew up eating traditional Indigenous foods, he said he didn’t embrace his First Nations background until he saw Chef Susur Lee’s wild fusions of French and Chinese cuisine.

“I thought, ‘This is Indigenous food. This guy is doing French-finessed food with ancient Chinese ingredients. Why is that not what I’m doing?'”

Chartrand said he spent years visiting Indigenous communities across Canada to learn how to showcase traditional ingredients such as elk, smoked salmon, and wild celery. Through his travels, he gained a new appreciation for the strength of Indigenous culture.

“Real Indigenous food was already thriving,” he said.

A tale in every bite

Edmonton chef Brad Lazarenko (whose mother grew up in St. Albert) serves up Métis-inspired dishes like “Three Sisters” salad through the Culina Family of Restaurants.

“Modern-day Indigenous cooking … is just using local ingredients,” he said, with an emphasis on what you use over how you use it.

Not to say there aren’t any iconic dishes. There’s pemmican, for example, which is a mix of fat, dried meat, and berries used by hunters as a long-lasting travel food. Modern diners might find traditional pemmican a bit bland, Lazarenko noted, as it doesn’t have much salt or spice to it.

Bannock is often associated with First Nations and the Métis but is controversial to some because of its colonial roots, John Robert Colombo writes in the Canadian Encyclopedia. Introduced to North America by Scottish fur traders, bannock became a necessity for Indigenous peoples as they were moved onto reserves and forced to survive on government-supplied of flour, lard and eggs. While some Indigenous chefs shun it as a result, Iserhoff said he sees bannock as Indigenous by adoption.

“I love bannock. It’s part of our history and it’s a learning opportunity,” Iserhoff said.

“This is what kept us alive during those hard times.”

Indigenous cuisine is about place, people, and story, Chartrand said. It comes from getting to know a region’s traditions, what ingredients they favour (and why), and combining those with modern culinary skills to create a dish.

Indigenous food around Edmonton is all about bison, for example, as bison was a major food source in this region, Chartrand said as an example. B.C. chefs might favour wind-dried salmon, while those from other areas might use cattails, whale, or beaver.

Those local ingredients have to be backed by history and context, Chartrand and Iserhoff said. When Iserhoff serves bison tartare with pickled wild apples, for example, he talks about how bison were hunted almost to extinction in North America, and how foraging is a central part of First Nations life. If he adds bone marrow to aioli, he talks about how his grandparents would roast moose bones over a fire, crack them open with an axe, and spread the marrow on bannock.

Rain talks about the wild berries she harvests every year for use in jams, and how her daughter would poke her head out of the shrubs, face and fingers blue with juice, while picking saskatoons with Rain’s grandmother.

“I think she ate a little bit more than she picked!” Rain said, laughing.

Cooking up tomorrow

Rain said it is important to her to share her knowledge of Indigenous cuisine with others.

“Some of our traditions are being lost,” she said, but sharing them shows these traditions are still alive.

Iserhoff said it is important to promote Indigenous cuisine to develop it as a field and inspire the next generation of chefs.

“We’re rediscovering our food.”

Anyone who wants to learn about Indigenous cuisine should start by talking to Indigenous chefs and eating in Indigenous-run restaurants, Iserhoff said. Bannock is an easy starter dish to try.

Food is one way to learn more about Indigenous culture, Chartrand said.

“If you eat our food, learn about our people, and get to know our people, everything will connect.”

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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