Many Torontonians don’t know much about the food of Canada’s First Nations. We asked chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe to explain a few key points about Aboriginal cuisine.
This weekend, the Harbourfront Centre is hosting the Planet IndigenUS festival, which celebrates indigenous cultures from around the world. Among the highlights are of course the food, but many Torontonians still don’t know much about Aboriginal cuisine. We asked chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe of Keriwa Cafe to talk a bit about the food from his First Nation.
I assume that every First Nation across Canada has their own regional dishes and ingredients, but is there one commonality between all of them when it comes to food?
You’ll be hard-pressed to find commonalities. There’s no such thing as a pan-Aboriginal cuisine. It’s highly regional based on the resources of the area.
Let’s focus on the First Nation you belong to then.
Well, I belong to the Siksika Nation in Alberta. Bison is considered to be the staff of life, so it’s everything to my people for sustinence. There’s also a lot of foraging for berries and vegetables. Later on, after colonization there was a lot of interaction between native and non-native people, so things like bannock were introduced by way of flour from Europeans. Then lard and pork were introduced. Very traditionally, bison would have been the big thing.
So what’s the biggest misconception people have about Aboriginal cooking?
That there’s some sort of pan-Aboriginal cuisine that stretches from coast to coast. Generally it extends to the misconception that there’s a pan-Aboriginal culture.
…Similar to how there are variations to Chinese and French cooking according to regions and cultures?
Exactly. It’s the same set-up.
Any particular dishes from your Nation that are popular?
Right now out there in the community you’ll see a lot of Indian tacos at pow-wows. It’s like Aboriginal street food. You take a piece of fried bread and put taco-style condiments on it. I’ve been toying for a long time [with doing] a fine-dining version of it, but I don’t know if Toronto’s ready for it.
There’s Tea ‘n’ Bannock in the east end that does Indian tacos.
Yeah, I think it’s great because they do more straight-forward and direct food. It’s different from Keriwa Cafe. It’s an exciting time for Aboriginal cusine and culture. We’re still finding our voice and figuring out how to fit in the food scene in a viable manner. But it’s fun because you don’t really know and it’ll evolve and change, just like Canadian cuisine in general.
Are there a lot of Aboriginal chefs and cooks out there?
I think there are few and far between across Canada. I know some really good places on the west coast like Salmon ‘n’ Bannock and Kekuli Café, and there are chefs like David Wolfman, who comes into the restaurant a lot. He’ll actually be at the festival this weekend, too. There are more out there, but it’s hard to find since the Aboriginal population is a small percentage of the whole population. I really hope that Aboriginal people will go into skills like cooking to help define Canadian cuisine. We have a lot of stuff to offer in terms of ingredients, and the food culture in Canada is continuing to gather steam and people are looking inwards than outwards for it.
Bear Robe will appear at the Planet IndigenUS festival this Saturday as part of a panel discussion on food security, as well as a demonstration of how to cook bison. Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queen’s Quay West. 416-973-4093. #HAR