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Photo Chef Joseph Shawana at his Toronto restaurant, Kūkŭm. Photo by Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Indigenous cuisine

One of Canada’s hottest food trends has been millennia in the making. In Toronto alone, three Indigenous restaurants opened their doors over the past year, putting the spotlight on First Nations cuisine and traditions.

By Kristy Woudstra

Cooking customs

Indigenous food traditions vary, but they all share three things: they’re local, seasonal and wild. “We were hunters, trappers and fishers, so I grew up eating a lot of wild game,” recalls Tina Ottereyes, who manages the Toronto eatery Tea-N-Bannock, open since 2012. Government food regulations make serving wild meat impossible, but that hasn’t stopped Indigenous restaurateurs from presenting their traditional cuisine. Chef Joseph Shawana spent two months sourcing farmed elk with just the right texture and flavour for his Toronto fine-dining restaurant Kūkŭm, which means “grandmother” in Cree.

A vital mission

When Europeans arrived and forced First Nations people onto reserves, limited their hunting and fishing, and then attempted a cultural genocide through residential schools, Indigenous language and culture — including food traditions — could have been lost. That’s why it’s important to make this cuisine available to a wider audience, especially now. “I feel there’s been a big cultural shift this past year based on the 150th [anniversary] of Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and all the positive media attention that we’re finally getting,” says Shawana of the sudden influx of Indigenous restaurants. Ottereyes, who hails from the Wemindji Cree community in northern Quebec, is proud of her cultural heritage. “I’m honoured that I can share what I’ve grown up with,” she says.

Next steps

Kūkŭm opened in Toronto in June, following NishDish and PowWow Cafe. At first, Shawana worried about whether he would be able to pay the rent and his employees. But thanks to a steady stream of customers, he is now making plans to open restaurants across the country, which will reflect each spot’s local Indigenous fare. “We didn’t realize the impact we [would have] on our community,” says Shawana, who is Odawa and grew up on Manitoulin Island. “We’re laying the foundation for future Aboriginal entrepreneurs to start their careers and follow their dreams.” 

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