The Walrus Blog

How Sweet It Is

An appreciation for First Nations cuisine

Our intrepid food blogger discovers the pleasures of First Nations cuisine at Ottawa’s booming Sweetgrass Bistro

Sweetgrass Bistro
Mmm, caribou (Courtesy Sweetgrass Bistro)

In Ottawa a few weeks back, I discovered a food trend I would dearly love to see catch on in our more fashionable urban centres. Expounding on our restaurant options for the evening, a friend of mine suggested Sweetgrass, which bills itself as an “Aboriginal Bistro.” The small room in the Byward Market area has evidently been open since 2003, but is still in such demand that trying for a weekend table without a reservation is close to useless.

Sweetgrass serves “unique seasonal menus that follow the ancient hunting and gathering traditions of North and South America’s many First Nation People.” It is owned and operated by Phoebe and Warren Sutherland: Phoebe is Cree and grew up near Mistassini Lake in Quebec; Warren, her husband and partner, was born and raised in Jamaica. Both were trained at the New England Culinary Institute, and the restaurant’s menu looks, while tasty, a touch heavy on gimmickry (the “Grilled Tatonka,” a 10-oz. bison rib-eye, conjures unwelcome images of Kevin Costner wearing a handlebar moustache, humpbacked, and rooting in the dirt like a senile truffle pig). On the other hand, dishes like Awazibi Maple–glazed roasted wild boar, elk dumplings, and sustainably caught pickerel served with fingerling potatoes and “christophes mushrooms” raise a tantalizing possibility: the popularization of cuisine inspired by the food of Canada’s First Nations peoples.

The idea gained some potency in the buildup to the Vancouver Olympics, when media coverage paid increased attention to West Coast native culture. The Globe and Mail’s Alexandra Gill commented on a couple of aboriginal culinary arts programs that have sprung up (at Vancouver Community College and the Kla-how-eya program in Surrey), and noted how a pair of Whistler establishments had spiked their menus with aboriginal themes, in the form of dishes like “herring roe kelp splashed with warm champagne-citrus vinaigrette.” Gill named Sweetgrass and the Chief Chiniki Restaurant in the foothills of the Alberta Rockies, where the specialties are bannock and buffalo, as two of the only genuine, year-round restos that take native cuisine seriously and don’t cater primarily to tourists.

There are others, though, that Gill missed. Keenawaii’s Kitchen in Skidegate, a Haida community on Haida Gwaii, surely counts: there, for $50 a head, guests can sample a smorgasbord of food from the misty rainforest archipelago and its surrounding waterways, such as sea cucumber, sea asparagus, local smoked salmon, herring roe on kelp, dulce, and octopus balls. But Gill’s point is well made. My guess is that most people’s idea of aboriginal cuisine is still informed by high school history lessons about pemmican and seal blubber — both of which can surely be prepared in delicious ways, but neither of which you are likely to find at your nearest drive-thru, nor at the trendy restaurant strip du jour.

Many cultures have a distinct cuisine that defines them in the public dining imagination. A former editor of mine used to remark how Toronto’s much-vaunted multiculturalism didn’t go beyond the variety of restaurants it has to offer. He’s partly right — you don’t see too much mingling going on in the Greek social clubs in Bloorcourt, say, and the commercial areas of the city’s various neighbourhoods are typically defined by a high concentration of a certain type of restaurant. But while it’s true that diversity has to mean more than having a choice between butter chicken and sushi at the local food court, it’s also amazing what internationally embraced cuisine can do for a culture’s public image.

Just ask Korea. Rarely does a month go by without a story by one of Seoul’s newspapers about some new development in the government’s mission to establish Korean food around the globe. This coming Friday and Saturday, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre will host the Korean Food Products and Beverages Exhibition, the goal of which is stated in plain terms on the City’s events portal:

Korean Food Products and Beverages Exhibition Toronto 2010’s purpose is to promote Korea and to further advance the image of Korea in Canada. In line with the Korean government’s efforts to globalize Korean food, Korean food ingredients and products will be displayed in one place for Canadian public. Through this exhibition we hope to increase the level of interest and consumption of Korean Food.

Clearly, there’s something attractive and/or lucrative about having your cuisine loved by other countries. The Toronto event also features displays of Korean arts — dancing, drumming, and ceramics — but it’s food that will take centre stage (the marquee event surely has to be the preparation of bibimbap for 200 diners), because it is through food that we most often make our first meaningful connections with cultures other than our own.

Think for a moment about the ways food reflects its country of origin — the way French cuisine, still held among many to be the height of gastronomic perfection, plays into France’s identity as a leader in sophisticated and refined culture; or how Mexican food’s ample spice content complements the stirring rhythms of its music and dance; or how, in order to reach its full potential, a plate of sashimi demands the same rigourous standards of quality and skill as those required of Japanese businessmen. All of these cuisines have spread to cities around the world, and, in the process, have helped flesh out their country of origin’s identity in the minds of the world’s diners. The results are not always pretty — I sing no laments for Chi-Chi’s — and the correlation to real-world acceptance of a culture’s people is tenuous, if the average American’s disdain for the French stereotype is any indication.

Yet, contrast the above cuisines and their worldwide reputations with the status of food from the Horn of Africa, which includes Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine, and which has not yet been co-opted by celebrity fusion chefs or fast food outlets, and is therefore still primarily available only in large cities with significant East African enclaves. Except for northwestern African countries whose cuisine incorporates Spanish and Middle Eastern influences, no African cuisine has a regular place on the Western table. In however small a way, this surely contributes to the overall opacity of the Western idea of Africa, which is usually muddled and pitying and still draws heavily on images of starvation from the Ethiopian famines of the 1980s. We don’t know what Africa tastes like, and therefore, we’re less inclined to pay much attention to it.

Take it a step further, and you can even make inferences about the connection between food and political might. The waning of America’s grip on international politics has been reflected in a turn away from limp fast-food greaseburgers and other iconic American indulgences of questionable nutritional value. Meanwhile, China and India — whose dishes are among the most popular and familiar around the world, and have been for decades — loom on the horizon as the world’s next economic superpowers, in part, perhaps, because the world now feels as comfortable with stir-frys and curry as it does with roast chicken and apple pie. (Curry, in particular, is a cooking style that unites many cultures, and India is undoubtedly the champion of curries.)

It would be facile to suggest that the struggles of Canada’s First Nations peoples can be solved by a Michelin star, or by the country’s celebrity chefs adding caribou sausage and manoomin to their menus. Rectifying the rifts between aboriginal Canadians and the rest of the society will require delicate political work of a sort that no one currently in power is capable of, as well as major sacrifices on both sides of the debate. However, since we love to trumpet our multiculturalism, I’d greatly like to see more of the food from the country’s original culture adorning its dinner tables. (Consciously and with agency, that is — a Thanksgiving meal of turkey with cornbread stuffing has roots in an aboriginal diet, but is now regarded as the WASPiest of meals.) My suspicion is that more profile for aboriginal foods would mean a better overall public impression of First Nations peoples, especially among white, middle-to-upper-class city dwellers whose exposure to is often limited to the unfortunate souls who ask them for change outside of subway stations. Like music, food has the power to transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries, and to foster good will amongst disparate social groups. A few more spots like Sweetgrass could go a long way toward deepening the general understanding of Native cultures, and their profound connection to the land and its bounty.

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  • Bert

    Glad to hear there are at least a couple around. I loved Vancouver’s Liliget, which closed in 2006.

    It’s an obvious next-big-thing. I hope someone who can do something about it notices.

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