My favourite thing about living in Toronto is the multiculturalism. By welcoming individuals from a wide-variety of backgrounds, our city becomes a more vibrant, interesting and delicious place to live. In my Global Food in Toronto Series I’m travelling the globe by eating one local meal from every country in the world without leaving Toronto. This time I’m tasting Native Canadian food in Toronto.
Native Canadian Food in Toronto
Restaurant: Tea and Bannock
Companion: My friend, Verity
Menu: Bannock with Wild Blueberry Jam. Strawberry Juice. Salmon & Bison Burgers on Fry Bread.
When I travel, I’m often asked to describe Canadian food and honestly, I find it hard to answer. What comes to my mind are moments not meals. Canadian food is BeaverTails, maple syrup on snow or tarte au sucre after a day of winter sports. Canadian food is roasted winter squash, mashed potatoes and turkey shared with loved ones around a harvest table. Canadian food is fresh sweet corn, juicy peaches and ruby red strawberries bought from a roadside farm stands on the way to the cottage.
In my urban life, Canadian food can also be fresh gnocchi with sage butter, vindaloo curry with buttery Naan, spicy salmon sushi or a steaming bowl of ramen with rich pork broth. That’s the thing about being Canadian, we may not have an easily recognizable culture, but we embrace our multiculturalism and have been rewarded with a diverse and delicious food scene. My Taste the World in Toronto series is all about exploring this diversity through authentic meals. When I discovered that there was a Native Canadian restaurant in Leslieville that featured dishes traditionally prepared by Aboriginal Canadians, I was intrigued to learn what was on the menu. Would I finally have an answer to the question what is Canadian food?
My friend Verity and I visited Tea and Bannock on weeknight in May and sadly it was nearly empty. As we browsed the menu the first thing I noticed was it that is an unlicensed establishment. Having witnessed the staggeringly high levels of substance abuse on (some) Aboriginal reserves in Canada, I wondered if this was a conscientious decision made to respect the community. The long, complicated history of Canadian Aboriginal relations is fraught with inequalities, violence and outright racism. The current tragedy in Attawapiskat is a modern repercussion of this intergenerational trauma and while I cannot speak of any of the First Nations communities, I beech you read up on the issues with an open-mind and compassion.
Instead of an alcoholic beverage, Verity and I happily ordered crushed strawberries over ice as a satisfying drink on a warm spring evening. We quickly agreed we wanted to try the bannock, a traditional scone-like bread, for which the restaurant is named. I was surprised to learn that it came as a starter and was served room temperature not warmed, but when it arrived with a side of homemade wild blueberry jam we were delighted. Wild blueberries are smaller than their conventional brothers but incredibly flavourful. The jam was sweet, tart and rich all at once and completely stole the show.
While we snacked on bannock, I appreciated the decor which featured traditional Aboriginal handicrafts like a baby carrier, snowshoes, and a bow & arrow. The walls were lined with paintings which showed beautiful Canadian landscapes and maps. Plus on the table, there was a mini tipi!
Choosing our unconventional starter was simple, but the rest of the menu had an overwhelming amount of choice. Elk stew or Bison steak? Pan fried Northern Pike or Trout burger? Or maybe the completely unexplained Indian Taco? When we asked our server for advice, she in a very friendly way offered no suggestions and said we should order whatever we felt like!
As it was a warm day I vetoed having a stew or roast, and planned to try a Bison burger. When Verity chose the Bison, I went instead with the Salmon burger. Both were served on fry bread which is basically a fried version of bannock and is apparently an important part of Native Canadian cuisine. We both enjoyed our meal and agreed that the serving size was generous for the price, but felt it would be worth returning in colder weather to enjoy a more traditional meat stew.
After eating at a Native Canadian restaurant did I feel more confident in my understanding of Canadian food? Essentially, I came away thinking that our food culture should be one that pays tribute to and cares for the land from which we survive. A true Canadian meal would highlight fresh fish that thrive in the clean, clear rivers; wild blueberries and strawberries that grow in the warm spring weather; elk and bison that roam through vast plains and forests. These are the flavours of Canada. These are the glorious ingredients that represent our past and our present, but only if we conserve and respect the beautiful environment on which we depend.
Are you from a country with a well-known national cuisine? I’d love to hear about your favourite dishes in the comments!
Now It’s Your Turn! Take a few minutes on your lunch break today to look up the history of your country. Don’t focus only on the positive contributions and milestones, dig a little deeper to understand the darker history as well. Understanding where our culture comes from and what our fellow community members have survived makes us wiser, more empathetic people. While you are reading, see if you can find the story behind your favourite regional dish and share it with me in the comments!