Smoke and Spirituality: Indigenous Elements of Cuisine
By Joanne Sasvari
Denise Atkinson remembers how, when she’d go blueberry picking as a child, a big pot of tea would always be steaming over the campfire.
“A nice cup of tea, it’s a part of my Indigenous culture,” says the co‑owner of the Thunder Bay-based wild-crafted‑foods company Tea Horse. “It’s family, it’s multi‑generational, from my grandmother right down to the kids. It’s very Anishinaabe.”
The tea plant, camellia sinensis, isn’t native to the Americas, but it has become one of the sometimes-surprising elements of contemporary Indigenous cuisine.
Those elements include traditional techniques such as cooking food over a wood fire—salmon smoked over smouldering cedar on the West Coast perhaps, or, much more dramatically, the tower of flames called the “Potence” at Restaurant Sagamité in Wendake, Québec, where chef Steeve “Wadohandik” Gros-Louis sets a wooden tripod aflame and within it roasts venison, elk or beef in a fiery update of Wendat cookery.
Indigenous cuisine also pays homage to the Culture of the people who grow, prepare and serve the food, to their art and rituals. It can even be found on wine lists like the one at Little Chief Restaurant in the Tsuut’ina Nation’s Grey Eagle Resort outside Calgary, which features vintages from Indigenous-owned wineries like Indigenous World Winery and Nk’Mip Cellars.
Mostly, though, Indigenous cuisine emphasizes the ingredients that grew here before European contact: berries, wild rice, game meats, fish and the famous “three sisters”—beans, corn and squash.
For instance, Atkinson and her partner Marc H. Bohémier have fused their love of tea with the wild ingredients of Northern Ontario—specifically, the wild rice gathered by Indigenous harvesters from nearby lakes. Inspired by Japanese genmaicha, an anti-oxidant-rich green tea combined with roasted brown rice, they have created what they call manoomin cha, “manoomin” being the Ojibway word for wild rice.
“It’s more than eating the food,” Bohémier says. “It’s about a spiritual connection to the land.”