There’s a lot of hand wringing around the question: How do Canadians define Canadian food? As a nation that prides itself on its multiculturalism, as well as being a geographically large nation with regional differences, the answers are wide ranging and difficult to distill into a simple answer. But, recently, many of the answers I’ve seen have attempted to bring the question back to the ‘basics’: to emphasize place, and to bring the food back to the land. What ingredients can be harvested from the land? What is unique to Canada? As writer Jennifer Cockrall-King writes, Canadian cuisine “starts with ingredients that spring from the landscape…”
This emphasis is articulated by John Raulston Saul, one of Canada’s most celebrated writers and thinkers:
“People need to look at themselves in a mirror to help them understand where they come from—and one of those mirrors is the soil that produces food and drink for us. I believe we need to nourish ourselves with the products of the soil to which we belong. You might say it’s a grounding element. The concept of a nation that nourishes its people…”“Structural Elements in Canadian Cuisine”
This move back to locally grown and harvested ingredients is a trend that is mirrored around the world; there is an increased emphasis on local ingredients, local techniques and local histories that make each place and dish unique. It’s a trend that complicates ‘fine dining’ culinary trends that saw French, Italian and other European cuisines exported around the world as the paragon of good food. Challenging this, the use of local ingredients emphasizes the environment and terroir: often, still using similar techniques but highlighting different ingredients that can be locally harvested. A prime example of this is the famed restaurant Noma in Denmark, which sources its unique menu almost exclusively from the Danish terroir and local farmers and harvesters. Restaurants around the world, including in Canada, have done similar: attempting to take food back to local, regionally grown ingredients.
So, in Canada, saskatoon berries and salmon and moose and wild ginger and cedar and fiddleheads and maple syrup and bison and wild rice and Arctic char become representative Canadian foods.
But, to put it bluntly: this is a culinary invention born of settler colonialism. These foods are not Canadian foods. Or, at the very least, they did not begin as Canadian foods. They are Indigenous foods. They are Sḵwx̱wú7mesh foods, Gwich’in foods, Nehiyaw foods, Anishinaabe foods, Inuk foods, Miꞌkmaq foods. These ingredients, methods, and dishes belong to nations that existed long before Canada did and nations that continue to exist. How they came to be called ‘Canadian’ is part and parcel of the larger invention of Canada, part and parcel of the settler colonial legacy that permeates Canada to the present day.
The move to center ingredients that can be grown and harvested locally, to claim them as part of a national cuisine, takes on a different context in settler colonial nations such as Canada. Especially in light of Canada’s efforts to reconcile with the Indigenous nations and peoples whose land they occupy, efforts to ‘return’ to the ingredients that Indigenous cuisines were built on is often tokenized as a move towards reconciliation, an inclusion of Indigenous foods into the national fabric, a recognition of the culinary legacy of Indigenous peoples. But these foods and the histories they hold do not belong to Canada.
As Raulston Saul notes in the above quote, nations nourish themselves through the land. And the land that Canada nourishes itself from is Indigenous land, the land that has nourished Indigenous nations here for tens of thousands of years before Canada even existed. At the heart of settler colonialism is ongoing theft of Indigenous land; so, at the heart of settler colonial cuisine is also the theft of Indigenous land and the foods that are harvested and grown on it.
But, the common story told in Canada goes like this: celebrating Indigenous foods is a chance to rectify past wrongs and recognize Indigenous contributions to what makes Canada great – it’s diversity.
But inclusion into a colonial nation still occupying your land is not reconciliation: it builds on past harms rather than rectifying them. The story of Canada and its foods is a story that is invented and then told until it is true. It not only appropriates Indigenous foodways as Canadian, but also erases the violent ways in which Canada has and continues to violently erase these foodways.
This erasure and appropriation is seen in rhetorical moves that declare Indigenous peoples as ‘our Indigenous peoples,’ or as ‘the first inhabitants of Canada,’ or even what is commonly echoed in discussions of Canadian food, as ‘Canada’s first cooks.’ This erases Indigenous nationhood and normalizes the Canadian nation as one that has always existed, also normalizing the colonial narrative that there was nothing here (the concept of terra nullius or ’empty land’) until settlers arrived and Canada was formed. Long before Canadians, there were the Sto:lo and the Dene and the Neyihaw and the Mohawk and the Chippewas and the Mi’kmaq and hundreds of other nations. Erasing these particularities for a ‘Canadian’ narrative is a move that erases Indigenous cuisines, their particularities, and the foundational ways in which these foods sustained these nations, even in the face of the violent onslaught of colonialism.
This culinary invention and erasure is rampant in the book, Canada’s House: Rideau Hall and the invention of a Canadian home. Rideau Hall is Canada’s home to the Governor General (the official representative of the British queen) and plays a role in the cultural and political creation of Canada, hosting events and dignitaries, showcasing Canada’s culture and cuisine, and acting as an ambassador for all things ‘Canada’. The narrative of the book is representative of what often happens in attempt to ‘celebrate’ Indigenous foods, but it particularly worth noting due to the prestige attached to Rideau Hall.
The book, a broad overview of Rideau Hall’s efforts to showcase Canada, includes a chapter on Indigenous cuisine that is supposed to pay homage to Canada’s diversity and its ‘pluralistic society’ but further entrenches colonial narratives of the relationships between Indigenous peoples and Canada, erasing their nationhood as well as the many violences of colonialism, including the culinary violences.
The book states,
“Few Canadians are aware of the rich culinary legacy we have inherited from the original inhabitants of Canada. The native peoples taught the European settlers how to adapt to the rigours of a harsh climate and the sharp transitions between seasons, and how to make the best use of the brief growing season in most parts of the country. They showed them how to grow corn, squash, and beans (the “three sisters”), where to harvest cranberries and other wild fruits, and the way to make a delicious syrup by boiling down the sap of the sugar maple in spring. They showed them how to harvest the wild rice that grows in northern lakes by carefully beating the stalks into a container in a canoe, while leaving the plant intact for the next season, and to cure this grain by drying it slowly in the open air and sun – a method still used today. They taught them that some wild berries, such as pembina, or high-bush cranberries, were not only edible but medicinally beneficial (they too are rich in Vitamin C). And they knew that pembina fruit, while very sour, sweetens after the first frost.
Until a short time ago, however, much of this traditional knowledge was neglected, and some of it has been lost.”pg. 179, “Canada’s House: Rideau Hall and the invention of a Canadian home”
Where to begin?
Indigenous cuisine was not ‘inherited’ by Canadians. Indigenous peoples and nations are not dead (necessary for an inheritance), despite the Canadian government’s every attempt at genocide. Indigenous peoples did not gift their cuisine to Canadians.
It is a vast oversimplification of the early relationships between Indigenous peoples and settlers to say that they simply ‘showed them’ everything. While the Indigenous people were indeed generous with their knowledge and expertise, the role of the ‘savvy helper and guide’ alongside the European nation builders is a stereotype (that needs to end). Indigenous peoples entered into complex relationships with the early settlers, often based on their understandings of treaty and kinship – relationships that were not honored, respected, or reciprocated.
And, Indigenous peoples’ traditional food knowledge was not ‘neglected’. In truth, it was outlawed, sneered at, beaten out of them, denigrated, and separated from the people in the harshest of ways. Corey Mintz writes, “Indigenous food sovereignty was decimated by design: the separation of people from their historic food systems and land is not a side effect of colonialism but a function of it.”
Traditional food knowledge (and it’s transmission) was disrupted by the imprisoning of children in residential schools. Indigenous culinary knowledge and practices were replaced with starvation and experimentation. Indigenous peoples were taken from the land, and had the land taken from them, separating them from their culinary knowledge bases. Whole cultural systems, from language and family, to food preparation, cultivation and harvesting, were disrupted in a violent way by colonialism. Many of these systems of violence continue today, further disrupting Indigenous foodways.
To make this recipe, I began with the description of a dish that was said to be served at Rideau Hall, “an aboriginal interpretation of traditional french toast that is made with bannock bread and served with birch syrup and wild berry compote.” This was portrayed as an example of the creativity of Canadian cuisine, the mixing of Indigenous influences with the European, mainstream cuisine.
Instead, I want to reorient this recipe, to take it out of Rideau Hall.
I hope that this recipe, instead, is a reminder of the Indigenous nations that still exist, whose land we (Canadians) occupy, and who are fighting like hell to revive and reclaim their culinary traditions that were violently attacked by settler colonialism. It’s a different narrative that I hope this recipe points to.
This recipe pays tribute, largely, to the prairie Indigenous nations – such as the Cree – where bannock making is an art form passed down through generations, and where Saskatoon berries are plentiful and still harvested on the plains and in the coulees. The prairies are where I fell in love with Saskatoon berries. While birch syrup was likely not a traditional Cree ingredient, it does add a unique flavor element that I have kept as I remember the white birch being one of the few native trees growing on the prairies when I grew up. The birch trees are there and definitely part of the life rhythms of the Cree, including for culinary purposes.
And for those who might argue that Indigenous nations learned and appropriated bannock from the Scottish or the British…. Yes, wheat flour was not a ‘traditional’ ingredient (nor eggs for that matter) but they were foods that were adopted in those years of violence, ingredients used to sustain nations and people through the worst of the violence. Indigenous nations transformed colonial rations into sustenance, into survival. These foods became Indigenous, became a part of the legacy of colonization and a reminder of how Indigenous peoples survived, turning the destruction into new traditions. Go to any powwow or large gathering today, and I guarantee you’ll find bannock being served.
Bannock, largely because few settlers have bothered to learn anything beyond it, has become the one Indigenous food that many Canadians can identify, which has led to it both being appropriated as definitively ‘Canadian’ but also has led to it standing in as a ‘gateway dish’ (as food writer Suresh Doss calls such foods), the one (and typically only) Indigenous food that any Canadian knows.
Rich Francis, a Gwich’in chef, is quick to remind us that there is a dynamic world of Indigenous food beyond the ubiquitous bannock, food that existed here long before the British and Scottish settlers brought wheat flour and delicious ways to fry it. There are Indigenous food activists that see bannock as colonial (and contributing to high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other health ailments) and are working to decolonize Indigenous food by bringing it back to the healthier fruits, vegetables, and meats that were grown and harvested prior to colonialism.
But, the reality of the situation is: bannock is here and it’s Indigenous. In a conversation on bannock that I had with food historian Ian Mosby, he pointed out that there are nations (such as the Mi’kmaq) that have been using wheat flour for longer than Italians have been using tomatoes, and yet there is no questioning whether or not the tomato is a central part of Italian cuisine. A constant refrain from critics of bannock is its link to the high rate of diabetes among Indigenous peoples. But, as Ian points out: it’s not bannock that is the cause of the high rate of diabetes, it’s colonialism. It’s colonialism that stripped alternatives, reducing Indigenous nations to reliance on ‘survival food’ like bannock.
I hope that this recipe demonstrates not only that this is Indigenous food (vs Canadian) but also “that the food is the land, and that the land is still [Indigenous].” Food is political, and each choice we make – including what we eat, the ingredients we choose, and the stories we tell – is political as well. For those interested in ‘decolonizing food’ and supporting Indigenous food sovereignty, it begins with the land and the rematriation of it to Indigenous nations.
For this recipe, I didn’t want to reinvent bannock, and wanted to specifically use a bannock recipe that had already been published/shared so that I knew I wasn’t sharing something that I shouldn’t be. I’ve adapted the baked bannock recipe from the self-published Aahksoyo’p Nootski Cookbook, by and that recipe is shared online here.
The compote recipe is a simple one that can be adjusted based on what ingredients you have. Don’t have Saskatoon berries? I’ve used blueberries in this and they’re very similar. Don’t have birch syrup? It’s a unique flavor that’s worth trying to acquire but, in a pinch, substitute a 2/3 maple syrup and 1/3 balsamic vinegar mix, or even add in some molasses for a more complex flavor profile.
This recipe, as you make it and eat it, places you in relationship to the Indigenous nations who have made and harvested these foods, with the lands which they were grown on, and the lands which you are making and eating on. What that relationship is, what stories you tell, what politics you choose, is up to you.
Bannock French Toast with Saskatoon Berry and Birch Syrup Compote
Bannock is a controversial topic among Indigenous food historian but, often acknowledged, it's Indigenous comfort food that transports many back to their kokums kitchens. You would be hard pressed to find a powwow or large Indigenous gathering without some form of it being served, and Indigenous cooks often have many versions of it that they use. This recipe takes a baked bannock recipe - golden and crispy on the outside, soft and tender on the inside - and turns it into French Toast, a common Canadian breakfast dish. Soaking up the egg, milk, and spices, the dried out bannock becomes a fluffier version of itself, made warm and tender once again. Topped with a berry compote that includes birch syrup, a complex burst of natural flavors, the final dish is sweet and rich while maintaining a bright, natural character. It's comfort food with a twist.
- Baked Bannock
- 4 cups all purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups warm water
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- Saskatoon Berry and Birch Syrup Compote
- 2 cups saskatoon berries, frozen or fresh
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1/4 cup birch syrup
- French toast
- 1 1/3 cups whole milk
- 8 large eggs
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- Butter for the pan
Preheat oven to 400F.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Make a well in the center, pour in the water, and mix until just combined. It's important to not overmix: the dough should be shaggy and sticky yet.
Grease a 9x13 dish with 1/4 cup of the melted butter. It will be generous, as it should be!
'Plop' the dough into the pan, and roughly spread it out so that it, more or less, reaches the four corners of the pan. Pour and spread the remaining 1/4 cup of melted butter on top of the dough.
Put the pan into the oven.
After about 10-15 minutes, take it out and flip the dough. The bottom should be a light golden brown.
Put back into the over for another approximately 15 minutes, until the other side has turned a light golden brown.
Remove from oven and let cool completely before cutting.
Cut the pan into 8 pieces, then slice each piece horizontally like you're cutting a roll or scone.
Bannock can be made ahead of time, and much like bread, works better for french toast when it is not fresh.
Saskatoon Berry and Birch Syrup Compote
Place all of the ingredients into a medium saucepan over medium heat. Heat until a simmer, stirring regularly, until the berries have burst, the sugar has dissolved, and there is a nice, juicy sauce surrounding your berries.
Whisk all ingredients (except the butter) together in a large bowl.
Heat a small pat of butter in a skillet, over medium heat.
One at a time, add the pieces of bannock to the mixture. Let them soak up the mixture, turning, until they are saturated but not falling apart.
Add as many pieces of bannock to the skillet as possible, without crowding it, and cook until the underside is golden brown. Flip and do the same for the other side.
Slices can be kept warm in an oven set to 200F, while you fry the remaining pieces of bannock.
Serve with a generous spoon of compote, and even a dusting of icing sugar or a dollop of whip cream if you're feeling particularly decadent!
If you are looking for birch syrup, it can be ordered online from Forbes Wild Foods (with global shipping), or if you're in Toronto, Sanagan's Meat Locker also has birch syrup for order/sale.