Indigenous dishes in Toronto kitchens

Last Thursday, the Two Row Times took a crew to visit two contemporary and native-owned restaurants in the six to taste test the workings of modern spins on traditional dishes — and we weren’t disappointed.

The first restaurant we explored was Pow Wow Cafe, which much like it’s name, offered a selection of food that reminded us all of walking through food vendors of a powwow in the heat of summer.

Greeted by chalk board designs with menu specials that looked to be meticulously hand-drawn, our crew was walked to the back of the building to dine-in in the cafe with an atmosphere and style that reminded us of Six Nations own TNT back home.

The menu comes on wood-burned planks and provides drinks, lunch and brunch. From scone dogs, to Indian Tacos, this cafe offered us a taste of summer and a taste of the wild. As can be seen in some of the pictures, the tacos are covered in edible flowers, wild spices and the soups are accompanied by burning sage. The fry bread used for the tacos is thick and fluffy which surprised us, and was already pre-cut for eating ease. The kitchen also utilized fish for the base of a fish taco of the same style, which was dubbed a hit by our group.

One of the most outstanding tastes for all of us as a whole though, was the sweetgrass soda. Never had any of us tasted sweetgrass as a tea, but the tea tasted much like cinnamon and the added fizziness of a regular soda sold us, as it was declared as one of the best drinks we came across.

The chef behind it all is Shawn Adler.

At 16, Adler found that he had much more than a knack for cooking and continued on his cooking path to open the cafe as his second restaurant with influences of his Jewish and Anisnaabe roots.

Using those roots, the cafe has an aesthetic that is reminiscent of a kitchen that you can easily imagine relatives cooking in, and this seeps into the flavour of the food which carries a very home-style flavour that is both comforting and familiar.

The second restaurant we were able to enjoy was Kū-Kŭm Kitchen, which greeted us with an extremely upscale atmosphere. It reminded many of our crew of The Keg, as the designs of an indigenous artist wrapped around the walls behind the bar and the seating areas were dimly lit and accompanied by candlelight.

From Sedna’s Breath to sip on to duck legs and squash to get full on, the presentation of the indigenous inspired foods was only half of the deal. The flavours blended well on each plate and each dish offered a contemporary take on wild meat and veggies that couldn’t have been captured better.

However, as great as each dish was, it was the seal loin tartare paired with bison and salmon that was the most eye-opening dish our group tried. The seal came to us as what looked like a black dollop of pureed fish. Confused, we asked our waiter why the appearance of the meat was so unlike what we expected seal to look like, to which he explained that seal meat is very high in iron. After tasting the meat, not only did we get a mouthful of ocean accents but also the iron we were told about. Impressed by the aesthetics of the meats together once plated, we sent accolades to the use of the now controversial meat which was once a staple food item for northern indigenous nations.

The only chef in the kitchen at the restaurant is none other than Joseph Shawana, who is the first in the city to tackle serving seal loin.

Shawana was raised by his Odawa family on the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on Manitoulin Island and after years of being in the cooking industry after starting out as a bus boy at the age of 13, went on to tackle the kitchen as a chef.

As Kū-Kŭm is Cree for grandmother, we realized that the restaurant had many aspects that seem to pay tribute to women. We later found out that the hand-painted mural was created by Indigenous artists Monique Aura and Chief Lady Bird to depict Shawana’s grandmother, his mother and his mother-in-law.

So if you’re in need of a quick bite or something more catered in Toronto, both restaurants can fit the bill.

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