The Nature of Indigenous Cuisine

Marlene Finn, B.A.A., B.Ed., M.Ed., is a writer, educator, and trainer who consults in Indigenous education, business, health, and social services to support communities and organizations to design and deliver programs and services that improve the quality of life among Indigenous peoples. She supports her husband and business partner, Chef David Wolfman, in culinary consulting projects. Marlene is a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario

Indigenous peoples learned a great deal from closely observing and studying animal behavior, in addition to weather patterns and the life cycle of plants, all of which informed the teachings they traditionally passed down from one generation to the next. Traditional teachings supplemented lived experience as the education necessary for one’s physical survival and mental, social, and spiritual wellness. Indigenous peoples were traditionally taught to value animals, plants, and natural elements as their equals, if not their kin, which is why Indigenous cultures are closely tied to nature.

The traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee nations (i.e. Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, and Tuscarora) extends along the Saint Lawrence River and across upper New York State. For these nations, fall labor traditionally consisted of harvesting crops such as corn, beans, and squash. Women led this work, which included preserving and storing the harvest to last until the next harvest, a year later. Alternatively, fall labor consisted of hunting game (such as deer, moose, elk, bison, and caribou) and harvesting seasonal berries, nuts, and wild edibles, among various Indigenous nations of the Plains and Eastern Woodlands. Whereas men hunted, women butchered meat and preserved food to last through the winter months. Nearly all Indigenous nations relied on fish to greater or lesser extents. Only after all this work was done was it possible for families and communities to rest and enjoy the quiet descent of winter. Maybe this is one thing that hasn’t changed much over time.

Gathering around the table over a hot, homemade meal is still instinctual in Canadian winter, but rather than brave the cold for a quick trip to the store, this is the time of year cooks dig into the recesses of kitchen cupboards, pantries, and freezers to see what they can use.

They treasure home-canned goods, root vegetables, large cuts of meat, and soup bones, and review cookbooks for inspiration. David recently stocked our freezer with organic bison ribs, deer chops, and pheasant so that we’ll have some exciting options for dinner this season. It’s an act of love to prepare a slow-cooked meal for the family, and when we sit down to enjoy it together, it soothes us in a way that no backyard summer barbecue ever could.

When people ask my husband David Wolfman, an internationally recognized Aboriginal chef on what Indigenous cuisine is, he explains what it is not. Indigenous peoples in present-day Canada and the United States did not eat the same diet or staple foods. Nor is there any single cooking technique that they commonly shared. Indigenous peoples ate what they could find in their region and source through trading with people from other regions. They cooked, preserved, and stored food using whatever natural resources they could access. Cooking technologies were developed through creativity and ingenuity. Traditional Indigenous ingredients (to David and me) refer to Indigenous people to North or South America and were traditionally used by some Indigenous peoples.

Indigenous nations rich in local, natural resources were able to establish settlements designed to function year-round; this required storing food when it was plentiful. For instance, the Haudenosaunee made dugouts inside their longhouses to keep grains and dried berries (wrapped in leather hides) below ground to protect from pests and other threats. Similarly, they preserved squash by hanging it up high in the longhouse rafters to be dried and smoked by the fires below. Some Anishinaabe nations used a similar practice in their wigwams. Once preserved this way, food would be safe to eat for a year or more. David’s people, the Xaxli’p, originate from the interior of B.C. They wind dry salmon on wooden racks set up along the Fraser River banks — later storing it in wooden huts to last over the winter months. For many there, this is a tradition that continues to live on.

Alternatively, nations that relied upon the migratory game, such as the Plains Cree (my Indigenous ancestors), were not so fortunate to settle in communities. They had seasonal hunting and traveling schedules to maintain based on the migrations of game and growing seasons of wild edibles. They hunted as they traveled, hauling their belongings with them throughout their travels. This is how pemmican — a high protein snack perfectly suited for times there was little time for cooking — came to be so valuable. They carried food in backpacks, by toboggan, or by travois (leather-wrapped bundles dragged by a wooden harness attached to dogs or horses).

Similarly, preparing for winter survival in the Arctic began in spring when access to wild edibles, wood, seal oil, and other fats became available. Some Inuit communities in the Arctic traditionally prepared and stored food for up to six months in advance to be fermented and accessible along their winter traveling routes. They fermented walrus, birds, or whale meat in either a grass-lined hole in the ground or wrapped in sealskin and buried under a large flat stone. They also used seal oil to preserve wild greens for winter eating. Roasting, frying, and baking had no place in the far north, as these were cooking methods of Indigenous nations much further south. When people ask David for a traditional Indigenous recipe, he asks them where they live, what they have to work with, and how much time and work they want to put into the preparations.
These days, when we want to make a soup or stew using game meat or a game bird, we generally turn to butchers who carry these items — knowing full well their supply is limited, seasonal, farmed, and requires ordering in advance. City slickers that we are, we don’t trap, fish, or hunt (even though deer and rabbits make daily appearances in our backyard), so all the hard work has already been done for us. Now, suppose we wanted to make traditional corn soup. In that case, we’d need to prepare hominy corn using firewood ashes and baskets, strainers, or colanders for rinsing the corn over and over again (even before cooking it). This is such a cumbersome, time-consuming task that few people alive today still know how to do this and take the time to do it. For us, it’s much easier to buy canned hominy at a grocery store.

Similarly, if we want fiddleheads, rosehips, sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes), or even mushrooms or blueberries, etc., it is inevitably more practical to buy them rather than forage them. We are fortunate that we can get dried juniper berries (which is good for marinating a steak or brining fish) at our local health food store. Local Asian supermarkets typically sell fresh arrowhead — a plant in which both the green leaves and the tuber (that grows below the surface of swampy waters) are edible. Arrowhead root makes for a nutty-tasting veggie mash comparable to mashed potatoes (i.e., if you add all the goodness of butter, sour cream, salt, and pepper).

As a chef, David is quick to point out that Westerners are accustomed to having quite a bit of salt, sugar, grains, and dairy in their diet now, and the vast majority of us would find dishes prepared without these items to be lacking in both texture and flavor. (Anyone who has ever tried to remove any of these items from their diet knows how hard that is; to remove all of them is extremely difficult, if not impossible for any length of time.) The happy medium for us now is to combine traditional Indigenous ingredients with those foods that provide us with tastes and textures we are accustomed to enjoying. We also need to be reasonable and accept substitutes for Indigenous ingredients either out of season or extinct.

Winter was not only the time of year Indigenous families traditionally enjoyed the fruits of previous labor; it was also the time for storytelling. Elders shared stories with the young for entertainment and wisdom to teach children about the Four Directions, Grandmother Moon, and the cycle of life and death, among many other things. This is not a tradition that either David or I grew up with, but this might be the perfect time to revive this tradition. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, approaching our first pandemic winter with little to no chance of socialization outside our bubbles and limited interactions with essential workers, what could be more consoling than huddling around a fire (or lots of candles!), over a hot meal, and stories from elders? Sounds like comfort to me!