Northern Ontario cuisine is never short on flavour. Its hybrid of Indigenous, French and English influences has something for every taste around the table: roast caribou in ice cider gravy, moose tongue with carrots and onions, braised rabbit and fiddleheads, stuffed cabbage in a walleye mousse. Before fast food invaded our cities, before prepared meals and other forms of industrial blandness became part of our daily lives, these ancestral ingredients, inspired by our natural surroundings, were to be found on the menus of Indigenous peoples—and today, Indigenous chefs are revisiting them.
Manuel Kak’wa Kurtness is a pioneer in the world of traditional Indigenous cuisine. The Innu chef, born in Mashteuiatsh in the Lac-Saint-Jean region of Quebec, has taken on a vital mission: to promote the rich culinary traditions of the Canada’s First Nations, including the cuisine of Northern Ontario.
In his 2009 book PachaMama – Cuisine des Premières Nations, Kak’wa Kurtness describes the diet of the peoples living in the vast territory of Northern Ontario before the arrival of French and English settlers.
Hunting, fishing, and harvesting provided the staples for these nations. The forest was a rich store of deer, caribou, bear, beaver, raccoon, partridge, squirrel, hare, and frog. Lakes contained ample walleye, sturgeon, salmon, yellow perch, muskellunge, and bass. Fields and marshlands produced corn, squash, beans, wild rice, blueberries, and strawberries.
With the arrival of Europeans, ancient techniques and methods converged on the palate, giving birth to the continent’s first fusion cuisine. Sociologist Simon Laflamme is fascinated by this culinary convergence.
Fusion (as seen by a foodie sociologist)
Nutrition has long been at the intersection of cultures, and as Europeans settled in North America, the hybridization of culinary practices spread. “When the Europeans arrived, they knew how to make cabbage or barley soup the way the Celts taught them, pies and pâtés like the Romans showed them, and from the Germanic peoples, they know how to prepare green vegetables and dairy products,” explains Laflamme in the heritage magazine Le Chaînon.
Hybrid cooking techniques were forged in Northern Ontario, surrounded by the cold. Indigenous roasting and steaming methods met the simmering soups, mashes, and stews of the Europeans, to create homegrown pâté chinois (shepherd’s pie with corn), fèves au lard (bacon-fat beans) and pea soup. “The Indigenous peoples always boiled their beans, and occasionally added meat. After the happy discovery of European salted fats, they continued to add berries to their beans.” At this particular crossroads, the Indigenous sweet tooth meets the salty predilections of the Europeans.
First Nations food traditions
The diet of the first peoples living in Northern Ontario was shaped by geography.
The Ojibwe (Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma) live from hunting, fishing and foraging, and notably from the cultivation of corn. The sacred food of this nation is wild rice, which they harvest from the banks of rivers and streams. Among their hunting trophies: bear, deer, fox, beaver, bison and moose. Their favourite fish are walleye, yellow perch and bass.
Fish enjoy pride of place in the diet of the Odawa (along the Ottawa River-Lake Huron axis), who benefit from their proximity to the Great Lakes. Walleye, bass, freshwater salmon, pike, and muskellunge are accompanied by a harvest of corn, squash and beans, in addition to soups and cornbread. Here too, wild rice takes on a sacred character. Not that they don’t enjoy wild game: deer, caribou and beaver are their more illustrious meats, along with smaller catches like racoon, frog, turtle, squirrel, various birds, chipmunk and bullfrog.
The cuisine of the Pottawatomi (Manitoulin) is quite similar. The women cultivate squash, beans and corn, while the men hunt deer, bear, beaver and partridge. Meanwhile, they harvest various fruits and collect maple sap. Fish also fills their plate, as they frequent the shores of the Great Lakes.
The mostly nomadic Algonquin (Ottawa River-Témiscamingue axis) enjoy a diverse diet. They follow caribou, bear, moose and deer over vast and rich hunting grounds, and catch bass, eel, sturgeon, walleye, muskellunge and salmon. Small game can include frog, racoon, beaver, groundhog and hare. They also forage for wild fruits like strawberries and blueberries to make winter preserves, and enjoy nut- and hazelnut-based soups.
According to legend, the Huron-Wendat (south of Georgian Bay) are the descendants of Aataentsic, who fell from the sky clutching seeds of corn, beans, and squash (three foods previously unknown to Europeans). No surprise, then, that all three plants turn up in just about every dish. The expert cultivation of these “three sisters” saved the Huron-Wendat from the scarcity that afflicts other nomadic peoples.
Where to taste?
You can connect with Indigenous culinary traditions, transformed by waves of influences, in some Northern Ontario locations.
With its majority Indigenous population and its pow-wows, Manitoulin Island is the premiere destination for anyone looking to explore Indigenous life, including its cuisine.
A multitude of delicacies await you, from lake whitefish to wild rice, corn, wild game, berries, and of course bannock, an unleavened bread cooked in sand.
Taste all these flavours at the seasonal restaurant Garden’s Gate in Tehkummah, where you’ll find blueberries coupled with chicken, or at Wikwemikong on the Zaawmiknaang reservation, where you’ll delight in corn soup with a side of tacos. You’ll also find many Indigenous handicrafts. While you’re there, take part in a pow-wow, and look for the food trucks.
North46 restaurant, at the Manitoulin Hotel Conference Centre in Little Current, also serves traditional dishes, particularly wild-game sausages and tacos.
The Great Spirit Circle Trail, a reknown Manitoulin-based initiative, offers discovery packages including traditional Anishinaabeg meals served around the fire. It’s your chance to combine a tasting of moose, corn and wild rice, with a ceremonial smudge treatment.
The visitor centre at the site of the historic Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre features a restaurant that serves wild rice in various forms (soup, dumpling or main course), as well as walleye, and the famous “Indian taco” served in bannock.
On the shores of James Bay
Outfitter Cree Village Eco Lodge, on Moose Factory Island, also features a restaurant with a menu anchored in Indigenous tradition, serving bison, caribou, and garden-grown vegetables. A trip on the Polar Bear Express (a rail connection operated by Ontario Northland) and a short taxi-boat ride will get you there.
With spots like NishDish, Pow Wow Cafe, and Tea-N-Bannock, Toronto is showcasing Indigenous cuisine. Did you know that Toronto is a Mohawk word that means, “where trees stand in water?” No, they’re not talking about a swamp—it’s a reference to fishing dams installed in the region. Another disputed interpretation gives the word a Huron origin, designating a “place of gathering.” Either way, the name leads us back to the pleasures of the dinner table.