In multicultural Toronto, you can find cuisine from across the globe, but it’s only recently that several local restaurants have begun highlighting ingredients and traditional preparations of Canada’s indigenous communities.
Executive chef Joseph Shawana, whose restaurant Ku-Kum Kitchen is transforming traditional ingredients into inventive contemporary cuisine, is a great source for gaining insight into Toronto’s aboriginal food scene.
A tall man with long, dark hair and crisp chef’s whites, Shawana grew up on the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Reserve on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island, northwest of Toronto. He says that his mother and grandmother did the cooking when he was a boy, and he has happy memories of big family barbecues that his mother would host every month. He grew up eating wild game like deer and moose.
After working as a corporate chef for many years, Shawana launched Ku-Kim Kitchen in Toronto’s Davisville neighborhood in 2017. Diners have filled its three dozen seats nightly since the restaurant’s opening.
Shawana says that curiosity about wild game and indigenous ingredients have helped build the buzz around his popular eatery. He also says that more people are recognizing the importance of preserving traditional food culture, not just in Toronto, but across Canada and throughout North America.
But one of those ingredients has triggered a controversy. Ku-Kum Kitchen is the only restaurant in Toronto that regularly features seal on the menu.
Although seal was not a food that Shawana ate growing up, he wanted to showcase a meat that’s considered a staple in many indigenous cultures. Shortly after the restaurant opened, activists began protesting its use of seal, while counter protestors contested their position. Shawana insists that the seal meat he serves, from Quebec’s Magdalen Islands, is humanely sourced, as are the elk, caribou and other proteins on offer.
Shawana explains that no dish on his menu includes more than 10 ingredients, since he prefers relatively simple preparations that let the products shine. But “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean ordinary. He might create elk rillettes, seasoned with wild mint and Labrador tea, a rich and creamy rabbit liver mousse, and a terrine of pheasant, wild boar and cranberry — all served with a delicate baked bannock (his version of a traditional bread).
On the menu, you might also find seared seal loins with a maple glaze or caribou and braised onion puree.
And on a sweeter note, the chef’s light desserts include a light panna cotta infused with wild rose petals and shortbread cookies flavored with lavender.
Other Toronto Indigenous Restaurants
The city’s other indigenous establishments are simpler affairs. Pow Wow Café, a compact storefront in the Kensington Market district, opened in 2016 with a few tables on the sidewalk patio. Chef-owner Shawn Adler, the son of an Ojibwe mother and a Jewish father, is known for his tacos: fry bread piled high with beef or vegetarian chili, cheddar, tomatoes, cilantro and other vegetables — updated takes of the snack he ate as a boy at powwows around Ontario. But he does fusion versions, too, topped with jerk chicken or pork souvlaki.
His changing blackboard menu might include other creative dishes, like corn soup with smoked duck or a trout croquette with sumac aioli. Pow Wow’s popular brunch platter consists of scrambled eggs, smoked cheddar, venison sausage, duck bacon and fry bread.
NishDish Marketeria opened a storefront indigenous restaurant in 2017 after being run as a catering business for the past dozen years. You can identify this tiny corner spot in Toronto’s Koreatown by the stunning birch forest mural on the building’s exterior, a work of beauty by First Nations artist Ren Lonechild.
Anishinaabe chef Johl Whiteduck Ringuette starts the morning at NishDish with bison or boar breakfast sandwiches and Mohawk-roasted coffee from the Kanesatake First Nation; order yours as an Anishnacano, their version of an Americano.
Later in the day, you might find elk burgers, salmon corn cakes or Three Sisters Soup, a hearty bowl of squash, corn and green beans that’s crowned with fresh dill.