Early Appetites

How First Nations Cuisine is Redefining BC’s Culinary Scene

British Columbia is a poster-child for the ethnically diverse mosaic that is Canada’s culture – something that is reflected most obviously through the province’s vast array of international eateries.  And while the list reads like a culinary United Nations, a groundswell movement is heralding a return to traditional fare.  Now, dining enthusiast are experiencing the beautiful simplicity and rich heritage of First Nations cuisine…

Two elements set the indigenous dining experience apart from any other:  The first is the ingredients themselves.  Living off the land they inhabited for centuries, the First Nations Peoples developed a great respect and keen understanding of the resources that were readily at their fingertips.  From harvesting plants to hunting game to fishing, the traditions of the pre-European Peoples were passed orally from one generation to the next – a heritage of seasonally-dictated sustainable living and dining that existed well before the recent trends in that direction.  Hence, First Nations food is as close to a gastronomical postcard of the province as you will find.  The second unique element is the ancient culture of hospitality.  The fabric of First Nations life has always been held together by a strong sense of family and community.  This warmth has translated into intimate dining experiences that nourish the soul as much as the body.  The term, welcoming is an understatement.

Today, a proliferation of First Nations establishments are bringing the flavours of this beautiful culture to the dining public.  And depending on where you find yourself in British Columbia, a different experience awaits.  From the amazing smoked or fresh salmon prevalent in the coastal cuisine to the smoked seal meat in the north, an amazing assortment of indigenous dishes awaits to be explored.  Oolichan oil, crisp kelp on steamed rice, alder-grilled buffalo smoky, elk with sweet potato pie, bannock… this array of longhouse luxuries isn’t only one of the first menus in the province.  It’s one of the best as well.  And the experience goes beyond the palate.  Many establishments treat guests to traditional song and dance as well as rousing drum presentations.  Dinner just doesn’t seem like a big enough word, sometimes!  Let’s explore this unparalleled, unique dining experience, starting in the interior…

Nk’Mip – The Okanagan’s Ultimate Destination Resort is in the Okanagan, only moments from the town Osoyoos’ main street.  Perched on the edge of Osoyoos Lake in the heart of British Columbia’s semi-arid Desert Wine Country, this establishment, coming courtesy of the First Nations People of the Osoyoos Indian Band, epitomizes the wine country 4 season resort experience.  With luxury accommodation, a full service spa and a lakefront campground, this destination offers everything from the educational experience of the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre to the recreational experience of the spectacular 9-hole Sonora Dunes Golf Course.  But by far, the two most memorable highlights of a visit here are Passatempo Restaurant at Spirit Ridge and the patio at Nk’Mip Cellars.  The bistro-style ambience at Passatempo provides a particular magic that can only be found amidst the orchards and vineyards high above the beautiful Lake Osoyoos.  The jaw-dropping views of the surrounding lake and mountains are amazing enough… now include a menu featuring entrees such as grilled bison flatiron steak with bluecheese cream, redwine chocolate sauce and potato mash or sautéed wild whitespring salmon with goats cheese-almond sauce, quinoa, and tomato salsa and you can imagine how amazing a night or two here could be.  And with a capacity of over 100, weddings, meetings and seminars are taken in stride.  Did we mention the in-suite catering and guest picnic baskets?  North America’s first aboriginal owned and operated winery, Nk’Mip Cellars is located on a natural desert bench that overlooks Osoyoos Lake, featuring vineyards and orchards that belong to the Osoyoos Indian Band Development Corporation.  A wine tour here isn’t just about the grapes and the their gorgeous products; it’s also about the rich history and traditions of the Peoples who have called this their home for centuries… a  fact that is obvious in the winery’s architecture which features local native art and artifacts.  And any aficionado of fine vino will be delighted by the Nk’Mip varietals which include Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Riesling and Icewine.  Hours of operation are January 1st to June 30th 9-5, July 1st to August 31st 9-7 and September 1st to December 31st 9-5.

For a more hands-on approach to the intriguing indigenous diet, the Nisga’a Commercial Group of Tourism Terrace provides a full-day Mushroom, Herb and Botanical Tour.  Thanks to their status as the only carrier of a Commercial Harvest Permit, the public can experience an unforgettable walk through ancient forests as Nisga guides share what herbs and fungi their Elders used for both medicinal and dietary purposes.  Some of natures wonders sampled on this eye-opening trek include pine, chanterelles and lobster mushrooms as well as many more and the journey concludes with a lunch provided by the Nisga’a Elders.  Trips depart and end at the Nisga’a Office Solutions in Terrace from mid-August to mid-October.

Located on the crescent-shaped Cormorant Island in coastal BC’s Inside Passage, Alert Bay is famous for more than simply amazing scenery and abundant wildlife.  This is the home to Culture Shock Interactive Gallery.  Only 180 miles by water from the metropolis of Vancouver, the 2-hour salmon barbeque is hosted by Roy Cranmer, a seasoned ‘Namgis fisherman who provides visitors with the experience of a traditional beachfront open-fire barbeque – the only way to experience Alert Bay! Be sure to book a day in advance.

In the city of Duncan on Vancouver Island, the Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre is owned and operated by the Cowichan Band located on 6 beautifully landscaped acres along the picturesque Cowichan River.  The ancient traditions of the Cowichan Peoples are all here, including live demonstrations, and performances by the Khowutzun Tzinquaw Dancers July through August.  The Centre also includes the Riverwalk Café, a summer seasonal restaurant featuring the best Native cuisine in the area.  Traditional ingredients such as salmon, venison, buffalo, and halibut feature on a menu that celebrates the bountiful resources of the glorious Cowichan Valley.  And the patio on the banks of the Cowichan River provides some of the most idyllic dining on Vancouver Island.

Further up the island, the Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge on Quadra Island offers amazing seclusion on 1,100 acres only a 10-minute ferry ride from Campbell River.  Featuring Pacific Coast Kwagiulth architecture as well as traditional and contemporary native art, this destination includes a dining room that showcases aboriginal offerings in a casually elegant setting with the option of the chef’s Catch and Cook, an interactive way of enjoying the fresh bounty of the surrounding ocean.

The Aboriginal cultures of BC have a beautiful and ancient heritage.  Taste it today!