Chef Shawn Adler shares what you need to know about foraging year-round in your own backyard
On the culture, teachings, meals and memories that guide him through this stunning series
Where you might see weeds poking through the sidewalk cracks, Shawn Adler sees salad fixings. Or frittata ingredients. In CBC Life's new series Forage, Adler teaches us to see our surroundings in different — and tasty — ways.
"There are delicious edibles everywhere," the chef says from the kitchen of his Toronto restaurant, Pow Wow Cafe. I'm on speakerphone — the cafe is about to open and he's juggling finishing cooking while we chat. "I'm going to turn off the punk rock music," he says and the sound of pots and water swish in the background.
At the cafe, and in his other restaurant and cooking ventures, Adler specializes in using Indigenous foods, regional to the area. Rather than relying on grocery stores for that part of his shopping list, Adler forages for wild edibles to add to his menus.
"I go for a walk and I see food everywhere. That's just what I see," he says. His other restaurant north of Toronto is surrounded by nature, and he relays his backyard finds excitedly: "Wild mint and watercress and crabapples and fiddleheads and everything you could imagine."
It is easy to imagine plenty to forage in the woods... but in urban centres?
"You don't have to be in the middle of nowhere to find food," he tells me. "I walk [around] downtown Toronto, and I'm like look! Lambs quarters right there in the sidewalk. Garlic mustards, stinging nettle..."
His enthusiasm is infectious and I'm instantly re-thinking what "weeds" are in my backyard. A few minutes into my first episode of Forage, I'm already inspired to go looking for wild ginger — a plant I would have previously just stepped over that now I can't wait to taste. I wouldn't have known where to begin, but in the first episode Adler shares three steps to follow when you're going looking for wild edibles, the first being: bring a knowledgeable guide, which Adler certainly is. "First and foremost, I'm a chef and business owner," Adler laughs when I point out he's fulfilling the first instruction as he gives it.
The son of an Anishinaabe mother, Adler gained his knowledge through his family. "We'd walk around, we'd go camping, we'd go up to our reserve, in our own backyard — and my mom was constantly pointing wild edibles out."
She honed her own knowledge while in residential school as a child, north of Thunder Bay. "All the kids knew all the plants because they didn't have enough to eat," Adler shared. "My mom says there was nothing left edible anywhere around the residential school because all the kids would eat it." It's a heartbreaking story, and I'm struck that those kids fostered land-based knowledge in a world that would strip them of it. I think of resilience and reclamation and how teachings survive.
While that knowledge was transferred to Adler in his childhood, it's gone on to shape his work as a chef. "I continued on that quest for what was delicious and edible."
Not only does Adler share how to forage for food year-round (even in winter, Canada!), he shares what to make with your findings. Best of all, he keeps it simple.
"What I've done is extremely easy, and very quick," he says of the food he makes in Forage. "None of my recipes are 'chef' recipes, I've designed them [so] that they can be easily made by anyone at home, and everything that I'm harvesting is also very easy to harvest and identify."
Wild ginger syrup, fried burdock root ("like a burdock root french fries"), lamb's quarters frittata, choke cherry butter tart, sumac sun-tea — Adler gives me some teasers of what we'll all be craving and cooking with Forage. Edible, yes, but the best word for how Adler mixes his traditional culture and his passion for cooking might be "mouthwatering."
"There are no seasons anymore in a grocery store," he adds. "If I want asparagus — traditionally, you'd have asparagus in April or May and then it would be gone — I can have asparagus 365 days a year because it comes from Chile." We've lost our connection between the seasons and the food we eat, but the more we learn to recognize what's growing right around us — and how to use it — the more we can regain that connection. And enjoy it.
"I think it's a different perspective on eating," Adler says of the series and of the Indigenous knowledge he's bringing to the mainstream. "Open your eyes a little bit differently with the knowledge I'm giving, and you can make delicious food.
Christa Couture is an award-winning performing and recording artist, non-fiction writer, broadcaster, and cyborg. She is also proudly Indigenous (mixed Cree and Scandinavian), queer, and a mom. Prairie-raised, Christa spent 17 years in Vancouver and now calls Toronto home. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @christacouture.