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'Making sure that our food history isn't lost': Chef promotes Indigenous foods in virtual cook-off

On a recent weekend, Anishinaabe chef Joseph Shawana headed out with his wife and son to harvest wild leeks in the forest. He served them up in a virtual cooking competition alongside Indigenous chefs from across the country.
Joseph Shawana feels an obligation to preserve culinary knowledge in Indigenous foods. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)
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On a recent weekend, Anishinaabe chef Joseph Shawana headed out with his wife and son to harvest wild leeks. He knew to look for the plant's smooth, ribbon-like green leaves on the forest floor beneath the canopies of maple trees. 

"They're one of the first edible plants that you can harvest during spring," said Shawana, who is from Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve located on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Shawana prepared the wild leeks, also known as ramps, in a virtual cooking competition alongside Indigenous chefs from across the country. 

The cook-off was spearheaded by Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations. Shawana, who is the chair of ICAN, cooked on camera alongside four other chefs: Christa Bruneau-Guenther, Paul Natrall, Marie-Cecile Nottaway, and Jenni Lessard. 

The food industry has been hit hard by COVID-19, so the Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations wanted to find a way to invite diners into their kitchens to share the ingredients from their Nations. The cook-off was streamed on Facebook Live. 

Each chef prepared a meal with at least one ingredient that they foraged. Shawana stuffed a pan-seared rainbow trout with wild leeks, and garnished the fish with juniper ash. As he moved around his kitchen, Shawana said "It's my job to preserve our heritage through food." 

Joseph Shawana harvesting wild leeks with his son. (Vanessa Palma)

"Anybody who has any knowledge of Indigenous culinary stories and recipes," explained Shawana, "it's our job to preserve those." 

"Residential school diminished our language, and our food was slowly dying with it," said Shawana, who is also the Indigenous culinary advisor at Centennial College and the executive chef of the Toronto restaurant Kū-Kŭm Kitchen.  

"I feel that I have a duty and obligation to preserve as much culinary knowledge in Indigenous foods as possible." 

Cook-off viewers voted for their favourite dish. Bruneau-Guenther won with her meal of bison skewers with wild garlic, served over wild rice infused with wild chives and sweetgrass. Bruneau-Guenther is from Peguis First Nation, and is the executive chef at Feast Café Bistro in Winnipeg. 

Indigenous Culinary of Associated Nations 

ICAN launched in November, 2019, with a mission to promote and support Indigenous culinary experiences nationally and internationally. 

"It's a culinary organization that we started to help Indigenous culinary tourism," explained Shawana, "to share our knowledge of Indigenous ingredients from coast to coast to coast." 

"And just making sure that our food history isn't lost," he added.  

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