Feast on these First Nations recipes

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      A few years ago, restaurateur Dolly Watts bested several local chefs, including the venerable Hidekazu Tojo, to earn the title of B.C. Gold Komochi Konbu Iron Chef. The not-so-secret ingredient–komochi konbu, or spawn (herring roe, specifically)–is highly prized in Japan and a long-time First Nations delicacy. It was fitting that the judges, who included the Food Network's Michael Smith, chose Watts's simple presentation on kelp.

      You'll find the winning recipe in the recently released Where People Feast: An Indigenous People's Cookbook (Arsenal Pulp Press, $24.95), coauthored by Dolly and daughter Annie Watts. It's one of only a few North American aboriginal cookbooks available, but then, the authors' former restaurant, Liliget Feast House (liliget is a Gitksan word meaning "place where people feast"), was a unique establishment. The First Nations fine-dining restaurant attracted visitors from all parts of the globe and garnered a four-star designation from the New York Times. Dolly and Annie, members of the Gitksan First Nation, owned and ran the Arthur Erickson–designed restaurant until December, when it closed because of never-ending rent increases and building redevelopments, and Dolly moved to Port Alberni.

      Dolly Watts said she has cooked since she was a child, growing up in Kitwanga, in northwestern B.C. Food is foremost in First Nations culture; it's the centre of celebration and ceremony, and links family, community, and the afterlife. "When I grew up, we ate a lot of game like moose and venison," Dolly said in an interview with daughter Annie at a False Creek restaurant. "We had a farm–my mom was the only person in the village to have a farm, and for feasts she would kill a cow. Beef was different for the people to eat–usually it's wild game, but this was something different and good."

      Watts began school in Kitwanga but was then sent to residential school in faraway Port Alberni. While at school she earned pocket money making desserts for the teachers. She graduated, married, and raised a family. At 49, she went to UBC and earned a degree in anthropology. During this time, she made and sold bannock to help raise money for an education program for Native youth. "I learned to make bannock from my mom. I used her recipe and people just loved it.”¦They lined up for it," Watts recalled. Small catering jobs–she cooked everything in her apartment–soon led to rented kitchens at UBC. Her first big gig–$10 a head for 2,000 attendees at the opening of UBC's First Nations House of Learning–netted $11,000. Next came the Just Like Grandma's Bannock cart at the Museum of Anthropology. It was a resounding success, and in 1995 when restaurant space became available at 1724 Davie Street, Watts grabbed it and opened Liliget Feast House.

      After the restaurant closed last year, Dolly and Annie put the final touches on their cookbook. They'd already written down recipes from Liliget and from the catering arm of the business for use by the restaurant's cooks, but when a not-so-loyal employee absconded with the lot, Annie decided it was time to move them to the safety of her computer. In the book, she's scaled the restaurant's recipes down to home size, added others that have been handed down over generations, and incorporated her family's "modern" recipes. Plus, she did most of the illustrations. The result? A fascinating culinary history conveyed through a collection of Pacific Northwest indigenous dishes.

      Where People Feast focuses on regional ingredients like oolichan, venison, grouse, wild turkey, salmon, crab, and berries. The wide-ranging collection includes traditional plates like Venison Meatballs, Wild Buffalo Burgers, Wild Huckleberry Glazed Duck, Bounty of the Sea (an indigenous bouillabaisse), Spawn on Kelp, Smoked Oolichan, and Wild Rice Pancakes, and not-so-traditional Indian Tacos, Fast Fish Hash, and Pacific Macaroni and Cheese. Desserts are plentiful and tasty. Must-trys? Sopalali Mousse, Gitksan Slush (a mix of snow or crushed ice, oolichan oil, and wild berries), and Wild Blueberry Cobbler. Also included is Gitsegukla Wedding Cake, which incorporates bannock dough; her grandmother's recipe, Dolly made this for her own wedding.

      Stories accompany many of the recipes: Watts describes the importance of preserving and smoking fish and wild game, noting that this was traditionally women's work. "Today we grill most everything over fire. We use alder wood so that everything we cook tastes so much like the food we used to eat in our villages," she said.

      Most of the ingredients needed for making recipes in Where People Feast can easily be found in local supermarkets, though some–like oolichan, wild game, and soapberries–are harder to find. Watts suggests substituting regular turkey for wild, beef for game, and so on. Good local sources for game are Coquitlam-based Hills Foods (www.hillsfoods.com/) and Stong's Market (4560 Dunbar Street).

      Mother and daughter are currently busy touring and demonstrating recipes from the book. See www.wherepeoplefeast.com/ for information on coming events.