All-Indigenous seafood feast brings Dine Out Vancouver Festival 2020 to a meaningful, unforgettable close

Maori chef Rewi Spraggon introduced diners to pit cooking, a traditional method he hopes to revive

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      The team at Salmon n’ Bannock, Vancouver’s only Indigenous restaurant, hosted a World Chef Exchange dinner on February 2 as part of Dine Out Vancouver Festival and knocked it out of the park.

      And there was much more to the sold-out event that tantalizing flavours from the Pacific that were in every dish. There was the sharing of three distinct Indigenous cultures and a deepening of relationships, even among those who started out as strangers. 

      Sharing the tiny kitchen were the restaurant’s own Ida Baker of the Squamish Nation and Cree chef Janine Delorme-Bird, Edmonton-based Cree chef Shane Chartrand, and Maori chef Rewi Spraggon, who flew in from New Zealand just for the exchange.

      Salmon n’ Bannock owner Inez Cook called the dinner “Off the Hook”.

      “Waters may separate us by distance, but our culture and love of food unite us together,” she said in her opening remarks.

      Salmon n' Bannock Squamish chef Ida Baker made cattail-pollen bannock.
      Gail Johnson.

      Squamish elder S7aplek, whose Hawaiian name is Lanakila and whose driver’s licence reads Bob Baker, shared a blessing through drumming and a song called "Snowbird". The cofounder of Spakwus Slolem (Eagle Song Dancers), he explained that blessings from ancestors are given for everything from homes and canoes and at the start of ceremonies as a way to neutralize negativity; they’re also a way of giving thanks and to send out healing thoughts to anyone in your life who could use support.

      Cree artist Renae Morrisseau followed, drumming and sharing a song called "This Land".

      Spraggon, who’s a master of hangi—pit cooking—welcomed to the small West Broadway room four male Maori singers with a traditional greeting called hongi. People rub their noses together, close their eyes, and touch foreheads. Then all five men engaged in a mighty, magnificent war song.

      All this, and 10 courses with 10 Indigenous wine pairings were still to come.

      And what a meal it was. The day before, Spraggon cooked his dishes in a pit at UBC Farm (following the approval of local health inspectors and a village effort to locate dry wood—maple and alder).

      Rocks are heated with timber in an earth oven for three to four hours, reaching a temperature of about 700 degrees. On top goes the food: protein on the bottom then vegetables on top, all covered with coffee sacks or leaves. The deep flavours of wood, smoke, and earth infuse whatever is being cooked; Vancouverites have never tasted anything like it.

      With pit cooking on the verge of becoming a lost art, Spraggon is determined to revive the style that his people have been practising for millennia: “It’s my mission to bring that back,” Spraggon said, noting that he’s the only chef in Auckland making traditional Indigenous food. “I never met my grandfather, but when I cook with the same stones that he used a hundred years ago, I know he’s right there cooking with me.”

      Dinner started with a smoky eulachon broth; later came cattail-pollen bannock.

      There was sopalallie and huckleberry mousse, an astringent classic with a bitter taste akin to Campari.

      Kutai is the name for black fritters made of pit-cooked New Zealand green mussels.

      Chopped oyster ceviche was served in the shell with reindeer moss, dill mayonnaise, and black currants, while charred and aromatic Haida Gwaii razor clams in a white-wine garlic sauce came with bright beets and pickled onions.

      Red-snapper roulade came with trout caviar and pesto.
      Gail Johnson.

      Onion ash scallops were served with freekeh (a whole grain), uni, and replenishing wakame tea. Trout caviar dotted red snapper roulade with pesto.

      Halibut came with lemon butter and sweet, crispy shallots. Popped Ojibway wild rice was sprinkled atop pumpkin-seed crusted sablefish.

      Earth-oven fish called hangi ika consisted of wild sockeye salmon that Spraggon made into a cake atop squash puree with crispy root vegetables—all infused with the taste of a long-burning campfire.  

      To finish, Spraggon made his grandmother’s burnt sugar pudding, baked in the pit, tasting of the earth and of home. 

      Wine pairings were from Nk’Mip Cellars and Indigenous World Winery in the Okanagan, and Tohu, the world's first Māori-owned winery.

      At the end of the dinner (which was sponsored by Tourism Vancouver, Indigenous Tourism BC, Air Canada, and the Westin Bayshore, among other partners), Cook gifted every single person with a necklace made by Salmon n' Bannock server Charlene Johnny, a Cowichan artist. It consists of a wood pendant emblazoned with one of Johnny's original designs.

      No one left hungry, and everyone walked out with a deeper understanding of the Indigenous expression "all my relations". It means we're all related. This World Chef Exchange dinner reminded us of this truth.