Cooking with fire and steam underground is an ancient Indigenous cooking method that is groundbreaking in the modern Vancouver restaurant scene.
Chefs at Salmon n Bannock Bistro, Vancouver’s only Indigenous restaurant, welcome visiting Māori chef Rewi Spraggon and Cree chef, Shane Chartrand. Together, they will deliver a 10-course meal that challenges diners to explore new waters through old ways.
Co-founder and owner of Salmon n Bannock Bistro, Inez Cook, has discovered many challenges in the process of bringing this world-class Indigenous culinary event to Vancouver. She criss-crossed the city to find materials, made trips to the river in the rain for the perfect lava stones, and answered all questions to ensure that the event received the first-ever official green light given to an Indigenous cooking method in BC. “Everything’s coming together. It’s just a lot more work than anybody could have imagined,” laughs Cook.
In preparation for the sold-out Vancouver World Chef Exchange – Cross-Pacific Indigenous Nations, Chef Spraggon will dig the hole that begins the traditional Māori process known as Hāngi. The University of British Columbia volunteered the site for the pit oven and has shown interest in maintaining for public education following the event. Wine for this event is sponsored by Indigenous World Winery and Nk’Mip Cellars.
Public education plays a significant role in the introduction of traditional Indigenous cooking methods to the mainstream. “It’s because people don’t know what to expect.”, says Spraggon, “Where ever I go around the world they think ‘What? You’re cooking food under the ground?’ It’s actually one of the safest and best ways.”
Spraggon learned the hot-stone technique from the best–his ancestors: “I am fortunate. I was taught by my father, who was taught by my grandfather. I never ever met my grandfather. He passed before I was born. But I’m cooking with his stones. Some of his stones that I cook with are over a hundred years old. I know when I cook, he is with me, and he’s looking over me.” Foods cooked this way inherit a smoky, earthy flavour and eating them connects you directly to the people and the land.
The event menu includes salmon from British Columbia, and green-lipped mussels, a famous traditional food from Aotearoa (New Zealand) noted for its high anti-inflammatory properties. The waters of the Pacific are a resource shared by both the Māori and Indigenous coastal communities of BC. Of this bond and the culinary collaboration, Chef Spraggon shares: “The water touches your people, and it touches my people and so it’s only right that we collaborate. We collaborate in food. We collaborate in spirit and in culture. And we are a family that shares this amazing, amazing void of ocean, and I can’t wait to cook with my brothers and sisters here and to collaborate further.”
With the use of traditional ingredients and cooking methods, the chefs make a strong statement about the personal value of culture and authenticity on their global culinary journey. Spraggon and Cook operate small Indigenous restaurants in opposite hemispheres and both opt to focus on culture and authenticity rather than star ratings and profit. “I don’t want to be the Japanese restaurant down the road. Or the Italian restaurant,” says Spraggon,”I want to be myself. I want to be my people. And so, when I cook, I cook with my heart, and I cook with my ancestors.”
Together, the team is enjoying the bonds of transgenerational stories and knowledge that are part of the Indigenous food experience. Of Chef Spraggon, Cook says, “He’s amazing. I’m going to miss him.” Spraggon returns the sentiment. Grateful for the team’s unique cultures and undeniable similarities, he shares: “I look at the people here, and they look like my cousins, they look like me. And it’s just so easy–they get it, they understand it…and everyone loves each other. And that’s so important.”
Description of Process:
Traditional Maori Hangi cooking method: First, a pit is dug into the ground and filled with lava rocks from the North Shore of Vancouver. The lava rocks are then blessed, cleansed and covered in wood to be heated to 700 degrees. While the lava rocks are being heated, Chef Rewi prepares and seasons the food with salt, pepper and also wrapped in banana leaves. Once the pit has reached 700 degrees the wood is removed and the rocks are spread out flat and covered by a grate followed by a layer of banana leaves. The seasoned wild Sockeye salmon, chicken and vegetables are added and covered by more banana leaves and White sheets and burlap which have been soaked in water and laid over top of the food and pit to create steam. Lastly the pit of food is then covered with soil to seal in the steam and cook for 2 hours.