Canada’s Aboriginal People Welcome Olympic Fans . . . and Fill their Bellies

Canada's Aboriginal people, official hosts of the 2010 Games, are welcoming the world with song, dance and some innovative native cuisine.

The 2010 Vancouver Games mark the first Olympics ever in which Aboriginal communities have participated as full partners.  The Games are being held on the traditional lands of the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples, collectively known as the Four Host First Nations.   And at the Aboriginal pavilion downtown, a massive longhouse crowned with a 65-foot-high dome, they have been busy welcoming the world.  Demonstrations of traditional arts and dancing offer a window on Aboriginal life.  But – as is so often the case – one of the best ways for visitors to get acquainted with the new culture is through the food.

The Aboriginal Pavilion welcomes visitors with arts, dancing and First Nations cuisine.

Admission to the pavilion is free.  Spring for an extra $25, however, and you’ll get access to the lounge area and a platter of appetizers inspired by traditional Aboriginal cooking (The lounge is open in the evenings from 9 to midnight).  The menu rotates nightly to reflect foods from different communities across Canada.  Whichever night you go, you’re sure to be exposed to some of the most unique and unexplored cuisine at the Olympic Games.  The menu ranges from bison satay and bannock (a traditional bread) to smoked venison sausage and salmon charcuterie.  There’s even elk potstickers, drawn from traditional Inuit cooking in Canada’s far north.

The Native Education College longhouse, in East Vancouver, is the setting for nightly seven-course feasts featuring First Nations food.

But tonight I was in the mood for more than just appetizers.  Although it’s not part of the official line-up at the pavilion, another landmark Aboriginal culinary event is taking place during the Games: a series of First Nations feasts and wine pairings held at the Native Education College, a traditional longhouse just outside the city centre.  The feasts consist of seven courses of Aboriginal-inspired dishes paired with some very unique wines from NK’Mip Cellars.  Located on Aboriginal land in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, NK’Mip is North America’s first native owned and operated winery.  In a fitting partnership, NK’Mip is also one of the official wines of the 2010 Games.

First Nations performers welcome guests to the feast with traditional songs and dancing.

The evening started with traditional performances by an Aboriginal drum and dance troupe.  Then the feasting began.   The first dish was a fire roasted corn soup served with oolighan oil, a flavorful oil made from a fish in the smelt family that is an integral part of the traditional diet in Canada’s far north.  To be sure, the food also reflected a sophisticated, modern update on Aboriginal dishes.  I went on to try candied salmon on seaweed crackers and duck-glazed halibut with mushroom hazelnut ragout.

Apart from just a showcase for food, however, the feast was a unique opportunity to glimpse Aboriginal culture in a setting – the longhouse – that has deep historical significance.  All of the music performed at the event was drawn from a repertoire of Aboriginal social songs, painstakingly preserved over the years by tribal song-keepers.  The performers evoked scenes of plenty, harvesting huckleberries in the valleys, as well as scenes of poverty, with nothing to eat but fish bones.

Chef Ben Genaille oversees the feasting at the Native Education College.

Afterwards, I had a chance to talk with Kwakwee Baker, a member of the Squamish Nation who was on hand to report on the event.  He praised the Olympics for shining a spotlight on Canada’s Aboriginal people.  But he also made one emphatic point.  The Olympics last for just two weeks.  But the Aboriginal struggle for a better quality of life, more job opportunities and recognition of traditional rights will continue long after that.

Remy Scalza – www.remyscalza.com

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