Serving braised bison back ribs and game sausages, pulled boar and elk burgers, Indian tacos, and bannock bread pudding, Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro is the city’s only First Nations restaurant open year-round.
Photo via Flickr user ruthanddave
It is not difficult to find a T-shirt or a coffee mug decorated with a totem pole in Vancouver, but if you are looking for Aboriginal food, you have to look a bit harder.
Opened in February 2010 by Inez Cook and Remi Caudron, Salmon n' Bannock Bistro is the city's only First Nations restaurant open year-round.
The idea was sparked by a 2009 trip Cook took to Kelowna.
"She stumbled upon a café and they were advertising bannock. Their slogan was 'Don't panic … We have bannock,'" Caudron tells me. "She comes back to Vancouver and is like 'Can you believe it? There is a Native restaurant in Kelowna. There's nothing in Vancouver. The whole world is coming to Vancouver for the Olympics and there is no Native restaurant. I immediately got excited."
Beyond the salmon and bannock (a flat, quick bread) their name suggests, the restaurant serves braised bison back ribs and game sausages, pulled boar and elk burgers, Indian tacos, and bannock bread pudding.
And plenty of salmon, of course: salmon mousse, gravlax, wild sockeye salmon fillet, "Indian candy" (sweetened, smoked salmon), salmon soup, and their signature burger: smoked wild sockeye on bannock with lemon aioli, house-made pickles, and either sweet potato wedges or salad on the side.
Back on land, their game sampler is an introduction for beginners.
"There are people who, when they think 'game,' apprehend a very strong taste. So this was the intention with the platters to give bite-sizes. Some people are here just to say, 'Oh, I've tried elk.' Others grew up with elk and are like, 'My dad was a hunter,'" says Caudron.
Picture the likes of wild boar salami, air-dried bison, and air-dried elk served alongside chunks of doubled-smoked cheddar, pickles, sage-infused blueberries, cedar jelly, and baked bannock crackers.
But although Salmon n' Bannock's definitely got game, it is not as wild as one might expect.
Serving game is a complicated matter in Canada with distinct regulations in each province and territory. In British Columbia, like most of country, meat that is served in a restaurant has to be raised on a farm and slaughtered in a government-approved facility.
As Caudron says, "This touches on food sovereignty in a way, right? You could say that Native people have an entitlement to access their traditional foods. Now we are in a commercial setting so we have to serve things that are approved in a commercial facility and we get routine inspections."
The game platter changes based on what meats are available. "There are certain meats we can't access right now, like moose. It is not available on the commercial market. Caribou is sporadic."
"And BC is obviously not known for its game meats, so most of the game comes from the Prairies—from Alberta to Manitoba."
Serving game also comes at a cost. "There are one or two suppliers in town that have access to these meats, or offer them on a regular basis. And there is definitely a premium to pay," explains Caudron.
The current exchange rate doesn't make it easier. "The Canadian dollar is quite low compared to the US dollar. So a lot of bison right now is being sent to the US. Producers are selling their product at the same price, but in US dollars. They get $1.40, so they get 40 percent more for their products down south. They are shorting the Canadian market," Caudron says.
"About three years ago, ground bison was $15 a kilo. It was already quite higher than beef. It is over $22 right now. So now it is compromising our ability to serve a meaningful portion."
He adds: "If we looked just at the economic aspect, we could buy venison from New Zealand about 25 percent cheaper than something we can get right now from Quebec."
There is venison closer to home, but the law keeps it off the table. "It is like candy, and you are told to look at the store but you can't go in and you can't have it. If we can't get the local, then we go Canada and then America. So the venison we have right now is from Quebec.
"It is difficult to understand that things that are abundant right around you cannot be accessed for whatever reason—cannot be purchased. If we went only local, most likely we would have some fish basically on the menu. If I'm on the 100-mile diet or whatever, then I can't get bison or elk or anything like that. So we do have to expect to go a little further outside of our region to get access to those."
For a city like Vancouver, this also means that what is local may not always be Canadian. "There is technically in the Native world no border between Canada and the US. There is no border; it is all one territory. We do play with that, and go over the border. And sometimes going over the border means actually getting something more local than going to Quebec, right?"
Their wine, however, is from British Columbia, and comes from North American's first Aboriginal-owned winery: Nk'Mip Cellars.
From the wine to the art on the walls, Salmon n' Bannock celebrates and promotes First Nations culture. Representing a culture, especially one that has been attacked so brutally by institutions like residential schools, comes with responsibility. Caudron is French-Canadian, and although Cook is Nuxalk, she was adopted as a child.
"We had to show a commitment and a desire to represent the culture with something that people could be proud of. So that was the first challenge: to establish ourselves and show we had this commitment toward the Aboriginal community," Caudron tells me.
But now that they've entered their seventh year of business and reservations are strongly advised, they've proven their commitment to the Native community and shown that Aboriginal-inspired food can be modern and refined.
Still, it remains comfort food for some. Because they are close to a hospital, they also receive many Native customers flown in for medical reasons from remote parts of BC. "When you are away for medical reasons, all that, you want that feeling of comfort," says Caudron. And bannock is comfort food.
And if, you're lucky, so are sockeye salmon and, even for some, game.