Canadian food is not just the amalgamation of different ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures that settled here over the past 400 years – it is the evolution of the food that these people brought over here, driven by their need to adapt to indigenous ingredients.
– Evelyn Wu Morris, co-owner Boralia, a restaurant that opened Toronto last December that serves contemporary riffs of Canada’s indigenous and imported recipes from as far back as the 1600s.
My article in Globe & Mail featuring Boralia: Beyond maple syrup: Chefs embrace unconventional Canadian ingredients
Gallery: Boralia (December 2015)
How-To on TorontoLife by Tiffy Thompson: How Borealia makes a French-Canadian bonfire classic without burning down their kitchen
Video on CBC News: Ossington restaurant bringing Canadian history back to life
I was working on a story about heritage foods and the Canadian chefs who were finding new ways to introduce old foods, recipes, or ingredients to their culinary narrative. It seemed too perfect that that was around the same time that I heard rumours of a new restaurant that was opening on Toronto’s West side.
While the story itself might not be as new now that the world (not just Toronto!) has discovered, embraced, and devoured Boralia, how the concept came into being is still a worthwhile story.
I loved all the examples Evelyn gave, but a newspaper article’s word limit only permits for so much. Hence the beauty (and freedom) associated with Narratives. Below the Q&A, and all the unabridged details from the co-owner herself.
RS: My understanding is that Borealia* will be reinterpreting old recipes. Can you elaborate on this i.e. what do you mean/how will you modernize old recipes? Where are these original recipes from?
EW: Much of our research has been centered around old cookbooks (like The Home Cook Book, first cookbook published in Canada in 1877; Origins of Quebec Gastronomy; Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens, to name only a few) and history books to learn about what the colonialists ate when they arrived. We also studied books on Native cuisine to find out about food preparation, indigenous plant species and how various tribes used foraged ingredients.
To give you an idea of how we are interpreting these historic dishes:
One of the old dishes we studied was called l’éclade, and it was actually a dish that Samuel de Champlain introduced to the men at Port Royal (the first European settlement in Canada, established in 1605). He had established an eating and drinking society called The Order of Good Cheer to lift everyone’s spirits during the cold winter. L’éclade was a rustic, and very messy dish, where mussels were buried under a mountain of pine needles. The pine needles were set on fire, which simultaneously smoked and cooked the mussels underneath. Our version at Boralia involves smoking butter in the same method and using that butter to scent the steamed mussels.
Chopsuey was a dish that anthropologists believe evolved from a dish called “tsap seui” (which means “miscellaneous leftovers”), brought over by Chinese immigrants from Guangdong province in the 1850s. They basically took whatever meat they could find, sauted it with onions, celery and rice and covered it with a brown soy-based sauce. We took that idea and turned it into a play on arancini – a croquette of sticky rice with Chinese sausage, beef and duck gizzard, with a liquid ginger-soy centre.
Pemmican is a dish that often comes to mind when you think of Native cuisine – it was a portable, high-energy food that was a mix of dehydrated meat pounded into powder and mixed with melted fat and dried berries. We’ve taken the components of this historic dish and prepared everything in a different way. The bison is cured and air-dried in the style of bresaola, and garnished with warm lardo. The berry component comes in the form of a wild blueberry-juniper vinaigrette.
We’re incorporating heritage ingredients like red fife (Canada’s oldest successfully grown variety of wheat), Algonquin corn, wild rice, and cranberry beans which are an heirloom variety indigenous to North America. Our bread is naturally leavened and made with a wild yeast starter and red fife flour. Wayne is also currently working on a type of miso paste with wild field peas from Quebec, using the traditional Japanese method.
RS: What was the inspiration behind the concept?
EW: This is three-fold actually. I (Evelyn) had just come back from England where I was working for Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and developing desserts for the then-unopened restaurant Dinner by Heston. I was very intrigued by how England had such a rich history from which to draw, and the concept at Dinner of modernizing British food was fascinating. Wayne, over the past few years before we met, had been working closely with our previous chef, Mark Filatow, in Kelowna, writing menus for Food Day Canada and really celebrating local produce but at the same time wondering what exactly Canadian food was. We both wanted to showcase the flavours of Wayne’s Acadian background and my Chinese culture. It all came to a head when we were in a bookstore and saw the book Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens and realized that Canada has an amazing food history that, in its own way, is even richer than England’s because of the indigenous peoples and all the different cultures that settled here and built this country.
RS: What are you hoping will be the result of people eating your food? I.e. is it for education? Is it to reinvigorate a lost art that’s just plain delicious?
EW: A little bit of both! We want to contribute something fresh to the food scene by, ironically enough, going back centuries for inspiration.
It’s like that quote “everything old is new again” – we want people to come with a sense of curiosity but leave with an appreciation of history and where these modern dishes came from. We’ve come across lots of old recipes that we don’t ever want to recreate, even in a re-interpreted form, but there are still tons of things – preservation techniques, flavor combinations, and a sense of place, to name a few, that deserve attention not just because they’re practical but because they truly enhance a dish.
RS: What was the biggest discovery or epiphany either of you has experienced in this journey?
EW: We’ve grown to be very proud of the food culture of this country – a lot of the time when people think about Canadian food, they’re at a loss; poutine and maple syrup come to mind every time, but there is so much more to us than that. We don’t even think we realized that before we started this process. It’s common knowledge that Canada is a melting pot of cultures, but no one ever applies that mentality to our food. Canadian food is not just the amalgamation of all these different ethnicities, nationalities, and cultures that settled here over the past 400 years – it is the evolution of the food that these people brought over here, driven by their need to adapt to indigenous ingredients.
* Boralia’s previous name was Borealia, from ‘borealis‘, the Latin word for ‘northern.’ However, trademark issues required the owners to modify their name.