It was a freezing night in Toronto when I stepped into kū-kŭm in the heart of midtown. The restaurant had its heating up high, but the walls were radiating too. Prints in the woodlands style of Anishinaabe icon Norval Morrisseau guided my eyes toward a statement wall: a vibrant sweeping scene by Chippewa/Potawatomi muralist Chief Lady Bird and Haudenosaunee artist Monique Aura. The painting features three women and the landscape that fed their families. This is chef Joseph Shawana’s mother, mother-in-law and grandmother (or kū-kŭm, in Cree). They’re the inspirations for the restaurant’s name and for his menu.
At kū-kŭm, Shawana turns out a fleet of dishes that combine his Anishinaabe heritage, his training in French cuisine and ingredients sourced only in Canada. The menu includes elk, caribou, goose, perch and seal — all combined with vegetables, mushrooms and herbs that are foraged within a 100-kilometer radius of Toronto, and often by First Nations communities.
This uniqueness, and perhaps the controversy, has made the seal dishes best-sellers.
Shawana delicately sears seal loin ($20) and pairs it with beets and watercress, tossed lightly in local maple syrup. The sweetness of the accompaniments cut through the tender meat, resulting in a taste and mouthfeel unlike pretty much anything. Raw seal’s a little harder to swallow. That comes in the Arctic Trio starter, which costs $17 and features cured salmon and smoked rainbow trout.
This uniqueness, and perhaps the controversy, has made the seal dishes best-sellers. For me, however, one of the best items may also be the most unassuming: a $7.50 sorbet. It’s also the only dish on the menu that comes from Shawana’s home, the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve on Ontario’s Manitoulin Island. As a child playing in the bush in “Wiky,” he explains, he’d eat handfuls of hard-packed snow from the forest floor, scented with aromatic notes of needles, sap and bark. The sorbet on the menu is topped with another bush treat: a purple-pink wild licorice root Shawana grew up calling “Indian candy.” The result is a palate cleanser that evokes a field of trees across your senses.
The sorbet may rekindle a childhood memory for Shawana, but opening kū-kŭm has done something far more profound. “It solidified that identity within me,” he says. Shawana grew up without a deep knowledge of Anishinaabe traditional beliefs and any understanding of Anishinaabemowin (his language), but through food he’s found a way to rediscover and celebrate that heritage. He’s also started learning his language, alongside his son.
Kū-kŭm isn’t the only restaurant in Toronto serving up indigenous dishes. It also shares the scene with NishDish and Pow Wow Cafe. Shawana is also considering more locations in the city. The chef says that indigenous diners tell him how his food has ignited a yearning to discover more about their own heritage.
But whatever your ancestry, eating here is an opportunity to experience bold, decadent flavors and ingredients that are naturally abundant but rarely celebrated in Canada — a chance to taste a contemporary spin on food that people have eaten on this land for thousands of years.
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