Virtually every culture on earth has its own special relationship with bread. While the Old World was baking baguettes and sourdough, the Indigenous peoples of the New World were handcrafting skaan and frybread. During North American colonization, sadly, the Europeans imposed their will over the First Nations with a heavy hand. In Toronto, bannock exists as a reminder of that lamentable past. It is as much a local delicacy as it is a cultural touchstone.
"The roots of bannock trace back to scones in Scotland," explains Shawn Adler, owner of the Pow Wow Cafe in the Kensington Market neighborhood of Toronto. "It is full of things that were brought over post-colonization, like white sugar, and baking powder. But it’s born of indigenous ingenuity. It’s a bread of oppression that was turned into a delicious treat."
Adler traces his roots back to the Ojibway – a large Indigenous ethnic group spread out across much of Ontario province. In 2016, he opened Pow Wow as a way to bring the food he grew up with to a broader audience.
He gained an immediate following with his ‘Indian taco,’ which has familiar ingredients such as chili and shredded cheddar wrapped in bannock instead of a traditional tortilla. According to him, in his youth, "everyone had a story about bannock, like what grandma used to make." It was comfort food with a crunch.
Although it’s virtually unseen on American menus these days, bannock has morphed into a reliable specialty in this part of Ontario. At Kukum Kitchen, a popular First Nations outpost helmed by Indigenous chef Joseph Shawana, it appears in crostini form beneath a smattering of pan-seared seal loin.
Tea-N-Bannock gives the carb the cafe treatment and bakes a take-home iteration while you wait. In the heart of downtown, a hip eatery even named itself after Toronto’s trendiest bread.
How’s it made? Well, that can vary, depending on who you ask. "There are a bunch of recipes, but I try to make it dense like a biscuit," notes Adler. "I use wheat flour, sugar, lard – or sometimes butter – baking powder and milk. But you can use duck fat, bacon, cheddar cheese. It can be very versatile."
Although Adler relies on what he considers a more traditional recipe, it can change with the seasons, or with what he feels like topping it with on any particular day. He might make it lighter and less dense in consistency, for example, if using something like fish or vegetables as opposed to heartier meats. Bannock can also arrive in either baked or fried form depending on the vendor; chewier from some, extra crispy from others.
Bannock at Pow Wow — Photo courtesy of Pow Wow Cafe
But whatever the texture it exhibits or ingredients it carries, bannock is loaded heavy with the tales of a proud people that persevered in the face of adversity. As the Indigenous were ripped from their lands in generations past, they were left with limited feeding options. In Canada, the government provided rations to displaced natives. This included flour, eggs, lard, sugar: the building blocks of what became bannock.
"I always tell people you can compare it to Jewish people’s matzoh," says Adler. "They made it when running away from their oppressors. It’s the same with bannock. Indigenous people created it by rationing from the land."
In sharing that legacy with modern diners, the Indigenous chefs of Toronto are dishing out more than just Indian tacos and high-minded crostini. They are offering a measure of virtue in every bite. Across a cultural divide, breaking bread assumes a more fulfilling role than any one meal can provide.