A few restaurants across southern British Columbia, owned and operated by First Nation people, offer meals whose origins date back centuries. The number of restaurants is small and indigenous food is not identical to that of earlier generations, but the restaurants are popular with visitors of all nationalities. Two First Nation wineries are also found here, and each also contains a restaurant.
I recently made a trip just to visit these restaurants and wineries. First stop was Ainsworth Hot Springs, in southeastern British Columbia. The site was developed back in 1882 by George Ainsworth, because of the mineral deposits nearby. Prior to that, it had been used by the Ktunaxa people for centuries, a place to soak in the hot waters and relieve aches and injuries. They called it nupica wu’u, which means “Spirit Water.” The Lower Kootenay Band of the Ktunaxa purchased the property in April of 2015. It’s in a beautiful location adjacent to Kootenay Lake and contains both motel and restaurant in addition to the hot pools.
Assistant general manager Jake Murfitt explained that when the Lower Kootenai Band purchased Ainsworth Hot Springs, “the idea was to have something reflective of their culture.” The restaurant was named The Ktunaxa Grill. “The whole idea was to create a menu that would honor the indigenous ingredients from which first nation people made their meals. A lot of the ingredients in the meals are made from the same traditional ingredients, engineered in a different way, to make them presentable in a fine dining restaurant.”
Aaron Day was brought in as chef and he redid the menu to reflect the culture. Many of the dishes are prepared with smoked ingredients and Day does all the smoking. “We get a lot of local game,” he says. “We smoke all our own salmon and now are using fresh wild sockeye as it’s a better smoking fish. We smoke turkey and elk and smoke tomatoes, caper berries and whatever we can smoke. It works out really well.”
Day prepared several appetizers for me. We started with smoked salmon with chive sour cream, potato pancake, fennel and yellow beet salad. The second appetizer was smoked elk carpaccio served in a bannock tuile with fresh berries, pickled beets and berry gastrique. That was followed by skillet-roasted mussels with wild boar sausage, local grape tomato, rosemary, caper berries, lemon and butter. Day says the mussels are likely their most popular dish.
Next stop, north and west of there, was Kamloops, British Columbia and the Painted Pony Café. Carol Camille is the owner and their motto is, “We had you at bannock.” If there is a single food item found throughout indigenous restaurants in British Columbia it’s bannock.
Camille opened the restaurant in 2014, simply because she believes every First Nation band should have a restaurant in their territory. “The food in the restaurant is food my kids grew up on. This is how we eat at home,” she added.
For dinner, I opted for the braised buffalo ribs served with a glaze made of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and huckleberries. It was wonderful. My wife opted for cedar plank smoked fillet of salmon; equally wonderful. Camille explained that the sockeye salmon is caught locally. “It’s smoked with alder wood for 24 hours in our smokehouse and then finished off on cedar planks and finished drying in that way.” Included with that is your choice of several vegetables, rice, usually corn–and, naturally, bannock.
Camille estimated that roughly half her customers are First Nation people, “because it’s food they’re familiar with.” She said many locals come in regularly, but “we also have tons of tourists from all over the world.”
Dropping south to Merritt for my next stop, we had breakfast at the Kekuli Café. A second Kekuli Café is a few miles farther south at Westbank, near Kelowna, British Columbia. Their motto is “Don’t Panic… We have Bannock!”
Sharon Bond-Hogg and husband Darren are the owners of the Kekuli Cafes. (A kekuli is a winter dwelling built into the ground.) A phrase on their website describes the tone and character of their cafes. “A traditional cultural aboriginal ambiance, with light pow wow music, aboriginal art, jewelry, and most of all aboriginal cuisine!”
Their menu is traditional in offering smoked salmon and bannock—always bannock. Fresh vegetable salads contain such things as pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Saskatoon berries also show up frequently in their house-made vinaigrette and they even offer a Saskatoon berry milkshake. Even one of their bannock recipes is made with Saskatoon berries. You can also buy non-traditional aboriginal meals, like burgers and tacos, but they also come wrapped in freshly made bannock.
The Indigenous World Winery, located in Kelowna, opened in 2016 but already is making a name for itself in the wine industry and is just the second first nation winery in all of Canada. Kelowna is in the northernmost point of the Sonoran Desert which runs down into Mexico. This semi-desert environment makes it ideal for growing wine grapes.
Owners Robert and Bernice Louie are descendants of Okanogan Syilx people and Robert was Chief of the Westbank First Nation before opening the winery.
Food is served in the Red Fox Club or on the patio with views over the vineyards to the valley and Okanogan Lake beyond. It’s not all traditional indigenous food, but it is aboriginal inspired, with such items as bison chili and salmon fritters.
My final stop was at the Nk’Mip Cellars, a winery in Osoyoos owned by the Osoyoos Band. It’s almost on the U.S. border and also within this Sonoran Desert region, locally called the Okanogan Valley. Winters are so mild that many Canadians from farther north winter here and referred to by locals as “snow birds,” like those U.S. residents who travel to Arizona or Florida in the winter.
This winery opened in 2002. I wrote about it for Indian Country Today in September of 2012. It has expanded considerably in recent years and in 2016 was given the prestigious honor of being picked as “Canada’s Winery of the Year.”
The restaurant menu emphasizes meals with a base in aboriginal dishes and the many reviews give it high marks. In addition, the view from the umbrella covered tables of The Patio Restaurant, which overlook vineyards and Osoyoos Lake, is gorgeous.