Re­claim­ing Indige­nous in­gre­di­ents, tech­niques in Water­loo

Row­land Robin­son re­claim­ing Indige­nous in­gre­di­ents, tech­niques right here in Water­loo


Row­land Robin­son grew up in a British West In­dies home steeped in food cul­ture, so it’s not sur­pris­ing his culi­nary pas­sion took root early. His par­ents were food and wine pro­fes­sion­als — his An­glo-Ber­mu­dian fa­ther was in the wine in­dus­try and his Menom­i­nee mother had a long restau­rant ca­reer. He and his brother grew up on the west­ern, Chi­nese and Ja­panese dishes that high­lighted his mother’s broad palate. On spe­cial oc­ca­sions she pre­pared the Indige­nous foods she grew up with.

When Robin­son was old enough to be trusted to be near a gas flame and han­dle sharp knives, his mother taught him to cook, ini­tially pass­ing on recipes from an Ital­ian grand­uncle.

To­day, the 32-year-old PhD can­di­date in so­ci­ol­ogy at Univer­sity of Water­loo fo­cuses his culi­nary in­ter­ests on in­ves­ti­gat­ing Indige­nous food and cook­ing tech­niques from his home kitchen in Water­loo.

The Wild Rice Peo­ple

Robin­son’s mother and ma­ter­nal grand­mother are mem­bers of the Menom­i­nee In­dian Tribe of Wis­con­sin. The na­tion’s com­mu­nity is now on about 95,000 hectares (235,000 acres), about 275 kilo­me­tres north of Mil­wau­kee, a frac­tion of their once four-mil­lion-hectare ter­ri­tory in what’s now Wis­con­sin and Up­per Michi­gan. They are cul­tur­ally and lin­guis­ti­cally re­lated to Al­go­nquian-speak­ing peo­ples, and have tra­di­tions sim­i­lar to the Anishi­naabe.

“Our name ac­tu­ally means ‘wild rice peo­ple,’ that’s what the Ojibwa called us,” says Robin­son, whose Indige­nous name is Enae­maehkiw Ke­siq­naeh. “We didn’t farm a lot per se, but an im­por­tant sta­ple was wild rice. It wasn’t grown in a field (like in East Asia) or farmed like corn, but the way it was seeded had a hu­man re­la­tion­ship.”

Child­hood sum­mers were spent with fam­ily who lived near the Menom­i­nee com­mu­nity, where he learned and par­tic­i­pated in tra­di­tional ac­tiv­i­ties. “There was a par­tic­u­lar place we could go and catch trout, and there was an old Menom­i­nee man who would fil­let them up for us,” he re­mem­bers. “My grand­fa­ther would fry them up, of­ten with salt pork.”

Re claim­ing his roots

De­col­o­niza­tion — ques­tion­ing and re­fram­ing nar­ra­tives as­so­ci­ated with colo­nial ex­pan­sion and cul­tural as­sim­i­la­tion — is im­por­tant to him and is con­nected to his aca­demic work. His dis­ser­ta­tion is about Indige­nous iden­tity and is­sues re­gard­ing blood quan­tum (the mea­sure­ment of ances­tral pedi­gree through blood­line).

These nar­ra­tives also in­form Robin­son’s cook­ing, specif­i­cally in find­ing health­ier ways of eat­ing and in delink­ing from Euro­cen­tric and west­ern di­ets and food sys­tems. About six years ago, a Face­book group’s dis­cus­sion about de­col­o­niz­ing tra­di­tional Mex­i­can di­ets be­came his en­try point into Indige­nous cook­ing. His in­ter­est in Mex­i­can food ex­panded to Me­soamer­i­can foods and, along with tra­di­tions from the Caribbean and other Indige­nous di­ets, be­came his culi­nary spe­cial­i­ties.

“Where I can, I find tra­di­tional ways of do­ing things, within the lim­i­ta­tions of be­ing a PhD stu­dent, liv­ing in an apart­ment, in a city.”

Ask­ing Robin­son to de­fine “tra­di­tional Indige­nous food” high­lights is­sues in in­ter­pre­ta­tion.

“I am an an­thro­pol­o­gist by train­ing. Cer­tainly, I see some soups or the ways of cook­ing beans or corn as pre-con­tact, but so much gets mixed. In the north­east, you’ll find a lot of dishes that are cooked with ba­con. In the south­west, lamb has be­come a huge part of Navajo culi­nary cul­ture. Pork and lamb are not tra­di­tional foods, but they’ve be­come such a big part now that they’re tra­di­tional.”

He stud­ies tech­niques and in­gre­di­ents, us­ing his skills to mod­ify and read­just recipes. Orig­i­nal foods are re­turned to dishes (us­ing tur­key in­stead of chicken), while other cuisines’ foods are adapted (us­ing cu­lantro in­stead of co­rian­der leaf). These tech­niques are also used by Indige­nous chefs, who prac­tise fu­sion cook­ing by us­ing Eu­ro­pean tech­niques to pre­pare tra­di­tional in­gre­di­ents.

Stu­dent life

Through­out the year, Shatit­sirótha, the Water­loo Indige­nous Stu­dent Cen­tre, helps to con­nect Univer­sity of Water­loo’s Indige­nous stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. Food of­ten plays an es­sen­tial role, such as at the au­tum­nal wel­come din­ner, an event mark­ing the start of the aca­demic year.

For the 2018 feast, Robin­son pre­pared a pop­u­lar dish known as In­dian Tacos. Rather than the usual Tex-Mex chili topped with toma­toes, cheese and let­tuce on fry­bread (pan-fried wheat bread), he cre­ated a buf­falo and elk ragout flavoured with all­spice, epa­zote, Mex­i­can oregano, sumac, and other spices. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing south­west-style beans were flavoured with gar­lic, onions, epa­zote and cin­na­mon.

Robin­son oc­ca­sion­ally pre­pares the stu­dent cen­tre’s soup and fry­bread lunches, weekly events at­tract­ing about 100 din­ers. He keeps true to tra­di­tional tech­niques — cook­ing beans from scratch rather than reach­ing for a can — and freely ex­plores dif­fer­ent Indige­nous tra­di­tions.

“I’ll give them var­i­ous types of squash or bean soups or chow­ders, in­clud­ing fish chow­ders,” he says. “When I make corn soup, it’s dif­fer­ent from the Hau­denosaunee-style that peo­ple make here. That one’s thin­ner, has some beans in it, hominy and ham. Mine is like a thick and creamy corn chow­der.”

For some stu­dents, delink­ing their diet means re­mov­ing wheat or dairy, and for oth­ers it might mean fol­low­ing a veg­e­tar­ian diet un­til they can get tra­di­tional, hunted meats. Robin­son’s ap­proach re­duces or elim­i­nates in­tro­duced el­e­ments (such as salt, gran­u­lated su­gar and fat) and rein­tro­duces foods used by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.

“There’s a spec­trum, but I think it very much varies from in­di­vid­ual to in­di­vid­ual. I have my way, which fo­cuses more on in­gre­di­ents.”

While some stu­dents want a more tra­di­tional diet, the re­al­ity is many don’t know how to cook from scratch. Robin­son wants to change this.

“I’m in­ter­ested in try­ing to help other peo­ple learn how to do it. I see it as two-pronged: get­ting peo­ple to cook for them­selves more and get­ting peo­ple to fo­cus on tra­di­tional in­gre­di­ents, dishes, or ways of do­ing things. I al­ways try to im­press upon peo­ple that maybe it’s a lit­tle time con­sum­ing, but it’s some­thing you can do for your­self.”


Adapted from “Spirit of the Har­vest: North Amer­i­can In­dian Cook­ing,” by Bev­erly Cox and Martin Ja­cobs, pub­lished by Ste­wart, Ta­bori and Chang.

Makes ap­prox­i­mately 1.5 to 2 litres

(6 to 8 cups)

1 can (796 ml) pump­kin purée

(NOT pump­kin pie fill­ing. Also, see di­rec­tions for ‘Us­ing Fresh Pump­kin’)

1.25 to 2.5 ml (¼ to ½ tea­spoon) ground spice­bush berries (also known as Ap­palachian all­spice) OR all­spice, to taste

15 to 45 ml (1 to 3 ta­ble­spoons) maple syrup OR 11.25 to 35 ml (2¼ to 7 tea­spoons) honey, to taste

750 ml to 1 L chicken broth OR beef broth OR veg­etable broth, as needed

Gar­nish (op­tional) – choose one of the fol­low­ing: 2 to 4 green onions, finely sliced (green parts only)

125 ml (½ cup) toasted chopped hazel­nuts

125 ml (½ cup) toasted pump­kin seeds

To make the soup:

1. Place the pump­kin purée*, all­spice and maple syrup or honey in a heavy-bot­tomed pot. Over medium-high heat, stir in enough broth to achieve the de­sired con­sis­tency.

2. Bring to a boil and let bub­ble for about five min­utes. Lower the heat and let sim­mer for an­other five min­utes, stir­ring oc­ca­sion­ally. Bal­ance flavours to taste.

3. La­dle into bowls and gar­nish as de­sired. Serve while hot.

* To help get rid of the tinny taste, pour the purée into a heavy-bot­tomed pot and stir con­stantly over medium-low heat un­til it steams and be­comes fra­grant, about five min­utes. Us­ing Fresh Pump­kin

You can re­place the pump­kin purée with one roasted pump­kin (30 cen­time­tres/12 inches; ap­prox­i­mately 1.5 kg/3 lbs.)

To roast the pump­kin:

1. Pre­heat oven to 350 F (180 C) and line a bak­ing tray with tin foil.

2. Place the pump­kin on the pre­pared tray and roast un­til the tip of a sharp knife eas­ily pierces the flesh, about one hour.

3. Re­move from the oven and cut a few sl­its to al­low the steam to es­cape. Let cool, about 20 min­utes.

4. Halve the pump­kin and set the pieces on the pan skin-side down un­til cool enough to han­dle, about 20 to 30 min­utes.

5. Re­move the seeds and strings and set aside for roast­ing, see below. Cut the halves into wedges and peel off the pa­pery skin. Mash or purée the flesh to the de­sired con­sis­tency. Mea­sure 800 ml (ap­prox­i­mately 3¼ cups) or 825 g of purée.

To roast the pump­kin seeds for the gar­nish

1. Re­turn the oven to 350 F (180 C). Re­move and dis­card the strings and wash the seeds. Toss them in 30 to 45 ml (2 to 3 ta­ble­spoons) sun­flower oil or other flavour­less oil. Sea­son with salt and pep­per.

2. Spread them in a sin­gle layer on a bak­ing tray and toast un­til golden, about 15 to 20 min­utes.


squashes) are best for soup. Use a su­gar pump­kin (also known as a pie pump­kin). Oth­er­wise, you can try one of the fol­low­ing squashes: but­ter­cup, but­ter­nut, car­ni­val, red kuri or sweet dumpling. If you use a squash, the roast­ing time may vary and you may need to ad­just the spic­ing or sweet­ness.

- ents in­clude Amer­ica Latina (1120 Vic­to­ria St. N.) and Mi Tienda Latina (103 On­tario St. S.)

Jas­mine Mangalaser­il

Row­land Robin­son poses in the Univer­sity of Water­loo’s Indige­nous Stu­dent Cen­tre. PHOTO BY PETER LEE

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