A server at Boralia lifts the foggy glass dome over a dish of briny mussels, releasing the smoky essence of pine and campfire. According to Evelyn Wu, co-owner of this Toronto restaurant, the dish dates back to 1605, and is based on a recipe that French-born explorer Samuel de Champlain made for his men while traveling in Canada.
Wu and her husband and business partner, Wayne Morris, pored through centuries-old cookbooks and historical accounts to develop the concept and menu for Boralia, which they opened in 2014. Both are chefs, and they draw their inspiration for their menu from deep research into traditional Aboriginal dishes, as well from recipes of Canada's early settlers and immigrants. The end result seeks to honor the past, while also reinterpreting Canadian cuisine for the modern diner.
Their goal, Wu says, is a menu that spurs conversation about indigenous and immigrant cultures whose "memories and foods of their home countries ... becomes part of the melting pot" of Canadian cuisine. These dishes "open [diners'] minds ... everyone has some input in what we are eating today."
Morris grew up hunting, fishing, foraging and cooking as part of an Acadian family in Nova Scotia, with lineage he can trace back to the Metis tribe — one of Canada's official Aboriginal peoples. He spent most of his cooking career in British Columbia. Wu's experience was more peripatetic, including a stint at the research lab for Fat Duck, celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal's restaurant west of London, known for its creative, scientific approach to food. She worked there developing fare from centuries-old texts. She credits this experience with whetting her appetite to devise dishes that were "super fine dining versions of recipes that were barely comprehensible."
Their broad experience — and Canadian pride – informs their quest to create a menu that reflects the diversity of cultural influences on Canadian cuisine: from the grains eaten by indigenous tribes to the soy sauce and sticky rice introduced by the Chinese, to the customer favorite "pigeon pie," inspired by early British settlers. Morris's and Wu's goal is to stay true to tradition while also pushing the definition of what native might mean.
Boralia is among a handful of North American restaurants that are diving deep into issues of native cuisine and identity, with an emphasis on history and indigenous ingredients. In Charleston, chef Sean Brock has been on a quest to revive Southern cooking with a focus on heritage grains, vegetables — even pig breeds. In the Twin Cities, Sean Sherman, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, spent years researching what his ancestors ate before Europeans arrived and is putting these dishes back on the menu. In New England and Canada, chefs like Matt Jennings and Jeremy Charles are wrestling with similar questions to reinterpret "northern" cuisine.
"I think everyone's been looking to the past to find something different," says Wu.
Wu and Morris make their research and development process transparent by connecting dishes on their menu to specific years, while servers, and even Wu herself, invite conversation about the origins of ingredients or recipes. The result is food that is thoughtfully representative of Canadian — and in many ways, North American — history, dish by dish.
Wu says their process often starts with an old cookbook. Morris first recreates the recipe as written. Most old recipes were "really heavy," Wu says, "with lots of lard and butter and sugar." Together they consider how to do it "better and lighter." They also look at individual ingredients and think about how they could make it more refined, while "using all of the flavor components of the original dish," Wu says.
One of their new dishes is "Sweetbreads and Peas," which is inspired by a recipe from the Canadian Home Cookbook of 1877. It basically calls for "sweetbreads, lard and peas to be cooked to mush," says Wu. To update it, they considered different versions of peas, ultimately deciding on pea shoots and a miso made of split peas to bring a fresh spring-vegetable taste as well as a deeper, umami flavor.
So what do Wu and Morris want diners to take away from a meal at Boralia? First, they want diners to know "that there is a lot more to Canadian food than poutine." And in using mostly Ontario-sourced ingredients, they emphasize both the breadth and origin of local foods.
Wu welcomes the opportunity to teach more about Canadian history through food, but, she stresses, "We're not striving to replicate. We are researching to find inspiration."