It is the season of giving thanks.
A few years ago, writer Christine Sismondo chronicled what she called the odd, complicated history of Canadian Thanksgiving for which there is no compelling origin story. While acknowledging that pre-contact with Indigenous populations, some European countries had harvest feasts, they cannot claim to have invented “Thanksgiving.” Sismondo goes on to review how the roots and evolution of this feast are linked to Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Enter Aicha Smith-Belghaba, aiming to inform and excite people about classic and modern Indigenous cooking. She is currently featured in a seven-part video series hosted by the Hamilton Public Library (HPL).
Smith-Belghaba describes food as her passion having grown up with large families both here and in Algeria. Food, she says, is important and respected on each side of the family. For her whole life, she has lived on Six Nations of the Grand River, a centuries-old confederacy with various names — that she refers to as Haudenosaunee (hud-ena-shaw-nee) meaning “People of the Longhouse.”
Her mother met her Algerian father while she was in university and thus two cuisines and lifestyles shaped Smith-Belghaba’s life. Here she grew up around the kitchen, markets, in the garden or in the bush with grandparents. She spent some summers in France and Algeria where she was deeply affected by meeting her paternal grandmother. She says that although they had no common language, they communicated with ease in the kitchen. Food, she says, is the universal language.
Haudenosaunee have long been known for their agricultural traditions — at the minimum growing corn, squash and beans referred to as “the three sisters.” But the foods they grow, forage and hunt form a richer pantry and Smith-Belghaba feels her two food traditions pair well. Imagine squash and kale tagine-style, spiced with ras el hanout, cumin, and cilantro. Indigenous ingredients, she stresses, are versatile in accepting a lot of flavours and she likes to start with Indigenous ingredients and cook them however she feels.
One of her dishes that I tasted was somewhat based on a traditional succotash, with spicy twists. Corn and black beans were combined with rice, butternut squash, red pepper, onion, garlic, turmeric and chili peppers. With combos like this, Smith-Belghaba represents the meeting place of modern and tradition. She is not constrained by dishes that have ancient roots and says she never works with recipes. This is not to imply that she is dismissive of her native foods.
Her overall goal is to educate others about Indigenous foods, demonstrating how to easily incorporate them into their daily lives. The official website of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy details that in addition to farming, some foods were foraged — for example nuts, mushrooms, berries and root plants. Hunting and fishing provided proteins.
Smith-Belghaba wants to remind cooks that Indigenous ingredients are versatile and healthy, pointing out that the pre-contact diet contained no butter, salt or refined sugar. She reckons all of this was a better pathway to a healthier body-mind-soul connection.
She has no formal culinary training, something she has turned into an asset. “I’m self-taught which is amazing because that means anybody can cook, right?” She credits the school of life for the skills that she uses in her work — which includes running a catering company.
Her name Aicha (pronounced “eye-eesh-aw”) evolved into the nickname “Esh” (pronounced “eesh”). On Facebook, she’s at “Esha’s Eats” and the HPL video series is titled “In the Kitchen with Esh.”
Learn how to make Indigenous-inspired recipes, simply.
Having done several projects with CBC and participated in some fundraising projects, she was approached by the Hamilton Public Library to do a series of online cooking demos. That led to a connection with Annette Paiement and the Steady Canoe Group at The Cotton Factory who produced the videos.
The first video in the series was Sweetgrass Sweet Tea with Lavender and Orange. While simple, it was a platform for Esha’s storytelling, in this case about the traditional uses of sweetgrass as medicine or a smudge. Breaking with tradition, she added the braided sweetgrass to the tea which became imbued with its calming and soothing properties. The tea was sweetened using Humble Bee honey produced locally from 30 hives in Hamilton including rooftop hives at The Cotton Factory.
Subsequent episodes include roasted stuffed squash with wild rice and mushroom medley; walleye; apple leek stuffed chicken breast; and harvest salad with maple vinaigrette.
The sessions are “participatory” only in that comments can be left on the YouTube channel.
Smith-Belghaba talks about her “secondary” goal — to spread awareness of hindrances when Indigenous peoples set out to source their food. She gives examples such as obstruction of walleye fishing and the current strife among East Coast lobster fishers. She hopes through her work to shed light on these issues.
She is happy to represent two cultures reporting amazing experiences linked to sharing food. She stresses that spreading awareness of Indigenous issues, and her love and knowledge is a beautiful thing to her.
Somewhat shy, but with a confident presence on camera, she is fearless in her cooking.
“In the Kitchen with Esh” videos are aired weekly on Wednesdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. until Dec. 9. Previously aired episodes continue to be online for viewing.