Keenawii's Kitchen: a Haida Feast

“Creator for the food, and for you, I thank you”

This was the traditional Haida blessing that preceded the meal where we ate seafood served about 15 different ways.

We joined Chef Roberta Olsen for one of her iconic dinners from “Keenawii’s Kitchen” named for her Haida name ‘Keenawii’.  Roberta cooks with ingredients collected from the ocean, forests and farmers markets on the island.  Her cooking career started unintentionally—after a visiting group’s event was cancelled, Roberta was asked to prepare a meal for the tourists.  She then began hosting regular dinners and now receives substantial help from her children and grandchildren to host about 3-4 dinners per week, for up to 30 people each.  She also cooks for the Edge of the World Music Festival held annually on Haida Gwaii; during the festival weekend, she cooks 3 meals per day for all the musicians and volunteers, about 200 people.  

The first course featured a sampling of some staple dried snacks, which Roberta grew up on and adores.   There was flat dried herring roe on kelp (k'aaw), dried seaweed (sguu), bannock (saabalii), dried smoked sockeye salmon (ts'ilji), grain bread with rhubarb relish, and an octopus ball (naaw).

 The octopus was harvested underneath a rock on her beach during low tide, and was then transformed into the best octopus ball we’ve ever had.  Most of the octopus I have had has been rather chewy, but this was so tender.

We then had a hearty chowder made with salmon, halibut, clams and a variety of vegetables.

The third course was when things started to get crazy (in the best way possible).  Platters and platters of food kept coming out. 

We had Halibut, cold smoked sockeye, pepper smoked sockeye, venison with hand picked wild cranberries, smoked black cod fresh from the smokehouse, smoked black cod hash, a roasted vegetable dish with sea asparagus, wild rice, and some more herring roe on kelp. 

This was a fresh version of the herring roe, which gave several shocking ‘pops’ between our teeth as we chewed.  

Everything was incredibly flavourful, but our favourites included the smoked black cod and the pepper smoked sockeye.

Our final course was a pie full of blueberries, raspberries, salmon berries, and peaches, served with wild nettle mint tea. 

We enjoyed all of this food while surrounded by art created by people in the community, listening to her family sing traditional Haida songs, looking out over a vast stretch of ocean, and chatting with Roberta and Cohen, a former employee of hers, about Haida life. 

Cohen explained that in traditional Haida culture, wealth is measured by how much one gives away rather than accumulates.  Judging by this meal (a mere $55 dollars) and what Roberta gives of herself, her culture and her family, generosity is still a strong force in Haida culture today.

It was a truly extraordinary meal that was as much a cultural and historical experience as it was an appetite satisfier.  Roberta’s work plays a major role in the preservation and celebration of traditional Haida food culture, while delivering an amazing community experience.  We left feeling refreshed… and very full.

This dinner was certainly one the highlights of our spectacular time on Haida Gwaii, and anyone passing through Skidegate should attend this fantastic cultural experience.  You won’t be able to find an email address or website for her: simply call (250) 559-8347, or turn right at the rainbow rock.