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.


Spring Island (Part 2/3): Salmon Feast!

One of the most extraordinary things about West Coast Expeditions (WCE) is their long standing relationship with the First Nations’ people of Kyuquot.  The first evening we were on Spring Island, we had the pleasure of enjoying one of the most integral parts of the WCE experience: a salmon dinner.  During most expeditions hosted on Spring Island, members of the Kyuquot community join guests for a meal of salmon cooked in their traditional way - filleted and butterflied between cedar slats, then propped up and roasted next to the fire.

Lana and her family have been coming to Spring Island to cook for 22 years.  Her mother prepared the feasts for the first 19 years and, when her mother retired, Lana felt the tradition was too important to give up.  Here's a video of Lana preparing the fish, which was caught earlier that day:

While the salmon smoked over the maple wood fire, we began to see the rest of dinner materialize.  We first snacked on ‘upsquee,’* a kind of cold smoked dried salmon.  There are no hard and fast rules to follow in order to make upsquee, and everyone in Kyuquot has their own smokehouse rules.  Most use a smouldering piece of alder wood over a variable amount of days, depending on individual preference. 

The upsquee we tried had been smoked for three days and was chewy and addictive.  It had a  strong smokey flavour, though I was informed this particular version is quite mild compared to some; it had the texture of jerky. 


They also prepared freshly-caught crab and an incredible ‘Halibut Bake,’ which was made by layering fish with bread and sauteed onions, then topped with Lana's own tomato sauce.  There was also homemade bannock with jam, a salmon dip made from half-smoked canned salmon mixed with cream cheese,


salad, potatoes, and a crisp made with garden fresh rhubarb.  We learned the beloved Kyuquot word of ‘chummis,’* which essentially translates to ‘dessert,’ and is highly revered by WCE staff (we were in good company).  I can’t the remember the last time I was as full and happy as after this dinner. 

The philosophy of West Coast Expeditions is built upon community-based tourism principles, and the salmon feast prepared and served to us by the Kyuquot community embodies so much of what we love about food.  This meal carries on a tradition and symbolizes the strength of the relationship between the Kyuquot people and West Coast Expeditions. 

It provides a venue for guests and residents to connect and share their life stories—a good meal almost always brings good conversation with it.  After dinner, we all sat around the fire and each of us spoke a little bit about why we were on Spring Island and shared our backgrounds. 

Finally, the salmon feast represents years of culinary tradition for the Kyuquot people.  Through West Coast Expeditions, they are able to share their culture with people who would not otherwise get to experience it. 


Thank you to Lana and her family for sharing with us what the west coast means to them.  Both their food and company were phenomenal, and we are so, so grateful to have had this experience.  

Plus we have a new favourite word for dessert - chummis!


*they radioed back to Kyuquot to confirm the spelling, but we never actually got the confirmation.  I have given my best phonetic guess.

**This post was submitted to The Canadian Food Experience Project  in order to address this month's theme of 'a regional Canadian food'