Bannock [Old English bannuc, "morsel"], a form of bread that served as a staple in the diets of early settlers and fur traders. It took the form of a flat round cake or pancake. Ingredients included unleavened flour, lard, salt, water and sometimes baking powder.
Like a hockey puck made of carbohydrates, mostly flour and water, bannock is the stuff of life for many Canadians, particularly for Indigenous peoples. Most Indigenous nations in North America have some version of bannock. Inuit call it palauga, Mi’kmaq luskinikn, and Ojibwa ba‘wezhiganag. The word derives from the Gaelic bannach, meaning morsel, which in turn likely came from the Latin panis, which means bread. Bannock is usually unleavened, oval-shaped and flat. The version that we know today came from Scotland. In its most rudimentary form it is made of flour, water, and fat or lard. Milk, salt, and sugar are often added, depending on the recipe. It is traditionally cooked by mixing the ingredients into a large, round biscuit and baked in a frying pan. Today, most often, bannock is baked in the oven, making it heavy and dense; or it is pan-fried, light and fluffy; or it is deep-fried.
A Brief History of Bannock
It is conventionally believed that Scottish fur traders called Selkirk introduced bannock to the Indigenous peoples of North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Scots cooked it in a griddle called a bannock stone, which they placed on the floor before a fire. Scottish bannock was usually made of barley, peameal, or oatmeal. Wheat flour was later introduced.
Indigenous people adopted bannock, often using corn flour or plants rather than the wheat flour of Europeans. However, the story isn’t so straightforward. It is now understood that many Indigenous communities had their own pre-colonial versions of bannock. Indigenous peoples in Canada were consuming unleavened bread-like foods from the starch or flour of bracken rhizomes (the underground stems of ferns), which were cooked or baked on rocks over fire, in sand, or in cooking pits or earth ovens. For example, camas bulbs (an herb from the lily family) would have been baked for long periods of time, dried, and then flattened or chopped, and formed into cakes and loaves. First Nations cooked their bannock by a variety of methods. Some rolled the dough in sand then pit-cooked it, brushing the sand off once it was ready to eat. Others baked it in clay or rock ovens. Also, some wrapped the dough around green, hardwood sticks, resting slanted over an open fire.
To celebrate National Aboriginal Day in June 2000, Michael Blackstock, Aboriginal Affairs Manager of the Kamloops Forest Region in British Columbia, published a small booklet entitled “Bannock Awareness,” which contained not only a brief history of bannock along with a baker’s dozen recipes, but also land claim information, Aboriginal rights, and historical notes on the relations between First Nations and settlers. Other recipes include “lichen bannock,” in which black tree lichen is pit cooked or steamed to make bannock-like licorice. Berries such as saskatoons can be added for sweetness.
European settlers introduced flour, which can last a long time, and modern utensils, which made cooking easier and more expedient. The advantages of bannock are obvious. It is a quick and simple carbohydrate-rich food, which was hard to come by in many parts of Canada. Bannock soon became a staple for First Nations, voyageurs, fur traders and prospectors. Many would just mix the dough right into their flour bag, and toss it onto a pan whenever the need arose. Many hikers and backpackers today use very similar methods.
Bannock also grew out of necessity. As Indigenous peoples were removed from their land, and thus their traditional sources of food, the Canadian government supplied them with rations of things such as flour, lard, sugar and eggs. Once a quick and easy meal to be made in the bush, bannock became a necessity to prevent starvation on reserves.
Bannock is popular today among First Nations at powwows, festivals and family gatherings. The bannock at these events is usually deep-fried, pan-fried, or oven baked. Bannock plays an important role at restaurants and cafes owned and operated by Indigenous entrepreneurs. At Kekuli Cafe, which has two locations in British Columbia, the slogan is “Don’t Panic... We Have Bannock!” It continues to be a mainstay in popular Indigenous culture.
Indian tacos are another modern adaptation that has become a staple on the powwow circuit. To add some Mexican-style flavour, the bannock can be cooked in oil containing two tablespoons of lime juice. The fried bread is then topped withchili, shredded cheese and lettuce, chopped tomato, along with sour cream and salsa. Indian tacos are now spreading from powwows into the Toronto food scene. Recently, Ojibwa chef Shawn Adler has opened Pow Wow Cafe, where he sells Indian tacos. Adler is pushing the Indian taco further by exploring different renditions, such as beef chili, veggie chili, pulled pork and jerk chicken.
Unfortunately, all that fried bread means bannock can contribute to expanding waistlines. Fortunately, healthier alternatives are available. To cut down the empty calories, use whole wheat flour and maple syrup or honey for sweetness.
For many Indigenous peoples trying to decolonize their lives, bannock can be a tricky subject. With the European influences of modern cooking utensils and flour, along with the impact of the rationing on reserves, bannock bears many traces of a colonial history. However, by exploring the old ways of making bannock along with experimenting with new recipes, cooking bannock can be empowering.