Six Nations chef Aicha Smith-Belghaba brings the flavour in library’s cooking series

Six Nations of the Grand River chef Aicha Smith-Belghaba is starring in a new cooking show, called In the Kitchen with Esha, where she creates beautiful dishes with Indigenous ingredients. 

Smith-Belghaba said she wants the seven-episode series, which is in partnership with the Hamilton Public Library, to show how feasible — and delicious — cooking with pre-contact, Indigenous ingredients in the kitchen can be. 

“I just want people to know what those Indigenous foods are, the importance of them, and that it is simple to incorporate those into your daily lifestyle,” she said. 

It’s a first step into the world of food television for Smith-Belghaba, who runs the catering company Esha’s Eats.

The chef uses Haudenosaunee, locally sourced ingredients and combines them with Algerian influence from her father’s background for her own spin on Indigenous foods. 

Squash, sumac, maple, and sweetgrass are all flavours viewers can look forward to seeing in her recipes. And if they follow along, they’ll be able to taste them at home. 

The cooking series premieres on the library’s YouTube page on October 28 and will release episodes weekly for seven weeks. (Annette Paiement)

The series will be available to watch on the library’s YouTube page. The first episode will be released on Oct. 28.

Leading a cooking show, she says, has always been a dream. 

“The idea has definitely always been at the back of my mind, but now it’s came to fruition,” she said. “Dreams come true, one step at a time.”

When CBC Hamilton spoke with Annette Paiement, director and producer of Steady Canoe, she was scanning through episode one. She described the scene of bright fresh oranges, some sweetgrass in a pot, and lavender and honey. 

Filming Smith-Belghaba cook, she said, was like capturing a sculptor at work —  an artist who is complete engaged with their piece.

“When she’s looking at that camera, she’s so honest and she’s so true, [and] that really comes through,” she said. “I feel like she should have been doing this her whole life, being behind the camera. She’s a natural.” 

Paiement said that kind of devotion bodes well for the food. In Italian culture, she said, you put energy into the food you are creating, which means Smith-Belghaba has “placed a lot of love and passion into that food that she’s cooking.”

Keeping it true to her cooking style

The series director also added that it was a pleasure being in Smith-Belghaba’s presence as she wove Indigenous culture into her presentation. For example, the chef says our food system is more than just food — it’s interconnected with “all of our whole lives.” 

“The ability to learn more about traditional culture of First Nations people, for me, it’s always an honour,” Paiement said. “Any time I receive any opportunity to work with anyone from a different culture than my own, to me, is quite a gift.” 

Smith-Belghaba says the flow of the series is calm, cool, and collected, and great for those who are entry-level cooks.

Nothing gets too technical, and she doesn’t normally measure out ingredients in her cooking style. It’s more about taking the flavorful ingredients, tossing them in, and letting them “all be friends,” she said. 

“I just kept it very naturally as to what I am,” she added.

She also keeps it local. Paiement shared that honey from the hives on the roof of the Cotton Factory where they filmed was also showcased in the recipes. 

More chefs to come

The initial concept was to have Smith-Belghaba lead an in-person class for the library. Changing to an online format because of the pandemic means that people at home can watch and cook whenever it suits them. 

The cooking series runs as an extension of the Hamilton Reads programming. This year features Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubegeshig Rice (an author from Wasauksing First Nation and former journalist and host of CBC Up North.)

It’s available free with your library card in print, and as an ebook or audio book, until the end of November. 

Future cooking series will also involve other restaurants serving up local recipes, says Lisa Radha Weaver, a director of collections and program development at the library. 

“We’re so happy to be starting with the Six Nations community for the cooking series, and we look forward to sharing some other local restaurants and chefs’ recipes, and suggestions for ways to turn some traditional recipes into new family favourites in everybody’s homes of Hamilton,” she said. 

Smith-Belghaba and Paiement also say they will be teaming up for future projects.

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