Seal tartare is one of the most talked-about dishes at a new Toronto restaurant serving indigenous cuisine, and we had to know more.
seal tartar by chef in kukum kitchen overhead
Credit: Courtesy of Erin Yunes / Abbott Imaging

"It's kind of like liver, but without the blood taste," says Chef Joseph Shawana, talking about the raw seal meat that's served up to guests at his new Toronto restaurant, Kūkŭm Kitchen.

Seal tartare is just one item on the menu at this casually-fine spot in the Canadian city's Davisville neighborhood, but it's certainly one of the most talked-about. The taste is rich, mineral, there's a lot of iron.

Betraying his classical-French training, Shawana typically serves the dish simply, with a raw quail egg, crostini made from bannock (a type of flatbread), and perhaps decorated with a edible flower or two. The plate costs about $16 U.S., the meat comes out deep purple, appearing almost like a beet salad. (It's not a beet salad.)

To the uninitiated palate, the dish is something highly unusual; to indigenous people from the north, seal meat is a way of life and a valuable source of nutrition.

"Seal is a really good source of Vitamin B12 and Omega 3's," says Shawana, who estimates that a small portion of the meat is equal to about double the 100 mg dose of fish oil that many people take during the winter months.

It took him a while—about four months, he says—to find a reliable, sustainable source; he finally settled on SeaDNA, a company in Quebec that Shawana says is closely monitored by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The company specializes in the harvesting of the harp seal, estimated to be at a thirty-year population high, and while Shawana declines to use the word humane—"It's not humane to kill them, I don't like that term"—the company has been open and honest about their practices. They sell seal oil capsules, and in some select markets (Quebec in particular), a good amount of meat, too, from sausages to smoked to burger patties.

chef from kukum kitchen
Credit: Courtesy of Erin Yunes / Abbott Imaging

Right now, Shawana says that Kūkŭm is the only place in Toronto serving seal. He's been thinking about other ways to get it on the menu, as well, toying with the idea of a paté, once again drawing on his training.

The whole idea for Kūkŭm started as a pop-up in another restaurant Shawana was working in at the time—after about ten years in the Toronto restaurant trade, he was looking for a change. As an experiment, he offered an indigenous menu event.

"I thought it was going to be an annual thing," says Shawana. "But there was a sell-out situation, and people asked us, when are you going to do it again?"

When a chance to snag someone else's lease came up, he and his partners jumped on it, and Kūkŭm has been open for a few months now. It's far from the only restaurant serving up indigenous cooking around town—there's Pow Wow Café in Kensington Market, NishDish, which offer weekly cooking classes for aboriginal youth, plus places like Antler and Boralia, which are inspired by culture. It's not just happening in Toronto, either—indigenous food and culture is having somewhat of a moment, all across Canada.

For more hesitant diners, Kūkŭm is also popular for its elk roast, prepared sous-vide and encrusted with juniper and spruce tips before being pan seared. Top-quality halibut is served simply with salt and pepper, along with roasted parsnips. All guests are offered cleansing, steeped, cedar branch tea—free of charge.