If you find yourself at a loss to name even one Native American food dish, you’re not alone. But a growing number of Native chefs are trying to change that.
Freddie Bitsoie is one of those chefs, working to bring back indigenous foods from centuries ago, and adapting them for today’s palate so people can learn not just about their cuisines, but their cultures too.
Bitsoie found his way to the kitchen of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in August after finishing a stint as the chef at an Indian reservation casino in New Mexico.
NPR met up with Bitsoie in the museum’s bustling basement kitchen.
Bitsoie has lectured on Native cuisine before, and occasionally he has put together menus for some Native American museums — but this is his first gig as a chef whose work is entirely devoted to preparing and spreading awareness about indigenous dishes.
Bitsoie is also the first Native American chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Café. He’s a member of the Navajo tribe, and grew up in Arizona and New Mexico.
As a kid, his parents spoke fluent Navajo, he says, but it wasn’t until adulthood that he grasped the impact his Native American culture had on his life.
“When you’re growing up, you’re really not aware of what your parents are trying to teach you; you just want to do the things that your parents don’t want you to do,” Bitsoie says.
“Back in the ’80s when I grew up, being Native wasn’t cool, it just wasn’t the thing to do. I was lucky enough to live off of the reservation and then on the reservation, and then move back off the reservation. I had that ability to see from the inside and see from the outside.”
That tug of war between native versus non-native, insider versus outsider, might explain why Bitsoie loves bridging the old and new in his cooking.
One of his signature dishes is a simple soup that has evolved across regions and across centuries — and then Bitsoie decided add his own twist.
“This particular clam soup is pretty much the definition of my work,” he says. “Because with this clam soup, indigenous people from Nova Scotia to down on to Maine, modern-day Massachusetts, had a soup that was only made with three ingredients: It was sunchoke, clam and seawater.”
“I can’t picture myself gulping seawater down voluntarily,” confesses NPR reporter Ailsa Chang.
“But at the same time, in Italian cooking people say when you cook your pasta, make sure it’s salty like the sea,” Freddie Bitsoie says.
But when he cooked with NPR, Bitsoie used a substitute.
“When I look out at that ocean, I’m like, I don’t even swim in the ocean,” he laughs.
Bitsoie understands that to make some traditional dishes palatable to more people, you have to tweak them.
“In developing this recipe, I wanted to still have a connection to the tribes who used to eat this dish,” he says. “At at the same time, this was made 500, 600 years ago. So my palate is completely different from my grandmother’s palate which is even further from my grandmother’s grandmother’s palate.”
So to appeal to today’s palate, he took the three original ingredients — clams, sunchokes and salt water — and added some modern-day soup basics: leeks, onions, garlic, thyme and bay leaf.
It’s a balancing act, accommodating mainstream tastes while being confident enough to hold fast to Native traditions. In the culinary world, Bitsoie says, that can difficult.
“I worked for a French chef where, when I would cook something native, all he would say is, ‘You did that wrong,’ ” Bitsoie says.
“The biggest example is potatoes. When people think about potatoes, in the French style of cooking, potatoes have a bite — we call it ‘al dente’ in the food world. But with native food, we sauté them, and we allow them to cook, but we cover them with the lid. So the potatoes aren’t only being cooked from the bottom they’re being steamed at the same time. Each culture has their own techniques, and with native cuisine we were always told, ‘You’re cooking that wrong.’ And, see, I didn’t know that because I was just growing up with the way my mom cooks.”
“Look, when I got in the food business, I was looking at my mom and I said ‘You’re cooking that wrong’ and I became colonized as a chef,” Bitsoie laughs.
But working at the museum cafe is a whole new chapter for Bitsoie. He can call the shots — and figure out how he wants to integrate flavors and techniques from his own culture with his formal training as a chef.
When Ailsa Chang went in for the taste test, she was surprised.
“I was expecting a saltier flavor,” she says. “It’s very delicate, I really like it.”
“And that’s what native food is,” he says, “it’s really delicate and innocent.”
Bitsoie says that’s what he’s trying to do here — create new tastes and give people a new appreciation of one of America’s overlooked, and perhaps least understood cuisines.