Native American chefs and their use of traditional Indigenous foods in modern restaurant settings are becoming increasingly more visible — and now easier to learn about and make at home with the addition of Freddie Bitsoie’s “New Native Kitchen.” Bitsoie, a Navajo citizen who grew up in New Mexico, is the former executive chef of the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He partnered up with James Beard Award–winning author James O. Fraioli to write the collections of recipes.
Bitsoie joined me on “Salon Talks” last month right before Thanksgiving to share how his curiosity for the kitchen thrusted him into a formal culinary education and how his ancestral recipes pulled him back into wanting to educate and share modern takes on the cuisine he grew up with. Bitsoie experimented with cooking as a child when his parents were out of the house.
“Eventually, I got sick of eating the cold sandwiches,” he remembered. “I started seeing cooking shows on PBS. That’s when we only had four channels. I started playing around with the food in the kitchen.”
Want more great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to “The Bite,” Salon Food’s newsletter.
One time, Bitsoie decided to roast a whole chicken for himself, but no one told him that you had to thaw the bird before you put it in the oven. Bitsoie threw the burned mess in his neighbor’s trash can because he didn’t want his mom to see it. His mom never figured out what happened to the chicken she swore was in the freezer.
Later, as an anthropology major at college, Bitsoie’s interest in food and cooking continued. Food Network was becoming popular, and after a class about ancient Puebloan society and their foodways, he was encouraged to combine his essays into a thesis. Bitsoie dropped out of college as a senior and enrolled in culinary school. There, he developed a culinary foundation, but it was when he saw a flyer for a Native American cooking class at a local museum that something clicked.
In writing “New Native Kitchen,” Bitsoie explored the greater, modern evolution of Native foods from all over Indian Country — what Native American people call America — because “I appreciate and admire all my Native chef colleagues out there, but we’re too busy thinking about how food was done in the past.” Instead, Bitsoie wanted chefs to look at Indigenous foods in new ways, which is why his new recipes are referred to as “interpretations” of cultural dishes. “Native food is growing, and it has a future.”
Watch my “Salon Talks” with Freddie Bitsoie here, or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about how you can start cooking Indigenous foods in your kitchen.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
I’m really excited to see a Native person front and center in food media and our ancient recipes being appreciated and modernized by an Indigenous chef. Tell me a little bit about young Freddie growing up and when you knew you wanted to become a chef.
I think every most Native American families can under understand this story. There’s always that prize-winning athlete in high school — and I wasn’t that one. It was my older brother. He was a great cross country runner, and he was scouted as a freshman for universities and everybody wanted him to be on their team. Every Saturday during the fall, my parents would leave me home alone when it was legal to do that.
Yes, and my mom always stocked the kitchen with cold cuts, chips, just things that I could make by myself. I was probably in about the sixth grade at that time. Eventually, I just really got sick of eating the cold sandwiches, and I started seeing cooking shows on PBS. That’s when we only had four channels. I started playing around with the food in the kitchen, and there was this one great time when I decided to roast a whole chicken for myself. But nobody told me that you had to thaw the chicken before you put it in the oven, so I burned it and I ruined it. And I remember putting it in a paper bag and then inside another plastic bag, and I threw it in the neighbor’s trash can because I didn’t want my mom to see it in our trash can. A few days later, I was in my bedroom, and I heard my mom tell my father, “I swear we had a chicken in the freezer.” And I just kind of just sat there, like I don’t know what happened to the chicken.
When I was in college, I majored in anthropology. I took a class about ancient Pueblo society. That’s the region in Northwestern, New Mexico spanning from the Cortez area all the way down south to Crownpoint, New Mexico and even into Utah. I started writing about a lot of their food ways. My anthropology instructor, one night we were just having a little conversation and he goes, “It’s really interesting that everything that you’re talking about and writing about, it’s all consistent.” He goes, “I could get all your essays, and we could have a thesis for something.” And he goes, “And I think that’s really interesting.” He brought up this suggestion that he didn’t like the way food historians and the way people were talking about Native American food. He said, “We need a better way to explain it.” And he goes, “Why don’t you go to culinary school and learn the ways of how people cook today, the food culture.”
When I got my first culinary job at the JW Marriott, everyone just started speaking Spanish to me. And it was really strange because when I would say that I don’t speak Spanish, that I’m Native American, I felt like I was putting down Spanish speaking people. But at the same time, it really did enlighten a lot for me, especially coming from an anthropology background and understanding how the kitchen system works. So there was a plus to moving into the kitchen.
And then all of a sudden I found myself at Heard Museum in Phoenix. And there was a poster that said, Native American cuisine demonstration. I didn’t attend a demonstration, but I just saw the sign and it kept itching on me. I kept thinking from the studies that I’ve done, I said, just Native American cuisine, it doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. My grandmother didn’t eat salmon, so how can she identify with food from the Pacific Northwest? How can she identify food from Maine? How can she identify with food from Florida? So we can’t call it Native American cuisine, because in order to identify oneself, you have to identify yourself and others. So for me, it needed a little bit more definition. And that’s when I started my work with Native food and becoming what I became now. This was about 15 years ago.
As you demonstrate in the book, and as we as Native people know, foods that are native to here now didn’t always start here. What are some of those agricultural practices or Indigenous cooking pieces that still inform the food and farming industry today?
As a Navajo and as a Native person, the Three Sisters to me is such a romantic childish story, but it also makes a lot of sense. And I always tell it because you have nitrogen and beans. And the beans, the nitrogen is a natural fertilizer and the squash leaves, which are planted around the corn have very tiny glochids. And glochids is just a fancy word for tiny thorn. And you have your beans, your corn stock where you can wrap your beans around. So you have all those three entities helping each other grow, because if it wasn’t for the squash leaves, the rabbits and the other little critters, they don’t like those little glochids touching their nose. They leave the corn alone. I always jokingly say, these are probably the only three sisters that I know that help each other.
So and other agricultural practices is one there’s a tepary bean recipe in the book. And tepary bean has to be grown in the wild. You cannot domesticate tepary beans, because its struggle for survival in the Sonoran Desert is what allows that to have so much nutrient and so much gain. That if you domesticate a tepary bean and you plant it in the farm, it’s not going to be as healthy as it is if it’s grown in the wild. So and the cholla bud as well. Cholla bud is harvested in around April. And it’s not domesticated either, but from what I understand, a tablespoon of cholla bud is equivalent to the same amount of calcium that you would find in eight ounces of milk. So the agricultural practices, I think allow things to grow into wild, but if they’re domesticated and they have to have human care, that’s what The Three Sisters represent. A lot of the foods that are in the book, both are domesticated and wild. And I think that’s pretty much the practice when it comes to natural and Native American foods.
My family’s from the Eastern shore of Long Island, so our ancestral foods were very ocean based. And some of your ingredients felt like home to me, such as the Quogue clam, then later it comes wampum, the first money. Our people historically ate a lot of seafood, some grains, corn legumes and some root vegetables. But your tribe was from a different part of the country — New Mexico, right? As a Navajo chef, which foods were important to family and culture growing up, and which do you still use predominantly in your cooking a lot today?
I would have to say squash. Squash was always, always abundant during the fall, especially during the harvest. And then gourd squash as well, because the really cool thing about gourd squash is you can harvest it in October and it’ll stay completely fine until the spring. As long as you don’t cut it, a pumpkin will still be good to eat a few months later down the road. It’s not going to mold or it’s not going to turn bad. My family always had varieties of yellow squash, zucchini, and gourd squash. And so that’s why I cook with a lot of squash. And people will say, “Gee, there’s a lot of squash recipes in this book.” And it’s just one of those staples that my family always had. And on top of that, ewe product is huge in the Southwest.
Ewe meaning sheep, sheep, or lamb. We rarely ate goat, but in the Southwest, you have Navajo, Hopi, Acoma and Zuni, which have lamb as part of their diet. I don’t eat mutten, because it’s too strong, but the lamb I think has a good flavor.
We see a lot of different elemental foods in the book and then some very cool ingredient overlays for spice and flavor. Take us through some of your favorite recipes in the book or one standout — they all sound wonderful — like this chocolate bison chili, for example.
The one thing that I appreciate about Native cuisine is the reason why there’s a lot of soups and stews is because it’s a very communal dish. If you make a soup and stew, you don’t need a whole lot of ingredients. And I don’t know how you grew up, but with my family every Sunday, people from a house a mile down the road or half a mile down the road would all come to grandma’s house, and everybody would eat together. And to make enough food for people, you would have to make a soup, because grilling a steak for everyone would be number one, really expensive, but also a lot of work. When everyone came together and ate, generally, there was always a stew on a table, plus other ingredients.
My favorite dish that’s in the book is the sumac roasted lamb with onion sauce, only because my mom used to tell me stories about her father and he died when she was 13. I never met him. And she would always tell me that he loved to cook. He was a rancher. And he worked for a ranch owner up in the Colorado mountains. And she said he loved to cook. And he always had a Dutch oven that was put on top of the fire. And he used to chop an onion up and he just put it in water and he just let the boiling pulverize the onion.
When he would grill a steak or cook any type of meat, he would put the onion sauce over the meat. And since there’s really no classical Native American dish, even though we have popular Native dishes throughout the country, I thought this is how the recipe would be, and I can imagine how it tastes. I put juniper berry in it because he used to be up in the mountains. So it kind of gives it that foresty flavor and foresty smell. That’s really how the recipes were created and written. Just by assuming how things would taste, assuming how things were made.
When I speak to a lot of Native people throughout the country about recipes, they always say, “Well, that was my grandma’s and I can’t share it.” And so if I taste it, I have to de deconstruct it and then make it my own. But I’ll always acknowledge where it came from. Right? And so, I think that’s kind of, it’s really a book about all the dishes that I have tasted from other tribes and people that I’ve met throughout my cooking career.
That attribution is so important, right? Not just for a sense of place, but also the ingredients — where they come from. “I’m not giving you the recipe.” I hear that a lot in my community, too — but everyone wants to go and eat.
And at the same time, it’s not just with Native communities. I’ve heard stories where Italian grandmothers will give their recipe, but they’ll leave an ingredient out. I always tell people, this is my true recipe, but I can guarantee you if you make it compared to how I make it, mine will always taste better. It really does have that sense of family ownership. That it’s just kind of an offset of just being Native American, where whatevers in your family, stays in your family. And I, on the other hand, believe that we have to share these recipes. Otherwise, if we don’t share grandma’s recipe, it’s going to be lost one of these days if the lineage ends, but we don’t anticipate that to happen. We think we own it. And I really feel that if the recipes should be shared, and again, the book really does reflect on the stories and the recipes that I’ve been given from other families and other people throughout the country and Canada.
You touch on the overlap of modern cooking methods that you went to school to learn and include in the book, mixed with the old ways. Can you talk a little bit about how you integrated both, plus which you’ve used the most in your own cooking?
When I first started working at the National Museum of the American Indian, I wrote the new menu. And there’s a dish in the book that I gave one of my cooks and she’s from Mexico, but she also has Indigenous blood in her. I gave her the squash and corn recipe and she cooked it for me. So when I ate it, she cooked the squash as Europeans like vegetables with a bite, called al dente. And I said, “No, you got to cook the squash more.” I said, “Cook it all the way, really wilt it.” And she goes, “But you’re cooking it wrong.” And I go, “No.” And she goes, “That’s how I cook it at home.” And I go, “So you’re cooking wrong at your home?” She goes, “No, that’s how we eat it.” And she goes, “But the gringos like it with a bite.” I go, “No, no, no, no.” I said, “This is the Native American restaurant. So we have to cook it the way we do it.”
It made me think, this is crazy that the French cooks, the French culinary culture still made people believe the at Native American ways of cooking is wrong. And that’s how the flavors come about. And every time I cook this dish for people, they’re so amazed and surprised by how simple it is. It’s just squash, corn, little bit of onion, salt, and pepper. And they think, oh my gosh, what’s in here? It’s so the delicious. But the one technique that a lot of Native American food has, is extracting as much sugar from the vegetables as possible. And that’s one of the techniques that French cooking doesn’t really do. So for example, for the onion sauce, you cook that to where all the sugars are cooked out and it makes the sauce really sweet, but it also gives it a savory aspect, and the squash and corn, the same thing. But the two techniques that are very popular that makes it different from European cooking would be, even though I’m using French terms, it would be sauté and steam.
If you probably went to grandma’s and they cooked potatoes or any type of vegetable in the pan and then they sauté just a little, and then they put a lid on it, that’s not done in French cooking. French cooking does not have that technique. And then also there’s the steeping method where for example, like with Navajo lamb soup, you put all the ingredients in together and then you fill it with the water or stock, and then you just let it simmer for about a good two, three hours. Whereas in French soup building, you would brown the meat and then you would remove it and then you’d add the onion, and then you’d sweat that with your aromatics. And then you’d put the meat back in and then you’d put the vegetables in and you cover it with water. And there’s a systematic way of building these soups. But those two methods I think are probably the most popular in Native cooking is the sauté and steam and the steeping of soups.
I wonder how much of this is just genetically institutionalized for us. It’s so interesting. I never thought of that. Now I feel validated a little bit.
When I first went to culinary school, I took my soups lesson for, it was like a week on soups. And I came home and I had my shoulders out and I told my mom, I was like, “I’m going to make the mutton soup.” Right? So we bought all the ingredients and I built it the way the French do it. And my mom and my grandmother, they hated it. They said, “This tastes horrible.”
When I built it the French way, it has a totally different flavor than how my grandmother, my mom, make their soup. And really does validate. Just because, for example, French food wasn’t written down or became a discipline until the 1920s. If we look at the academic world, that means there was really no formal cuisine before that, because to have anything that’s defined as a discipline has to be written down and defined, and other people learn and teach. Everything has to be consistent. So what a restaurant does in DC is the same thing that a restaurant does in Salt Lake or in Seattle, or in Phoenix. All the methods are the same. So it really wasn’t done until the 1920s. This whole idea about what cuisine is, is a new idea that we have to kind of define what Native American food is. And the only way that I can define it is the fact that it’s regional and it’s very family based.
And it’s something that I think it’s almost impossible to even write a disciplinary book about what Native cuisine is, because everyone does things differently and it’s regional, so the foods are different. And I think that’s one thing that sadly, I think it can’t be done. And it’s one of those cuisines that is growing. And with all the different Native chefs that I admired and that I worked with in the past, we have a long haul on what we’re trying to do as far as promote the cuisine. I don’t like to say make it relevant because it is relevant, because I make it and everyone makes it. But just have that accessibility to it, if that’s a good way of putting it.
What do you want aspiring chefs and foodies and weekend culinary warriors to take away from the cuisine? It comes from everywhere, but you’ve tried to unify and make it your own from listening and appreciating and sharing.
The good thing is every recipe in the book is accessible. So whether you live in a high rise in Manhattan, you go to down downstairs to the Whole Foods, or if you live in Minnesota and you have access to your local supermarket, most likely all of these ingredients will be available in that location. If not, you can order online and they’ll be delivered and you can try the cholla bud salad two days after you order it.
The same for acorns and juniper berries? Those are accessible, too?
The really interesting thing is, with the acorn flour, most likely you will find it in a Korean food store. I don’t know how, but when I go to California and I do my demos and I need the acorn flour, I just go straight to the Korean grocery store. And the variety of acorn might be a little different then what the Korean people use in Southern California. But the point is that you can at least have a taste of what the flavors could possibly be. And if you want to dive in a little bit more and get specific.
It’s really interesting that every recipe in the book is something that I like that I really, really enjoy to eat. And I noticed that there’s no, when we sent the final manuscript, I was asked, “How come there’s fry bread recipe in this book?” Because not that I don’t like fry bread, it’s just that my mom own makes it like twice a year, and I don’t think about it.
Fry bread is one of the few foods that outsiders associate just with blanket Native folks. And it’s fine, but you can’t be eating that every day, or you’d have a heart attack.
It’s the most controversial Native American dish out there. People have their own opinions about it. In moderation, it’s great. When I was at the museum, people would always talk about the fry bread. And I would say, “I’m not talking about the fry bread.” And I would just walk away. And even though I was the chef and because everyone has their own opinion about it. And I think it was more of a blessing that it stayed out of the book in my opinion.