Smithsonian.com's food blogger Amanda Bensen has referred to area south of the National Mall as a "culinary desert." The Mitsitam Cafe, a Zagat-rated restaurant located inside the American Indian Museum is then the oasis. Mitsitam, which opened with the museum in 2004, serves up Native American delicacies from five different regions of the Americas: Northeast Woodlands and Great Lakes, South America, North Pacific Coast and Columbia Plateau, Mesoamerica and Great Plains.
Now Natives and non-Natives alike can make some of Mitsitam's specialties with the new cookbook, The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Written by head chef Richard Hetzler, the book includes recipes for simple American Indian staples such as fry bread and original dishes such as corn and chocolate tamales. I discussed the new cookbook with the chef himself.
How is sharing food the equivalent of sharing culture?
In my mind food and culture are basically the same. If you look at food, food essentially is how people sustain life. Whether you’re talking about Incas with chocolate, clams in the Northeast, or going all the way to salmon in the Northwest, I think food ultimately becomes a part of culture because it’s such a part of life.
Eating locally has come into vogue in recent years, but that’s something that Native peoples have been doing for centuries. What are your thoughts on the local food movement?
If we were in these regions, we would buy local. For example, salmon that we buy from the Quinault tribe, we actually have it flown in. So for us, it’s more difficult because of the regions of the food, but I think in general, it’s the way people should live. Looking outside the carbon footprints and everything else, I think it just makes sense. It makes sense to eat stuff that’s indigenous to the area where you live. If you live in the desert, you’re growing cactus agave syrup, chilies and plants that are indigenous, and then protein—lamb, goat or whatever it might be. In doing that, you’re supporting local farms and your community, and you’re also reconnecting with the area that you’re from. You’re not bringing in all these non-indigenous species that are eventually going to take over or hurt the ecosystem.
What are some of your favorite ingredients?
It would have to be the chola buds or sorel cactus syrup. Chola buds are the bud off a cactus, and the Native Americans in the Southwest actually harvest these. It’s probably about the size of one digit of your pinkie, and it’s a little thorny, almost like the top of an asparagus. They clean the thorns off and dry it out in the sun. They’re phenomenal tasting and they’re actually really good for you.
Sorel cactus syrup is made from the big-armed cactus that you see cowboys hanging their hats on in the movies. It’s basically the sap that they actually cook down to syrup. Super expensive, but it’s excellent. It costs about $128 an ounce. It’s kind of a cool story, but I dare you to find a truffle that costs that much. Essentially you’re going to put that as like a drizzle on a plate or something, so we’ve done some specialty chef’s tables where we’ve that as a finishing.
Can anyone make these recipes?
Every recipe in the book has been home tested. The staff at the museum each took three or four recipes home, made them and critiqued them, and we adjusted the recipes. One of the pushes behind the book was to really find and make recipes that any person could make. You don’t have to be a chef to recreate any of it.