Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Squash, corn and beans - the three sisters - are obvious mainstays of American Indian food. But frog legs? Lobster? Turkey?

Well, yes.

“There is a lot more to Native American food than many people think,” says Richard Hetzler, executive chef at Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall. “I think it’s a real eye-opener for people who visit our restaurant.”

The museum menu includes items like crawfish potato cake with crawfish cream sauce and watercress, cedar-planked fire-roasted juniper salmon and a supertender, nicely flavored buffalo shank braised in red wine and served with cooked, diced root vegetables.

Says Deborah Duchon, nutritional anthropologist and Food Network personality, after a recent visit: “It was a great meal, and it’s in such a beautiful space.”

But is it authentic?

Not exactly, Ms.Duchon says.

“Take the prickly pear ice cream,” Ms. Duchon says. “Prickly pear is Native American, but ice cream isn’t. Native Americans traditionally didn’t have dairy.”

Unlike Europeans, American Indians didn’t have domesticated animals and therefore had no dairy products.

Other nonnative ingredients and preparation methods on the menu include:

Buffalo burgers (American Indians don’t traditionally grind meat), caramelized onions (not a traditional cooking method), grilled corn with maple-hazelnut butter (again, no dairy products) and salmon with a wildberry sauce (they wouldn’t have had any fancy sauces).

Also, while the menu features various sauteed and cooked vegetables, American Indians favored raw to cooked and sauteed. (They didn’t have access to cooking oils.)

“We try to be as authentic as we can, but not all flavors and textures agree with the American palate,” Mr. Hetzler says.

Take cornbread. The traditional American Indian kind is much more dense and completely unsweetened, he says.

“So, we doctor it a little,” he says.

However, even with all the “doctoring,” ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan says the food at Mitsitam is a great representation of contemporary American Indian cuisine.

“The interesting thing is that these cuisines are historically dynamic,” Mr. Nabhan says. “Each region has a certain flavor profile, but beyond that, it’s up to the chef to design new combinations.”

Such as adding sweet caramelized wild onions to a side of sauteed spinach, pine nuts and summer squash.

Speaking of regions, whose food is it anyway?

“We didn’t want to be tribal-specific,” Mr. Hetzler says, adding that that would be too exclusive because it’s impossible to represent the hundreds of tribes that live in the Western Hemisphere.

“We have to be more generic than that,” he says. “We decided to represent five regions.”

The regions are Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Mesoamerica and the Great Plains.

Cuisines from regions not represented - such as the U.S. Southeast - are featured frequently as specials.

Sweeping menu changes occur each equinox.

No matter what the region, some things hold true for all American Indian food, such as being much healthier than European-based cuisine, Ms. Duchon says. It is less fattening, has less or no sugar and more vitamins and amino acids (thanks to different farming practices, such as not using genetically modified organisms).

“Their diet was much healthier. And yet the European food prevailed,” Ms. Duchon says.

Today, most American Indians don’t eat like their ancestors, she says, which is why the rate of diabetes is sky-high - up to 90 percent - among certain tribes.

“There’s pressure to become a ‘real’ American. It’s true when it comes to language, and it’s true when it comes to food,” she says.

However, there is also a countertrend among tribes to engage in traditional and sustainable crop-growing practices - practices Mr. Hetzler supports by purchasing as much as he can from American Indian and local farmers.

Buying from American Indians also ensures more traditional crops and meats. Take corn. The yellow variety favored by European Americans is very different from the varieties traditionally grown by American Indians.

The American Indian heirloom varieties have many fewer carbohydrates and are higher in protein, Ms. Duchon says.

“It turns out we should have eaten like Indians all along,” she says. “It’s healthier, and the flavors are wonderful.”

Maybe Mitsitam Cafe can help show us the way.

“The Mitsitam Cafe gives more than a hundred thousand Americans a gift every year,” Mr. Nabhan says. “They’re bringing us as close as possible to the first textures and flavors of America. We don’t just learn with our heads; we learn with our palates, too. … Mitsitam is a living exhibit.”

And so tasty.

Try the prickly pear ice cream. Its pleasing but unpredictable flavor definitely will refresh on a sweltering Washington summer day.

WHAT: Mitsitam Cafe, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue Southwest

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. for the restaurant (although some of the stations close at 4 p.m.), 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for the museum.

COST: $2.50 to $7.95 for starters and sides, $5.95 to $16.95 for main courses (sides are purchased separately); $24.50 five-region sampler plate; $2.50 to $5.50 desserts.

METRO: L’Enfant Plaza on Metro’s Yellow, Green, Orange and Blue lines.

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: Click here

Click here for a recipe on making a delicious wild rice salad.

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