‘New Native Kitchen’: Navajo chef’s traditions with modern flair

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy

Corn regularly gets a big year-end celebration in Native American culture, says Freddie Bitsoie. Photo by Shutterstock.

Indigenous Americans developed rich culinary traditions long before Europeans began colonizing the Americas in the 1500s. They dried and preserved bison, elk, and other meat; created specific planting methods for beans, squash, corn, and other crops; and created complicated flavors with herbs.

Freddie Bitsoie, a member of the Navajo Nation, has dedicated his life to showcasing Native food and elevating it for modern eaters. He’s the former head chef at the Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. His new cookbook is “New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian.

He tells Press Play that the 500-plus Native American communities all have their own cuisines. “Let's give everyone their relevance and make sure that everyone's important.”

He adds, “I really do feel that these recipes are an indication that native food is growing, native food has evolved, and native food is not boring, bland and grainy. It's delicious cuisine to have.”

His grandmother’s food, in particular, was hearty. He recalls a time when she used a wood-burning stove to roast a chicken, wrapped in aluminum foil, ahead of their appointment with a medicine man. “I just remember when she seasoned the chicken at the medicine man's porch, the salt, the way that it sounds on the aluminum foil. It was like stars dancing, and I always remember that sound. So sometimes when I'm alone in the kitchen and I feel emotional for things, I'll just sprinkle salt on foil just to remember how that sound was.”


Freddie Bitsoie’s new cookbook is “New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian.” Courtesy of Harry N. Abrams.

Native American v. European techniques at culinary school 

Most cooking schools are steeped in European — and particularly French — techniques. What was it like for Bitsoie to be there, knowing the history of colonialism in the U.S.?

He says he learned that culinary school was meant to teach people how to cook for the masses — rather than make each of them a better cook.

“That was one thing that really struck me. So when I told my chefs and my instructors at school, ‘Look, I'm trying to help bring Native American food to the forefront. How can I do this?’ And all the response was, ‘Well, we're a French school. All we do is French technique … this is how everyone eats in the country, so forget your Native American food.’ So it really did drive me a little bit more to try to bring Native American foods to the forefront. And along with my other chef colleagues, I think we've been doing a good job for the past 15 years.”


Freddie Bitsoie, a member of the Navajo Nation, has dedicated his life to showcasing Native food and elevating it for modern eaters. Photo by Quentin Bacon.

Celebrating corn

One of Bitsoie’s signature dishes is sweet summer corn broth, which people make during corn season between June and August, but they wait until New Year’s Eve to eat it. He says that’s because Native American culture has a big celebration when it comes to corn toward the end of the year. 

“It really solidifies or makes the celebration of corn more holistic and more appreciative towards whomever is responsible for giving us corn. And that's really what it's all about. And because in Western religion, people turn to dust, but in Native American concepts, people turn back to corn. And I think that's why it's really reserved for that particular day.”

He adds that his sweet summer corn broth recipe is simple: “You just put everything in water and put it on low, and let it cook for eight hours and you're done.”

“Native American cheese”


Freddie Bitsoie’s recipe that’s named after Calabasas, California has a fall/winter flavor, he describes. Photo courtesy of Harry N. Abrams.

Bitsoui says while cheese and other dairy products were first brought over by Europeans, queso fresco was a new way of making cheese in the Americas. It’s featured heavily in his recipe called Calabasas Squash, Tomatoes and Queso Fresco.

“It has just a very great fall, winter kind of flavor. … Cheese is such a European product, but however, queso fresco was a new way of making cheese in the western hemisphere, so I call that Native American cheese. And it's crumbly. Because I'm lactose intolerant, when I eat it, it doesn't upset my stomach. So anytime that I use cheese will be queso fresco,” he explains. 

When it comes to spices, Native Americans use salt and pepper mainly, and sometimes they use paprika or chili powder, he says. 

Calabasas Squash, Tomatoes and Queso Fresco
Serves 6 to 8

For the Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere, squash has always been an important food source. It’s believed to be the oldest cultivated food in North America, but that’s just one of the reasons I give it so much attention in these recipes. Besides its historical significance, squash is versatile and delicious. This dish is named for what’s now Calabasas, California, originally home to the Chumash. They lived among the hills and canyons, relying on wildlife for sustenance as well as the fruits and vegetables that grew easily in the region’s rich soil. This dish reflects the foods native to that area, and my recipe can work with any summer squash. I especially like pattypan, which is denser and crunchier than other summer varieties.

Yellow squash works well, and so does common green zucchini — though I prefer golden zucchini for its more delicate, sweeter taste. Keep this recipe handy in late summer and early autumn when summer squash is plentiful, tomatoes are at their peak, and bell peppers and chilies are just-picked — you’ll taste the entire season in every bite.

Ingredients 

  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • ¼ cup (35 g) diced yellow onion
  • 1 cup (145 g) fresh corn kernels
  • ½ cup (75 g) chopped green chilies
  • 1 cup (150 g) chopped green bell pepper
  • 1 pound (455 g) thinly sliced summer squash
  • 1 vine-ripe tomato, diced
  • Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • ¼ cup (30 g) crumbled queso fresco
  • ¼ cup (13 g) chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Instructions

  1. In a large sauté pan over medium-low heat, add the oil.
  2. When the oil is hot, add the onion and sauté just until the onion begins to soften.
  3. Add the corn, green chilies, and bell pepper and sauté for 5 minutes.
  4. Next, add the squash and tomato and sauté for another 5 minutes.
  5. Season with salt and pepper and stir.
  6. Cover the pan with a lid and cook until the squash is tender, about 10 minutes.
  7. Sprinkle with the queso fresco and parsley just before serving.

Credits

Guest:

  • Freddie Bitsoie - former executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian; author of “New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian”