A day spent traversing the labyrinth of exhibitions in the Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, is a feat in endurance. The spectacular 250,000 square-foot Kasota limestone structure, standing ostentatiously within a stone’s throw of the U.S. Capitol, is composed of two full floors of exhibit space, intended to be viewed from the top floor down and dedicated to presenting the Native American perspective through over 7,000 objects on display. Museum shops, two theaters, a resource room and the common Potomac area round out the remaining two floors of the museum.
By the time one descends to the bottom level chock full of new knowledge, only two questions remain: “Where can one sit and rest?” and “What’s to eat?” Rounding the theater through a curvilinear hall past an awe-inspiring sculptural mural, the answer lies in one place: Mitsitam Native Foods Café. The name itself, taken from the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway tribes (Lenape), translates to the universal declaration, “Let’s eat!” And eat you may at this restaurant unlike any other Native American eatery in history.
In keeping with the museum’s mission, the café was conceived to be educational, representative of Native cultures throughout the Americas, and attractive to hungry, tired museum-goers who want good food to cap off their experience. Mitsitam Café can be considered five restaurants in one, with a full menu to represent five significant regions in Native culture: Northern Woodlands, South America, Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains. The menu was meticulously researched by a panel of Native scholarly foodies, who tasted, tweaked, and ultimately put their stamp of approval on the extensive menu of soups, salads, entrees, snacks and desserts, all priced under $10, served up in a setting that is also reflective of tribal life. The natural, light wood curved seating gives diners the option to gaze out of a wall of windows at the tranquil waterfall that feeds the recreated natural habitat surrounding the entire museum.
“The thing that makes this the most unique is that we are serving Native American food,” said Executive Chef Richard Hetzler, one of the few non-Natives working in the museum. “The foods are true Native American-inspired dishes. We tried to keep the Native heritage in terms of ingredients and cooking techniques. We use Native American products indigenous to those areas.”
On the day of the grand opening, timed to coincide with the Autumnal Equinox, some of the procession of 16,000 plus Native Americans—Cheyenne/Arapaho, Dineh/Navajo, Caribs and Aztecs—who came to celebrate from every conceivable corner of the Americas, stopped in to find somewhat familiar sustenance. The big seller of the day was the Indian Taco, crisp fry bread topped with Buffalo chili, tomatoes and shredded lettuce, which, according to a few diners, had the down-side of “too hard” fry bread (“My grandmother’s fry bread is softer than this one!” one Hopi diner exclaimed).
But the Cedar-planked juniper salmon came in a close second, cooked to tenderness in an authentic wood stove. A tasting of the soups revealed smooth flavors of Pumpkin Soup topped with puffed wild rice and a rich Black Bean Soup. The Quahog Clam Chowder, made from the long-necked clam that produces the shell from which Wampum jewelry is made, relies primarily on the milk from the corn kernels rather than the usual cream (although some cream is included to satisfy the non-Native palate).
Pueblo Tortilla Soup combines the earthy taste of stone ground tortillas with a light chicken broth and tomatoes, but the Cream of Peanut soup, while truly nutty, was too mealy for the average taste buds. Scoring high on the yum-meter were the Pinto Bean and Corn Enchiladas, with just the right amount of spicy heat blended with savory pinto beans, wrapped in corn tortillas and lightly sprink
Three Sisters Stew:
Many American Indians refer to squash, corn and beans as the Three Sisters. The three plants grow well together. The bean climbs the natural trellis of the corn stalk, while the squash shades the ground below, discouraging other plants from spreading and choking the corn roots. Each plant also takes different nutrients from the soil. Serve the stew with tortillas or with chochoyotes or Fresh Corn Dumplings. The uncooked dumplings are added to the stew once it is brought to a boil. Cover the pot and place in a hot oven for 12 to 15 minutes, until the dumplings are cooked throughout, or cook on the stovetop over low heat. Serves 4.
1 cup dried chestnuts or Christmas lima beans, or any broad beans
2 Roma tomatoes, halved
1 poblano chile
1 tablespoon corn oil
1/2 small white onion, thinly sliced
1 summer squash, quartered and sliced ½ inch thick
1/2 pound fresh green or wax beans, stringed
Kernels from 2 ears of corn
2 tablespoons minced epazote or cilantro
1/2 cup salsa verde
1/2 cup salsa roja
2 cups vegetable stock or water
Sea or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Place the dried beans in a saucepan and add water to cover. Cover. Place over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat and let steep for 1 hour. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low and cook for about 2 ½ hours, until tender. Drain well.
Place the tomatoes and chile directly over a flame or on a grill and cook, turning as needed, for 3 to 5 minutes, until the skins are charred. Place the chile in a plastic bag to steam for 5 minutes. When cool enough to handle, peel and seed the tomatoes. Peel the chiles and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the stems and white membrane and scrape the seeds away and discard. Cut the chile into 6 pieces.
Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan cover medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for 5 to 7 minutes, until softened. Do not let the onion brown. Add the squash and cook, stirring continuously, for 1 minute, until softened. Add the dried beans, fresh beans, corn epazote, salsa verde, salsa roja, and stock and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium, add the tomatoes and chiles, and simmer for 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve in warm bowls, allowing 1 tomato half per person.
This recipe was excerpted with permission from Food Of The Americas