Dining on desert delights offers a menu far different from what you’ll find at most five-star eateries. For centuries, indigenous people of northern Sonora subsisted on an array of traditional desert dishes ranging from nopales and chile posole to mesquite crepes and acorn soup. Today, several award-winning Native American chefs are out to transform these traditional—and traditionally healthy—foods into an array of delicious dishes ready for both five-star restaurants and at-home cooks.
“You put ‘healthy’ in front of ‘cooking’ and it can scare some people away, but native dishes are not only delicious, they’re also good for you,” said Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie, who hails from the Four Corners region and is known as a crusader in the cause of redefining Native American cuisine. “The stereotype is that healthy cooking frequently ends up with bland, boring, tasteless dishes. Not true. Native American cooking results in delicious foods and when you add the unintended health benefits, selling the concept gets even easier.”
Many health practitioners subscribe to the theory that our cupboard can act as medicine cabinet, with traditional foods providing a solution to a lot of what ails us. “Our desert terrain is both a supermarket and a pharmacy,” said Carolyn Niethammer, the author of American Indian Cooking.
Bitsoie, who lectures on healthy cooking in places like the Mayo Clinic, likes to use organic native ingredients. Garbed in a starched chef’s apron at a Phoenix cooking demonstration, he introduced his menu—Sonoran Three Sisters Salad of tepary beans, acorn squash, corn, and cholla cactus buds, accompanied by a corn chowder with green chiles, followed by a juniper berry and sage-rubbed Navajo lamb dressed in a sumac sauce. “Calling it [just] Native American fare is not fair,” Bitsoie said, “because food is a product of culture and all native cultures are different in preference and preparation. I strive to prepare dishes that elders can taste and recognize as a dish they have had most of their lives.”
In November, several of Bitsoie’s culinary cohorts competed in a Chef’s Challenge held at the Desert Diamond Casino in Tucson, where the defending title holder, Nephi Craig, executive chef at the White Mountain Apache tribe’s Sunrise Park Resort, noted, “Native people are emerging from a great interruption in traditional foodways. Precontact, we were expert hunters, gatherers, fishermen, farmers, and cooks. Then came the reservations with high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods and a turn away from the most important ingredient in Native cuisine: healing. Native foods are not a trend—they are a way to recover our communities.”
Craig walks his talk as founder of the Native American Culinary Association, or NACA, which is dedicated to the research, refinement, and development of Native American cuisine.
“Everything is back to our roots for me,” Craig said. “It’s indigenous principles of community, leadership, fatherhood, and hard work—the kinds of things that embody my life. My home in the White Mountains offers lots of opportunity for traditional cooking. The western Apache demographic covers everything from desert terrain up to 10,000 feet, so we’ve got an abundance of both wild and cultivated edibles to select from.”
Now supervising an all-Apache staff of 14 cooks and 14 waiters at his resort, Craig has been intrigued by the hands-on cooking experience since he was a child. “Food is very powerful,” he said, “and I’ve been given an opportunity to weave a very intricate traditional pattern of my people, Apaches and Navajo.”
Although he was trained in classical French methods, something was missing for him. “We used a lot of local ingredients—acorns, seeds, nuts, corn, squash, rabbit, venison—that I recognized as part of indigenous culinary history, but prepared in French style,” he told a Newsweek reporter. “But something was missing and as I got better as a chef, I began to think about using my skills to showcase my own people’s culinary ways.” It was a decision that started him down the path of rediscovery of indigenous edibles, using traditional ingredients to prepare haute cuisine and putting him in the vanguard of Native American chefs.
Indeed, Craig is now cooking alongside such chefs as Ron Dimas, the 2013 Chef’s Challenge winner. Dimas took top honors with his Broken Arrow Ranch Venison Loin with a liver and heart ragout, roasted butternut squash purée, and mesquite flour crepes.
“I create menus that focus on naturally raised meats, environmentally responsible seafood, and locally grown produce,” he said. “I support the movement toward more traditional food preparation because I’m afraid of losing it. Traditional cooking is so natural because it’s all connected to the earth. Trends are cyclical. [For example] 15 years ago everything was about spa food, and 10 years before that, everything centered around butter and cream. I think we’re headed back into another healthy food phase, perhaps spurred by growing medical concerns. But whatever the reason, I welcome the direction we’re headed in.”
While Dimas won the judges’ hearts, the Casino Del Sol executive sous chef, Enrique Alcantar, won the thanks and votes of diners with a People’s Choice Award for his Braised Buffalo and White Tepary Bean Cassoulet.
“With a native foods focus, I decided to go with lean and healthy buffalo short ribs and tepary beans that have been a diet staple for thousands of years—traditional foods cooked in contemporary style,” Alcantar said. The 25-year-veteran five-star cook also appeased attendee appetites with a chef’s surprise, an opera cake made with smokehouse almond flour and topped with a ganache of aged whiskey.
Fellow local skillet wizard Pascual Rodriguez, a 26-year kitchen magician now performing as executive chef at Desert Diamond Casino, is another supporter of traditional cooking methods. “I try to use traditional foods wherever I can because that type of cooking is a standard. There’s nothing uniquely original here; you just combine flavors to make it your own version by using colors and garnish—you trick it out here and there to make a nice appearance match a good taste.”
There are lots of ignition points to fire up this return to tradition. One of the best known names in Native American cuisine, former PGA golfer-turned-entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Notah Begay III, is one of those ignition points, as the founder of KivaSun Foods, a seller of lean and healthier bison meat. “If we don’t start making changes in our lifestyles, life spans will continue to get shorter,” he said.
Lois Ellen Frank is a part-Kiowa chef-scholar based in Santa Fe and the author of Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations. Frank admits that identifying Indian food as such is confusing, because there are as many variations on a theme as there are tribes—over 500 of them federally-recognized, 22 of which are in Arizona. In her book, she writes that traditional cooking feeds the body wholesome food, which is akin to feeding the soul.
Frank, like many chefs, gathers natural ingredients from the land—prickly pear, yucca blossoms, purslane, and other wild edible greens—that she uses in her culinary creations. As the founder of the Coyote Café, she bridges historical with modern in creations such as an ordinary blue corn tortilla complemented by blue corn gnocchi arrowheads and guajillo chili sauce. She partners her Piñon Chile Bean recipe with warm frybread and Navajo zucchini potato soup and what she calls “prairie butter” (buffalo bone marrow).
“Food is sacred,” she said. “What you eat is a gift of a person’s culture. It has love. It has thought. It has prayer.” ✜
Lee Allen likes to see what’s growing in other people’s gardens.