7 Indigenous American Pantry Staples This Chef Always Stocks
Freddie Bitsoie celebrates modern American Indian recipes with these traditional ingredients.
Welcome to Freddie Bitsoie’s pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring seven staples stocking Freddie’s Indigenous American kitchen.
I began experimenting in the kitchen when I was a kid. Maybe it was the PBS cooking shows that I loved, or maybe it was boredom that drew me, but I began to cook in secret when my family wasn’t looking. I started out with hamburger patties, working through trial and error—like a culinary detective—to figure out what tasted best. When my mom couldn’t find the chicken that she’d placed in the refrigerator one morning, I didn’t want to tell her that I’d accidentally set it on fire. Eventually I got better at not burning chicken and learned traditional Navajo (Diné) cooking techniques from my grandmother, through my travels, and from people I met on the way.
I like to say that I grew up everywhere west of the Sandia Mountains, where I was lucky to learn about the plants, animals, and people of different microclimates across the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. Whenever my family moved to a new town in Utah, Texas, Arizona, or New Mexico, I learned to adapt; I listened closely to the landscape. From my grandmother, I learned that listening to people and places is just as much a part of storytelling as speaking is, and that storytelling is a revered tradition among Indigenous cultures. So I began to listen for the ways that borders like rivers, mountains, rain shadows, or highways influence popular clothing and hairstyles, language and slang, or the food of a specific region.
As a Navajo of the Tábąąhá Edgewater Clan, born for the Nát’oh dine’é Táchii’nii, I loved growing up in the Southwest, where just like my ancestors I breathed in the spicy scent of creosote and petrichor with a sigh of relief each time it rained. To some, the desert might appear barren, dry, and dun-colored. But a closer look reveals that it’s bursting with ecologies that dramatically change with every few feet of elevation reaching closer to the clouds.
In a region where water is scarce, I saw the resiliency, and yet the delicacy, of plant species like the saguaro cactus. Their shallow root systems stretch through parched soil to catch whatever moisture they can; they’ve evolved to thrive in extreme conditions. Blooming brightly, their succulent fruit swells each year despite the summer heat. And so I began to learn that food is the most dynamic way to tell a story. I’m grateful to the desert, and to my grandmother, for teaching me how to listen and how to tell the histories of places and people through my cooking.
Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed meeting new people, and that skill helped me fit in whenever I needed to enroll at a new school, make new friends, and learn the culture of a new neighborhood. Later, it continued to help me build long-lasting friendships with members of Native American communities across the continent, many of whom have graciously mentored me and shared their ancestors’ culinary wisdom.
As a Navajo, it is imperative that I respect the myriad ingredients cultivated by Indigenous stewards of the land, air, and water in what we now call the United States. And as the executive chef at Mitsitam Native Foods Café in Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, I use that awareness to build varied menus that incorporate sacred Indigenous foodways with reverence.
North America is not, and has never been, a monolith. Just like Europe, it’s an expansive continent that’s incredibly diverse in terms of language, geography, culture, and more. But European countries like France and Spain are praised for their food traditions, which are taught in elite culinary schools; Indigenous cuisines, with similarly sourced ingredients and finessed preparations, unfortunately don’t get the same attention. My aim is to change that. The land that’s now the United States is a land of many nations and communities, with a multitude of cuisines, architectural styles, spiritual beliefs, and languages that make each region uniquely beautiful. Referring to all Indigenous peoples, or their foods, as one homogenous group is like saying that there’s no difference between Spain’s tapas and France’s hors d’oeuvres.
At Mitsitam Café, my menus celebrate regional distinctions with thoughtful dishes designed to showcase the rich lakes of the Great Plains, succulent produce of the arid Southwest, lush woodlands of the Northeast, unique botany of the humid South, and teeming bounty of the Pacific Northwest.
[In my book, New Native Kitchen,] I have worked to make sure dishes are accessible and the recipes easy to follow. I’m especially excited to share the Puddings and Sweets section, given the common misconception that in pre-Columbian times, Indigenous diets didn’t include desserts. Remember, we have always had agave, maple syrup, and sweet biodiverse produce that early Europeans coveted—especially strawberries and other Native fruits.
As you’re making the dishes, consider buying ingredients from Indigenous vendors as much as possible, to help support their important work of preserving ancient culinary knowledge and resources. Most of the recipes call for basic ingredients that will be simple to source, no matter where you shop. Remember that grocery shopping can be an adventure if you want it to be.
Whether you’re ordering dried sumac from an Indigenous vendor through Etsy or buying fresh salmon on a road trip along the Pacific Northwest coast, consider it an opportunity to meet new people and learn new things. You’ll discover that Indigenous foodways are hyperlocal to each region; “farm to table” for millennia. With deep symbiotic roots, there’s an interconnected trust between natural resources and the Indigenous communities who have always cared for the land where they live.
Consider the three sisters, for example: the North American Indigenous planting method of sustainably growing squash, corn, and beans. Since the 1970s, people have termed the technique “permaculture,” but to traditional Indigenous farming practices, it’s simply a way of respecting the delicate balance of plants and earth, air, water, and fire. Alongside these regional recipes, you’ll read about many of the ancient communities whose traditions inspired them. I’ve included general background for these Indigenous cultures throughout the book. By no means is the limited material I provided meant to encapsulate each community or their way of life. It’s merely a window into a number of Native Americans and First Nations who are connected with this book through food. I hope you will find their interesting histories and the art that inspired them to be a starting point for further reading and understanding.
The culture and history behind a dish has always been exciting for me to learn about. In fact, that curiosity is what led me to study cultural anthropology and art history at the University of New Mexico. I hadn’t planned on becoming a chef, but as my studies progressed, I found myself drawn to research projects about cultural and regional differences expressed through food. One assignment explored the question of why people in New Mexico tend to prefer burgers dressed with chili, whereas diners in Arizona usually request jalapeños. Writing papers like these helped me discover that what I really wanted to do was curate history on the plate. Which is how I ended up in culinary school, and later at the Smithsonian, where I now tell edible stories that allow people to appreciate the living artifact of food.
I’m excited to celebrate with you the living history and food artistry of Indigenous nations in North America and the Pacific Islands. [My book] is a snapshot of the continent’s ancient ingredients, shown through modernized recipes inspired by ancestral traditions. A hundred years ago, flavor preferences and food trends were tremendously different because food was different. So were our tools. Now we have the convenience of convection ovens as an alternative to underground roasting pits.
Once it was common to cook salmon over fire; now we can pan-sear it. Thanks to the internet, we can pair complementary ingredients from regions thousands of miles apart. Of course, trade routes have always sparked cross-cultural exchange, but we live in a more connected age than has ever existed. If we choose, we can use those connections as opportunities to celebrate one another’s cultures. And that’s how I approach cooking, as an opportunity to honor our past and our diversity. But I’m also not constrained by tradition. Today’s Native American cooking, as you’ll explore in my recipes to follow, is enriched by vibrant ancestral connections, while also always evolving. In the kitchen at Mitsitam, unlike my childhood days of secret recipes, I’m surrounded by a team of dedicated chefs who nurture our curated menus.
Like the French, who enthusiastically say “bon appétit!” when sharing a meal, we celebrate in the Native language of the local Nanticoke-Lenape and Piscataway Peoples: Mitsitam! Let’s eat.
Juniper berries look like teal-hued berries clustered on juniper trees in the late spring and summer, but they are technically small, compact cones. They burst with concentrated flavors and invigorating scents. Different varieties will offer slightly different profiles, but many have an essence of pine. You can purchase juniper berries from specialty spice shops or online.
Hominy is the ultimate healthy comfort food made from puffed corn kernels removed from their firm outer shells. Through the ancient process of nixtamalization, hominy is corn transformed, emphasizing nurturing flavors like sweet grass and milk. Making your own hominy can be a lot of work, so you can easily purchase canned hominy at your local Mexican grocery store or at larger commercial chains.
Sage adds a boldness to many Indigenous dishes because of its herbal aroma. Part of the mint family, sage is used to season poultry or add flavor to earthy root vegetables like turnips or parsnips. While fresh sage is preferred, dried sage leaves are equally flavorful and an excellent herb to have on hand.
Prickly pear fruit tastes like savory plums crossed with watermelon. they are round raspberry-pink orbs that adorn the tops of flat cactus paddles after their blossoms have fallen in the summer. if you gather these yourself, use gloves and tongs, or fire, to carefully cut away the thorns that group in clusters around the outside. The fruit’s interior is a dramatic purple succulent with tiny seeds scattered throughout that resemble poppyseeds. If you live in the Sonoran Desert, many grocery stores carry prickly pear jelly, fruit, and juice; however, you should check the label and taste before cooking because these products can include added sugar. You can also purchase prickly pear fruit online.
Tepary beans are small, nutty, drought-resistant legumes that have been cultivated for thousands of years in the American Southwest. It is easy to order dried tepary beans from an online vendor, but you’ll need to build in time to soak them.
Agave nectar tastes like an herbaceous honey. Similar to the way maple syrup is tapped from trees, agave nectar is harvested from the large piña core of a succulent that looks like yucca. It takes around seven years for the agave plant to mature, and the plant dies once it is harvested, so this elixir is a valuable ingredient that should be appreciated. Agave nectar is easy to find at most grocery stores or online, sometimes labeled as agave syrup.
Blue cornmeal just tastes better [than regular cornmeal]. The flavor is more pronounced: the corn tastes richer, sweeter, just better in every way. Many specialty grocers carry blue cornmeal, and it’s easy to order online.
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