Bridging the culinary spectrum between indigenous and European tastes, burgers are on the menu at Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe, but they’re usually made with grass fed buffalo. That’s not the first surprise as visitors stroll through the lobby of the National Museum of the American Indian towards the cafe entrance. Displays of modern day foods and brand products based on indigenous ingredients and native kitchen tools refashioned today for modern use attest to an American culinary heritage older than commonly thought. The plethora of everyday ingredients – from corn meal to avocado, pumpkin to pecans, turkey to cranberries – available for millenniums to indigenous western hemisphere cultures, comprises many beloved American foods from popcorn to Pringles. Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe offers the visitor a range of indigenous dishes – comfort foods through gourmet – from the first Americans’ cookbooks.
Mitsitam’s spacious, open cafeteria concept of subdividing the western hemisphere into culinary stations allows for regional menus. Ergonomically it facilitates flow between active buyers and those studying the displayed menus and prepared foods. Stations for mesoamerica, the northern plains, northwest coast, the eastern woodlands and South America offer foods from jicama salads to slow braised pork shank with hibiscus and chocolate to horseradish crusted grilled salmon. A wide ranging price structure prevails allowing customers to mix and match combinations of entrees and sides. Most stations feature sampler plates large enough for two to share.
Like all cuisines, the circumstances of history blurs the definition of authentic. A Brazilian feijoada has as much a foot in ancient Portuguese stews as it does in native slow cooking methods. Once a mix of meats and fowl, tubers and beans, tomatoes and peppers are added, only historians will be concerned with authenticity. Ubiquitous southwest fry bread was made possible with European flour yet based on age old tortilla techniques. At Mitsitam they’re light as a feather.
Tender wood grilled baby octopus made a delectable escabeche. Once more, a dish introduced by the Arabs to Spain takes on its characteristic ingredient when brought to the new world – peppers. Northern plains venison mincemeat was certainly enjoyed by these sophisticated nomads who well understood the abundance of foods available in their seasonal neighborhoods. Smoking, drying and blending venison with dried berries, nuts, fruits, herbs and spices was a common and tasty method of preserving foods. Mitsitam’s venison mincemeat, baked in a flaky pastry, was moist, dense and warm with the flavors of the woods. The whole grained mustard sauce was a tart foil for the rich, savory, sweet meat.
A number of healthful salads are available ranging from quinoa and purple potato to wild rice and watercress, along with vegetable side dishes such as roasted acorn squash and smoked turnip puree. For diners wanting something more 21st century, there’s always burgers. Ground duck, elk and turkey burgers are offered, besides grass fed buffalo, with or without fry bread. Beverages are decidedly modern including a selection of aguas frescas, beer, wine and teas. If room prevails, desserts are generous with chocolate quinoa cake and pine nut tart among interesting temptations.
Few museum food venues succeed as effectively as Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe to provide the visitor an edible version of the institution’s mission. The National Museum of the American Indian celebrates the living cultures of indigenous people through sight, sound and, if the visitor chooses, taste. Executive chef Richard Hetzler’s kitchen daily recreates the very essence of a living culture, its cuisine, and exhibits it for all to eat.