Chef Freddie Bitsoie is at the forefront of teaching about the techniques and ingredients that are indigenous to North America—and he wants to share his knowledge with you. Lucky for us, his new cookbook New Native Kitchen: Celebrating Modern Recipes of the American Indian does exactly that. “My book is really an introduction to Native cuisine,” he explains. “I believe that it's very Native American, but it's also written for people who live in a high-rise apartment building in New York City that has a Whole Foods at the bottom.”
The cookbook reads like a road map: We travel from the forests of the Northeast through the waterways of the Pacific Northwest to the bison-grazing plains in the middle. It celebrates each tribe—from Apache to Zuni—with culinary and cultural histories of the regions. In addition to showing us the history of the cuisine, Bitsoie sets out to show us its future. “Native American cooking ... is enriched by the vibrant ancestral connections, while also always evolving" he says in the introduction to his cookbook.
I recently talked with Bitsoie when he was back home in New Mexico. We had a lovely conversation over Zoom about growing up as latch-key kids, sourcing indigenous ingredients, and what led him to write New Native Kitchen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First off, what do you prefer: Native food? Indigenous cuisine? Or something else?
Native American—although I usually bounce between terms because it varies throughout the country. It depends how people accept certain terms. I sometimes say Native American food, and sometimes I use the tribal affiliation of the food if it's a tribal-specific recipe. For instance, Hopi blue corn is a tad different than Navajo blue corn.
I rarely use the term “indigenous cuisine,” because people move. If I have an indigenous product that moves to Washington, and I make it there, that cuisine isn't necessarily indigenous to Washington's area.
How did you get started cooking?
Growing up, my older brother played football and my older sister went to a private school in Phoenix. So most Saturdays I’d wake up and everyone would be gone. I’d be the only one home. This was back in the day when you could stay home by yourself. We lived in a really nice community where my mom would just tell the neighbors I was home. There'd always be a stocked fridge with luncheon meats and other cold foods—and I just got sick of eating the same thing all the time.
I watched a lot of PBS cooking shows on Saturdays. My mother's a good cook but she’s not on that level. On TV, they were making these very elaborate dishes and I thought I’d try it out.
I started cooking by taking meat out of the freezer and experimenting while nobody else was home. There was one time when I attempted to roast a chicken, and I didn't know you had to thaw it out first. I just put it in the oven. I remember later that week my mom kept saying, “I swore I had a chicken. I don't know where it went.” I had ruined it. I wrapped it in two trash bags and threw it in the neighbor's trash can.
It was never really a goal of mine to become a professional cook, but when I was in college I would buy a lot of things for my kitchen. One day, I looked at the counter and I had a stand mixer, a food processor… and I remember thinking, " wonder how many seniors in college have these types of products in their kitchen?" That’s when I knew food was always going to be a part of my life.
What got you interested in Native cuisine, specifically?
I was studying anthropology in college, and my instructor said he found it fascinating that all my papers dealt with ancient pueblos’ food systems and foodways. He encouraged me to go to culinary school. He said, “Look. This is all you're writing about. There's something going on here. Why don't you take a look at how we view food? It'll get you to understand foodways from North America and how the migration of foods happened.” So, I left college when I was a senior and went to Scottsdale Culinary School in 2007.
A few years after culinary school I started training cooks in Native casinos. Because most casinos are in rural areas, many people in those communities either didn't want to go to culinary school or couldn't afford to go. I got to learn some of their food habits and foodways and just the way that they appreciate foods. I also traveled a lot for work, and that allowed me to meet other Native American cooks as well. It was a lot of hands-on learning.
And what led you to write this cookbook?
The book was a labor of love, 10 years in the making. It’s written from a Native American point of view—from a Navajo point of view. I believe that it's very Native American, but it's also written for people who live in a high-rise apartment building in New York City that has a Whole Foods at the bottom. Other Native cookbooks will have ingredients that you can't even source, that you have to go out and pick yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think it's great. Those are great learning resources as well. But my book is really an introduction to Native cuisine.
This book also represents the future of Native food. People tend to look towards the past more than the present when it comes to Native American cuisine, and I think that needs to be addressed. That's why my book is called “New Native Kitchen.” That's where I see myself now, as kind of the progressive Native chef.
"People tend to look towards the past more than the present when it comes to Native American cuisine, and I think that needs to be addressed."
Do you feel responsible for maintaining Native traditions and being respectful to each tribe's historical and cultural background?
I take that into consideration a lot. For example, when I was in the Kwakwaka'wakw Nation in North Vancouver Island, they wanted me to do a fish stew. I said, "I’ll make a fish pozole, something I’ve never tried before." It was kind of a combination between a French bouillabaisse and a pozole. We were using salmon and prawns. I can't call that a Kwakwaka'wakw soup. I can say it's a version of pozole, but there are still certain aspects of giving these foods names that are problematic. I’d rather call it a salmon, prawn, and hominy soup, rather than claiming it's a traditional indigenous Mexican dish. There's no salmon in Mexico, so it can't be. Instead, I’ll tell the story about the soup and where it came from.
How can non-Native cooks incorporate more indigenous ingredients in their home kitchens?
Sixty percent of the world's ingredients come from the Western Hemisphere. People don't seem to know that. When you go into your basic market, many of the ingredients you might find are indigenous to this part of the world.
Lately Native food has felt a little divisive. For instance, I was caught using canned hominy one time and I was ostracized for that. I was told that I should be using corn that I grew, that I processed, that I nixtamalized, and that I dried. If I had the dry hominy, that would be great, but I don't have time to wait for the hours it takes to cook.
Native food is very practical. It's in every local market. It's in every major supermarket, and it's in every organic food store. In the book, I tell people it's okay to go down to your local Safeway or your local Whole Foods and pick up that can of hominy.
What are some superstar ingredients in Native cuisine that you wish people knew better?
I wish people knew cholla buds—they have an asparagus flavor to them. But the reason why I really like them is because a tablespoon of cholla buds has the same amount of calcium as an eight ounce glass of milk. It grows on the cholla cactus. They are harvested before the flowers blossom, around mid-April. I grew up in Northern Arizona and I had never heard of cholla buds.
Some people from the Akimel O'odham tribe (or the Pima tribe) introduced cholla buds to me. I use them a lot and incorporate them into a lot of different recipes. I make a cholla bud pesto. There is a co-op on the San Xavier Reservation that sells them online. It's a really good product, and it benefits the tribe. They gather them locally, and the money goes directly to the families. It's a springtime thing. It's available in April, but when you dry them, they last forever.
"When you go into your basic market, many of the ingredients you might find are indigenous to this part of the world."
Last question: What’s your favorite recipe in your book?
The stewed chicken and golden tomatoes. My grandmother always made a version of this recipe, and my mom always made a version, too. It’s their version of chicken cacciatore but that’s not what they called it. They probably didn't know that's what they were cooking.
Remember those red cookbooks? The cookbooks with the three-ring binders? I used to thumb through those as a kid, and I came across this chicken. It said “chicken cacciatore,” and it kind of had the same ingredients as my mom’s and my grandma’s dish. But instead of using a tomato sauce, they just made up a stew and then they put whole tomatoes in it. Being that I’m the professional chef, I added a lot—the bay leaf, the wine, etc. I always told people when I have a book, they're going to be my recipes. I don't serve people things I don't eat. These are flavors that I really enjoy.