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Chef Freddie Bitsoie is Redefining Native Cuisine—As Tasty, Culturally Specific and Healthy

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Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie is on a dedicated mission to cook up tasty American Indian foods—unique edibles that are culturally-specific. “Although it wasn’t intentional, these dishes are not only delicious, they’re also healthy, a beneficial byproduct of this way of cooking,” he says.

With obesity at epidemic levels, incidents of heart disease on the rise, and over 366 million people worldwide suffering from diabetes, cutting down on unnecessary sugar, carbs and calories—without cutting out the savory sensations—represents a double bang for the buck.

“The stereotype is that healthy cooking frequently results in bland, boring, tasteless dishes,” says the 35-year-old Dine from the Four Corners region. “When you put ‘healthy’ in front of ‘cooking,' it can be a deterrent because you’ll scare some people away. I made a public appearance once, advertised as a Healthy Cooking Demonstration, and very few attended. When I got invited back, my sponsors dropped ‘healthy’ from the title and the place was packed.”

Bitsoie, a crusader for redefining American Indian Cuisine, says the concept is catching on. “Native foods are delicious foods and when you add the unintended health benefits, selling the concept gets even easier.”

Take, for example, a recent appearance at the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association's (AIANTA) 13th Annual American Indian Tourism Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona attended by tribal delegates from all over the country. After being welcomed with prayers, music and hoop dancers, Chef Freddie was ready and his preparations did not disappoint.

Garbed in a starched chef’s apron, he moved from table to table explaining his regionally-based creations—Sonoran Three Sister salad from Tohono O’odham country with tepary beans, acorn squash, corn and cholla cactus buds; juniper berry and sage rubbed Northern Arizona Navajo lamb dressed with a New Mexico sumac sauce and resting on a caramelized onion crostini; and Southwestern corn chowder with New Mexico green chilies or a sweet Apache-inspired acorn soup with pecan mousse tart awaiting for dessert.

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Although he delivers lectures on healthy cooking to health-conscious places like the Mayo Clinic, “I don’t call myself a health cook or a dietician,” he says, “but using organic native foods is beneficial on a number of levels (like helping manage control of a diabetics glycemic index). Utilizing ingredients like tepary beans, cactus buds, or corn or acorn flour reduces levels of the bad stuff. Using white flour to thicken things is a French thing that is easily replaced by a more healthy corn or acorn flour that will thicken things just as well.”

Doctors at support the chef’s contentions. “We don’t eat enough of most of the traditional foods any more,” notes dietician David Grotto, who adds: “Our cupboard used to be our medicine cabinet. A solution to a lot of what ails us may be getting back to traditional foods.”

Originally trained in anthropology, once Bitsoie discovered the concept of ethnocentrism (having race as a central interest) in relation to food, he headed off to culinary school to learn more about foods of ancient Puebloan societies.

“Calling it Native American fare is not fair,” he says. “Food is a product of culture and all Native American cultures are different in preferences and preparation. I strive to prepare dishes that have substance to where elders can taste them and know these are versions of dishes they have had most of their lives.”

As an example of a menu customized to specific cultures of a region and using indigenous ingredients, Bitsoie recalls a favorite colorful and tasty Four Corners meal that includes hominy salad, green chili relleno with New Mexico sweet red chile sauce, Ute style breaded venison with sage sauce, Navajo herb-rubbed roasted lamb; braised bison short ribs with butternut squash, blue corn cakes, and pumpkin bread pudding with pine nuts and ice cream for desert.

He will again demonstrate his kitchen confidence at the annual Harvest Fest at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, describing the Thanksgiving gathering as an Edible Gallery of Modern Native Culinary Exploration. Should you be passing through this part of the country when hunger strikes, the menu includes Southern Ute style stewed rabbit; apple/bacon-wrapped bison medallions; woodland seared venison with wild berry sauce, Kwakiutl crab cakes, and flavors of the Northwest like cedar berry and herb-crusted roasted turkey; cattail bread stuffing with mushrooms; clam soup; smoked salmon quiche…and if you’ve saved room for desert…corn pudding, pumpkin pie, and mesquite cake with prickly pear frosting.

A hearty, and healthy, repast, but do we really have to wait until Thanksgiving?