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Momofuku Ko, and Yes, Native Americans Have a Cultured Cuisine; Just Ask the Sioux Chef

Momofuku Ko whips up immaculate dishes in New York City, and the Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman, talks indigenous cuisine.

At first glance, there is no obvious advertisement above its door to let foodies know they have arrived.

Last Sunday, elegantly dressed customers (others not so elegant) were entering nearby shops in the East Village section of New York City asking, “Where’s Momofuku Ko?” The polite and patient sales associate in the stationary store on the corner responded, “It’s right next door. Look for the peach.”

And there it was. A lone image of one plump, leafy piece of fruit on a metal slab – the only indicator that inside chefs and sous chefs and line cooks were prepping the revered menu of celebrated Chef David Chang, who owns the restaurant and others like it worldwide, and, since 2009, has been awarded two Michelin Stars.

After all, Momofuku means, “the lucky peach.”

Pike with asparagus, shishito and lobster. Photo courtesy Simon Moya-Smith

The door is locked until exactly 6 p.m. Then, a tall man in a crisp suit emerges and bids the group enter. The chefs, all in black-rimmed hats and white shirts, are already in symphonic motion, putting together the first round of dishes. The aroma of spices is rich in the air. Some are obvious (basil, mint), others undetectable to the untrained palate. Mine is such a palate.

Once seated, the show begins. One by one a plate is presented, and a chef offers a quick run-down of the dish:

“This is a foie gras with lychee, pine nut and riesling jelly,” said a younger-looking chef. Not to embarrass myself I don’t ask him what lychee is. Later, I Google it and find out it is fruit from China. While I was at it, I Googled “foie gras” and found out it is goose or duck liver with fat.

I take a bite. The flavors are exquisite. The presentation is sexy. I first eat with my eyes before slowly and gently partaking in its flavors. More dishes come. Small bites, meticulously confected. Each as sensual as the first. The pike is served with asparagus, shishito and a lobster sauce; the hanger steak, served rare, comes with turnip and cucumber. The experience can only be described as one existential moment of bliss after another.

Macaroons and chocolate. Photo courtesy Simon Moya-Smith

My only complaint is that my wooden coaster was sticking to my glass, so that with almost every sip of my bourbon the thing would dramatically fall onto the table, clinking and smacking, interrupting the harmony of chefs – like a sneeze in the audience of an opera. All I could say is, “Sorry” and “Whoops.”

Two and half hours of eating fare I have never eaten, and reveling in flavors I have never reveled in had passed before the check came. Of course, it was hefty. Momofuku Ko advertises on its website that dinner is $175 each, not including drink, tax and tip. Needless to say, unless one is proverbially raking in the dough, this place is a splurge for birthdays, graduations and similar celebrations.

This, my exceptionally pleasing experience at Momofuku Ko, got me thinking about Native American cuisine in particular. Where can one find indigenous North American fare if not on the reservation? Here? In New York City? There’s always fry bread, a mainstay in most indigenous households, yes, but that is universal in Indian country. What if, say, a Western Shoshone wanted to sample a traditional Apache recipe? What then?

This is where the Sioux Chef comes in

The Sioux Chef, otherwise known as Sean Sherman, who’s Oglala Lakota, said when the United States oppressed the Native American, it likewise oppressed our traditional recipes, our centuries-old way of dining.

“Food took a huge hit,” Sherman said.

The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman. Photo courtesy Sean Sherman

Sherman, 41, grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota before moving with his family into the nearby Black Hills. There, he worked in restaurants until he left for college – his mind, even then, brimming with culinary ideas. He wanted to introduce Native American dishes and styles of cooking to the American milieu.

He said, historically, Native American nations cooked over a fire and hot stove; they utilized the flora and fauna within reach, and each meal, made of animal or plant, was a spiritual experience. For Sherman, everything on the plate is a relative of a bygone age, and he maintains an unwavering respect for the fruit of the soil and the flesh of the animal.

“They’re like our old ancestors,” he said. “They’ve been with our great, great grandfathers and their great, great grandfathers for so long. [This is] reacquainting ourselves with them.”

White fish, bean, purslane and corn cake by Chef Sean Sherman. Photo courtesy Sean Sherman

With respect to that heritage, Sherman does not incorporate colonialist European influences into his dishes. He uses only ingredients indigenous to North America. And the only fusion food he’ll confect is an Ojibwe recipe meeting an Apache dish.

“I really wanted to try this project out and see what I can do,” he said. “There’s obviously so much.”

Those who live in the Twin Cities or nearby areas, now where Sherman calls home, will have a chance to sample his menu, truly sui generis. In June, he plans to launch his food truck, aptly named, “Tatanka Truck.”

On the menu?

“We're kind of doing these indigenous tacos. They’re corn based, wild rice based,” he said. There will also be bison and rabbit and turkey and duck and walleye, pure maple soda, and cranberry and sage iced tea.

Along with introducing non-Native Americans to time-honored, traditional North American cuisine, Sherman also aspires to teach fellow Natives a number of recipes that are both savory and heart-healthy.

“I’m hoping to get some healthy native foods out there,” he said.

Maple glaze, squash and seed mix by Chef Sean Sherman. Photo courtesy Sean Sherman