Sean Sherman, the Sioux Chef, has been revolutionizing the culinary world of the upper Midwest where he is based, (and indeed around the nation), creating beautiful dinners of entirely pre-contact ingredients sources from the Great Lakes and Northern Plains regions.Sean grew up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota where he learned his way around the kitchen early. In 2014 he started The Sioux Chef in Minneapolis, a catering company that focuses exclusively on what he describes as “pre-contact pre-European style foods, trying to really showcase what healthy foods were here before and the flavors that were here– a combination of native agriculture, foods that were foraged from the forests, the wild game and the fish and a lot of these base pieces, and then also utilizing a lot of techniques like preservation techniques, some of the cooking techniques, and really trying to pull a good solid foundation of what Native American food is.” His food features no dairy, no wheat, and no imported produce (although he makes an exception for dandelion greens, which while not indigenous are healthy and abundant, and have been eaten by Native people for centuries).
In addition to cooking for fundraisers and pop up events across the country, Sean and his crew also started the Tatanka Truck, a food truck that features healthy regional indigenous foods like buffalo meat, walleye, and wild rice. (You can also read more on this blog about Sean’s cooking at the Native American Culinary Association symposium, at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit, and at the Indigenous Farming Conference).
On February 6, 2016, Sean partnered with Chef Neftali Duran, a fellow member of the Native American Culinary Association (NACA) to create a pre-contact Mixteco meal, but incorporating northern ingredients. Neftali was born in the Mexican state of Oaxaca to a Mixteco family of “cooks, healers, and campesinos.” When he was 17 he began cooking in Los Angeles, before moving to western Massachusetts and opening a bakery. In addition to directing food justice programs at Nuestras Raices in Holyoke MA, Neftali travels around the country hosting pop-up dinners featuring Oaxacan cuisine, and educating audiences about the history of indigenous foods of Mexico, and the ever-evolving cuisine of his home region. Chef Duran has been featured on Food52.com and The Cooking Channel, and as a signature pitmaster at the Cook ‘n Scribble Longhouse Food Revival series in upstate New York. Duran was awarded Native American Chef of the Year by the National Museum of the American Indian in 2014, and in 2015 was invited by the American Food History Project to present about Oaxacan cuisine at the National Museum of American History. One of Neftali’s goals, and the broader goal of this north-meets-south dinner, is to expand what we consider Native American food to include Indigenous people south of the US border. As Sean described, “we don’t really look at the state lines and the country lines, we don’t see the United States, Mexico, Canada, Alaska, we see North America and we see all these different beautiful regions with all these different beautiful cultures and peoples, and that’s what this dinner is really about is to get people to kind of understand that these really rich histories of foods and regions all throughout North America.” This event, hosted in the Bedlam Theater in Lowertown, St. Paul (MN), featured “6 courses of Indigenous Mexican flavors, a culinary pre-colonial tale of the Oaxacan region and the Mixteco peoples,” in addition to art by Stephen Capiz, music by Armando Gutierrez, as well as spoken word by R. Vincent Moniz Jr. Below, I’ll give a sampling of the days worth of preparation that went into each of the dishes, and the beautiful and delicious results.
Before the dinner started, the kitchen crew sat down to a “family meal” of rabbit tacos
First course: nieve ña tichí aguachili de huachinango • chili oil • tostado amaranto • jicama • avocado. This dish was red snapper fish cured in a mixture of chilies, onions, lime juice, and salt–it’s the Oaxacan version of ceviche. The crisp on top was made from amaranth flour– a grain indigenous to the Americas.
The soup course was ndaku,u vindia : pozole de nopales • blue corn crisp • Mexican oregano • hoja santa. This was a delicious, slightly spicy soup made with hominy corn, cactus pads and chilis. While it would usually be made with chicken or pork, Neftali adjusted the recipe to include duck meat and broth, in an effort to incorporate northern indigenous ingredients into the dish. The leaf on top of the soup is yerba santa– as Neftali described to the audience,” it’s such a beautiful herb that is very versatile. My favorite way to use it is when you are making tortillas in a comal you can put hoja yerba santa and crack an egg on top of it. Nothing like it.”
The next course was naña: smoked duck • chayote • mole amarillo • yucca • huitalcoche • chicharron de pato. This included a yucca flour gordita topped with smoked duck meat, boiled chayote squash, and micro greens. All placed in atop a generous drizzle of mole. As Neftali described to the diners, “Oaxaca is known as the land of the seven moles. Realistically there’s probably a few more. There is a big misconception, especially in the US, people think that mole is a chocolate sauce, which is completely wrong. The gastronomy of Oaxaca is chili based, which means that the moles are chili based. Some of the positive things that came with the Spaniards were spices–for example, the classic black and red mole will have some spices that don’t belong to the Americas. People say like “oh tell me about the moles” and I tell people think of the French mother sauces, on this side of the Americas. Thousands of years of innovation, literally, thousands of years of gastronomic innovation, they give us the moles of Oaxaca.”
The next course was ticóo ña mole: banana leaf tamale • roasted rabbit • chamomile flower • mole rojo • micro cilantro. While people may be more familiar with corn husk wrapped tamales, in Oaxaca they also make them wrapped in banana leaves. And while, similar to the pozole, they commonly contain chicken or pork (in addition to myriad possible combinations of cheese, peppers, and other fillings), these tamales were stuffed with roasted rabbit in order to highlight northern indigenous ingredients. This dish also featured mole, and was garnished with a baby corn plant and duck chicharrones.
The final meal course was ixtaá ndunchí: black beans • comal toasted tortilla • preserved hibiscus • salsa verde • epazote. Epazote is Neftali’s favorite ingredient to add to beans– it enhances the flavor and aids with digestion. The beans were placed atop a salsa made from tomatillos, on top of a corn tortilla, and garnished with a dried hibiscus flower.
The desert course was tiakui ya’a: avocado sorbet • chocolate rojo • dried prickly pear • crisp amaranth leaf. Dessert was also gluten free, dairy free, and made with ingredients from the Americas. Avocado was smashed, frozen, and then blended with agave syrup, and frozen again. It was then scooped and plated, and topped with a dried slice of prickly pear cactus fruit, baby amaranth greens, dried coconut, and chocolate.
The very final course was mezcal, a distilled spirit from southern Mexico, made from the maguey agave plant. Guests had the opportunity to try a small glass of mescal, and a piece of roasted agave– the sweet, fibrous material that is fermented to make the mezcal.