Native American chefs are cooking up a culinary renaissance

yesEAN SHERMAN he estimates he uses 25 pounds of crickets a week: “Almost every table buys some.” His restaurant, Owamni by the Sioux Chef, opened in Minneapolis in July and serves Native American dishes. Patrons can feast on blue corn puree and bison tartare. Although indigenous restaurants remain scarce, they are spreading. Recent openings include Wapehpah’s Kitchen in Oakland, California, and Watecha Bowl in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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What counts as Native American food is still up for debate. Mr. Sherman uses only ingredients found in North America before Columbus arrived. Diners won’t find wheat, beef, pork, or chicken at Owamni. If the rules change, they might be able to ask for something hairier. Sherman has “a couple of beavers” in his freezer but “can’t sell them to the public because that kind of license doesn’t even exist.”

Lois Ellen Frank, food historian and caterer, takes a different tack. She says that if every society were limited by the ingredients available to their distant ancestors, Italians wouldn’t have pasta al pomodoro and Brits wouldn’t have French fries. (Both tomatoes and potatoes came to Europe from the New World.) Mrs. Frank includes foods introduced to the Southwest by the Spanish, such as watermelon and wheat. On her menu there is nopal leaf salad and blue corn gnocchi.

A fault has sprung up around panfrito, a fluffy fried flatbread that can be served sweet or as a taco. Legend has it that Navajo women invented it using the rations provided when the government forced their tribe to move from Arizona to New Mexico in the 1860s. Some chefs refuse to serve it, saying it represents colonialism and health struggles. modern. In 2017, the Miss Navajo pageant dropped the part of the pageant where the contestants make fried bread. Miss Navajo hopefuls now cook other dishes, including chiilchin, a red sumac pudding. Others think that fried bread is a symbol of survival and ingenuity.

Mrs. Frank has a happy medium. She sometimes offers a healthier version: “fried bread without frying”. She uses blue cornmeal and grills things instead of frying them.

The dearth of Native American restaurants has a lot to do with history. In the mid-19th century, when the government pushed the Indians west to take their land, many of their recipes no longer made sense in a new climate. Until the 1970s, most Native Americans lived in rural areas. By the time they moved into cities in large numbers, they were “too late and too few” to have a booming restaurant scene, says Krishnendu Ray of New York University.

Indigenous restaurants have opened on and off since the 1980s, but have failed to catch up. This time it may be different. President Joe Biden’s stimulus bill included a big increase in funding for tribal governments and programs aimed at helping Native Americans. America is in a racial reckoning. That also applies to food. Owamni has been full every night since it opened.

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This article appeared in the US section of the print edition under the headline “Crickets, Blue Corn, and Bison Tartare.”

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