Albuquerque, New Mexico restaurant preserves and shares indigenous culture through its colorful culinary traditions
What is indigenous food, exactly?
Monique Fragua is an expert on this issue, a subject that delights her both personally and professionally. Born and raised in Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico, where the rest of her extended family still lives, Fragua is the Director of Business Operations for the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center of Albuquerque (IPCC). This also makes her the manager of the IPCC’s Indian Pueblo Kitchen, the eponymous 100-seat restaurant that is one of North America’s leading proponents of indigenous cuisine. They serve around 5,500 guests per month.
“Here, we share our culture and make connections around our food traditions,” Fragua explained.
But what are these traditions? Not exactly what most might expect.
Corn tortillas, baked beans, hot peppers, fried potatoes, tomatoes? All appear on the IPK menu and have become ubiquitous around the world – the Western Hemisphere’s gift to humanity. And let’s not forget the chocolate. Where would Switzerland be without chocolate, Italy without tomatoes, France without beans, not to mention an American hamburger without fries. And corn is the main grain grown in the world, nearly half of the world’s total grain production at just over one million metric tons.
All of that, yes, but the heart of Indigenous cuisine in North America is probably…
Stews with soul
“Our stews are the real story of the show here,” Fragua said.
IPK attracts crowds of visitors, native and non-native alike, to enjoy an expansive menu of hearty foods that would be at home on almost any menu in the American Southwest: enchiladas, Indian tacos, taco salads, burritos , huevos rancheros – all here .
Stews are what stray slightly from the usual, and Fragua explains that’s because they’re the staple of the cuisine of New Mexico’s 13 distinct pueblos, including his home, Jemez Pueblo. Nestled in the mountains of the same name northwest of Albuquerque, the well-watered Jemez River Valley has long supported the Mesoamerican crops now so common around the world, from corn to chilies. The surrounding mountains and their creeks provided game such as elk, venison, trout, etc.
So there’s elk chili on the menu at IPK, an old family recipe brought to the restaurant by IPK cook John Aragon, also from Jemez. It’s just elk, onions, garlic, beans, salt and pepper, it’s pretty simple.
“But our pride and joy is the feast day stew,” continued Fragua, a traditional celebratory Pueblo dish called Pueblo stew on the menu. This one is made with beef, chili peppers and other ingredients like posole, and it has the flavorful boldness and rich color of a painting, simple yet intense.
Ancient meets modern
There are few valuable opportunities to sample authentic North American native cuisine – IPK is probably the most visible location. Among other things, centers of indigenous culture are themselves rare; among the best known, the Cherokee Heritage Center in Oklahoma is in full closure; and the Sealaska Heritage Center in Juneau focuses on art and performance rather than food.
The foods that were the basis of life for the approximately 600 indigenous peoples of North America have in fact spread all over the world and are found in homes and restaurants from Albuquerque to Albania to India. Azerbaijan. But it is a mistake to think that this is all on the table in native homes morning, noon and night. It’s like asking if Arctic people still live in igloos, a common question in Northland.
Fragua rejoices that IPK’s mission is to show visitors how all of these ancient foods have integrated into 21st century life. And she is just as happy about the fact that some completely traditional foods do not meet the expectations of non-natives.
“Well, our favorites at Jemez include Jell-O, Oreos, Koolaid…” She smiled mischievously. “Sometimes all you have in the pantry is Jell-O and a can of peaches.” When asked if it included lime Jell-O with miniature marshmallows, she nodded enthusiastically and declared a deep love for Half-American cooking traditions, like her favorite comfort food, Frito pie. .
This culinary adventurism of the IPK menu is best represented by Koolaid Fried Pickles. Yes, the famous Southern snack, in this case breaded in blue corn and served with green chili ranch dressing and salsa de árbol. It is hard to imagine a more ecumenical recipe in this hemisphere.
Comfort food and controversy
Food traditions are not only colorful; sometimes they are controversial. In the case of native food, the starkest example may be Indian tacos, the beloved fried bread dishes that attract the longest lines at food vendors at nearly every native gathering. But ever since fried bread was invented on the horrific 300-mile “Long March” of 1864 – the Navajo Trail of Tears, during which the U.S. military gave their captives nothing but wheat flour and lard – some Navajo chefs will have nothing to do with Indian tacos.
However, two versions are on the IPK menu: a Navajo taco, with lamb, and a Tewa version, with beef raised by Native American ranchers. Of course, beef and lamb are not native to the Western Hemisphere, nor is wheat, but all three are extremely popular among IPK customers and indigenous peoples as a whole.
The idea of indigenous food being limited to only pre-contact items is one that Fragua brings with the constant and direct attention you would find in a championship archer, which it also is.
“Do you want to live in a hut that dates from 1492, and all that goes with it? We don’t,” she said. Well, Koolaid? Not approved by the health police. Fragua shrugged. There is, in fact, nothing in the IPK menu that is strictly pre-contact. The kitchen’s most popular item may well be Pueblo Baked Bread, a round white wheat yeast bread baked in traditional hornos or bread ovens. The bread is dense, with a soft crust, and makes great French toast. Fragua says they sell 2,000 loaves a week, more to native customers than to non-natives.
“Our mission is to preserve, perpetuate and share our traditions. To do this, you need to make things a little familiar.
“We’re here to nurture people and help them unlearn native Hollywood stereotypes. So the breads and stews, it’s as authentic as it gets. She smiles. “It’s Pueblo comfort food, just good hearty food.”