Exploring native food of the Americas at the Mitsitam Café

Exploring native food of the Americas at the Mitsitam Café One of the tricky things about visiting Washington, DC with kids is finding good places to eat when you’re at the Smithsonian or just hanging out on the National Mall. The immediate options tend toward the food cart pretzels or cafeteria food. And all that museum walking can lead to lots of whining or even outright rebellion when you decide head offsite into some of the interesting options that lie farther afield off in say, Chinatown or the Eastern Market area. So I was intrigued when I posted a plea for suggestions on Twitter and kept getting the same response – try the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Yes, this is a cafeteria – you pick up a tray and walk around to select your food. But I’ve never seen options quite like this. The Mitsitam Café offers visitors to the museum a chance to try dishes that are indigenous to the Americas. The stations are broken up according to region, from the Northwest Coast down to South America. It is a little bewildering and part of the pleasure for me was watching the lunch crowd make their choices. Everyone, adult and child alike, wandered around peering at the food, trying to figure out what it was. Although names are posted, there aren’t descriptions included and frankly, you can’t always tell by looking. The entire enterprise can feel a bit like a mystery and the staff, clearly tired of perennial questions (and perhaps a bit smug in the fact that they know and we don’t?) is not necessarily forthcoming about what each item includes.

The best approach here (unless you have allergies or dietary restrictions) is simply to plunge in with abandon. There are kids meals available if your child simply must
have chicken nuggets, but we stayed away and let the boys pick what looked appealing. Teddy went for a fry bread grilled cheese and green apple soup from the Northern Woodlands menu. The soup was the only thumbs down among all our orders, but the fry bread was delicious.

Fry bread grilled cheese and green apple soup at Mitsitam

Tommy was more intrigued by Mesoamerica and ordered corn tacos filled with a chicken, peanut, and red chili mole that was to die for.

Matt and I headed for South America. He ordered aji de cabro or pulled goat in a red wine and chili sauce from Chile with a side of papas ala arequipena or potatoes and cheese from Peru (but suitable for a Wisconsin boy, don’t you think?).

Aji de cabro at the Mitsitam Café And me? I bellied up to the bar and tried to cajole the woman serving food to tell me what the names of the dishes meant to no avail. She was either coy or crabby so I ended up with a plate of pupusa de chicharrón that was served with a topping of a cabbage and carrot slaw and a side of heart of palm salad. I was perfectly happy not to really know what I was munching on.

Pupusa de chicharrón at the Mitsitam Café Hearts of palm salad at the Mitsitam Café

It turns out that a pupusa is a traditional Salvadoran dish made of corn meal, cheese, and finely ground pork (not pork rinds as I first mistakenly assumed). It was divine.

Mitsitam means “let’s eat” in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples and that’s what we did. It was lots of fun and completely different. One word of warning though: It’s not a cheap lunch. But since the museum is completely free, why not splurge a little? I can’t think of a more delicious way to learn about native cultures than this.

I share this yummy cultural exchange as part of Wanderfood Wednesday. Be sure to check out the equally delicious posts to be found there.

Reader Responses

12 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. What would we do without our Twitter to help us find the treasures in our travel?

    I can so relate to your travel stories, having three boys of my own, and look forward to more.

  2. So glad you enjoyed yourself! You are right…the hustle and bustle of everyone running around trying to decide what food item to pick is so much fun to watch! I love that I can go to Twitter for restaurant recommendations and more…it hasn’t failed me yet (when I get an answer!)!

  3. I don’t have kids so I can’t comment on the sadness it gives me when I see them eating chicken nuggets, but I applaud you for this approach and am so excited that they chose interesting food.

  4. What a cool idea! Kudos to you for taking your kids on a “culinary tour” of these fascinating native foods.

  5. I love this place! There’s something for everyone, even my finicky mother-in-law who eats like a child (or worse!). The rest of us had such a fun culinary adventure at the best museum food court on the planet.

  6. I’m so envious because I have not yet visited the museum. (although while researching our book about a Navajo artist, I did get to see the backstage collection before the museum opened). The food sounds and looks great, but I don’t think it is really acceptable not to identify what it is. Isn’t this a museum that is dedicated to sharing information about American Indians? And the cafeteria is one more learning opportunity. I hope somebody in management takes note of your post.

  7. My fave place to eat on the DC Mall. I usually get the Navajo taco but they have so many interesting choices–I could eat there every day!

  8. Wow! This is such a helpful tip. I’ll definitely keep it in mind the next time we’re in DC. Isn’t Twitter a wonderful source of information? Not sure what I’d do without it…

  9. This is such a neat way to explore indigenous culture – through its food! We’ll be sharing this with our travel community.

  10. What a cool experience. I can’t wait to visit D.C. again to give this Native American cafeteria a try. Fry bread, not very healthy but oh so yum!

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