The Power of Chocolate at the NMAI

There’s no escaping chocolate around Valentine’s Day. It’s EVERYWHERE! Including around the National Mall. This weekend, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is celebrating cacao, a crop that has been cultivated for three millennia in Mexico, Central and South America. “The Power of Chocolate” (Feb. 12-13) at NMAI features of series of educational and family friendly events, including a history of chocolate in Mexico and a food demonstration and discussion led by Diana Xochitl Munn, botanist at the National Museum of Natural History, and Richard Hetzler, executive chef at Mitsitam Native Food Cafe. “Mitsitam” means “Let’s Eat!” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway People and it’s pretty much the only Smithsonian cafeteria where you can eat a decent meal! Located in the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Zagat-rated restaurant serves native American dishes from five different regions of the Americas: Northeast Woodlands and Great Lakes, North Pacific Coast and Columbia Plateau, Mesoamerica, Great Plains and South America, which was the focus of today’s chocolate-centric demonstration. 

First up, Chef Hetzler showed us to make an Achiote Roasted Leg of Pheasant with Celery Root Puree, House Smoked Bacon and Passion Fruit Chocolate Drizzle. I personally enjoyed learning about this dish because it featured white chocolate, which is pretty much the only kind of chocolate I can actually eat. Mainly because, as Chef Hetzler kept emphasizing, there’s absolutely no cocoa in it 😉 Chef Hetzler did a great job answering questions from the grown-ups in the audience as well as relating to the younger folks in the crowd, demonstrating how the celery root he used in his recipe (and which had magically been pureed already) fit within the more familiar sight of the green celery for example.

Achiote Roasted Leg of Pheasant w/Celery Root Puree, Smoked Bacon & Passion Fruit Chocolate Drizzle

Next, was a lesson on native American ingredients meeting molecular gastronomy, as Chef Hetzler gushed over his love of tapioca powder. Tapioca is a starch extracted from a plant native to the Amazon and most of Central America and the Caribbean, though it was used in a very modern manner in this dish, mixed with melted bittersweet chocolate and chicken broth to form a dust-like brown powder that was sprinkled on top of the soup at the end of the preparation.

SanChocho de Gallina, Bittersweet Cacao & Bacon Dust Cup (Chicken, Root Vegetable w/Choclo)

The last dish to be prepared was one that I could perhaps see myself prepare at home, a coffee and chili rubbed loin of pork with a white chocolate chili sauce. Unfortunately, the presentation had to be cut a little short as we ran out of time. Chef Hetzler stayed around for a while answering more questions and giving out truffle samples. There really weren’t any other samples so many in attendance, myself included, rushed to the cafeteria where the dishes are a part of the South American menu. If you’re interested in checking out the demonstration for yourself, the “Power of Chocolate” is also taking place tomorrow, February 13, with a repeat of the demonstration at 11:30am. You can also make Mitsitam Cafe’s specialities right at home by picking up a copy of The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, written by Chef Hetzler. 

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