Photos by Michael Whistler
Cricket Seed Mix at Owamni (GIF by Michael Whistler)

Is a cricket plant-based? Nope, it’s an insect. More about that later. There’s a good reason that crickets are on the menu at Owamni, the Minneapolis restaurant dedicated to serving only pre-colonial, indigenous foods.

Owamni is the James Beard Award winning restaurant of 2023 because it delivers so much more than a meal. I can attest that even if have educated yourself about the terrible history of Colonialism in this country, an immersion into a Native space is powerful. Large windows frame a beautiful view of the Mississippi, but in this context, you can’t ignore that this bustling city on the river resides on stolen land. Owamni creates a sanctuary in which we can all be mindful of our past, what’s on our plates, and almost more importantly, what’s not.

The Cricket Seed Mix is just one of the many menu items at Owamni that ask you to question your preconceptions about food. If you thought you needed wheat flour, cows or their milk, chickens or their eggs, pigs, or cane sugar to have a world-class meal, you will have a different mindset when you leave. As someone who’s been cooking with and without all of the above for years, I knew that plants are capable of so much more than most chefs realize. What’s thrilling to me as a plant-forward chef is the way the Sioux Chef team of Sean Sherman, Dana Thompson and their crew use the constraints of a selected group of ingredients to create contemporary, visually exciting dishes that are freighted with meaning.

(Owamni does use duck and turkey eggs, so if you are avoiding those, ask.)

Indigenous Chili Crisp

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Indiegnous Maple Chili Crisp

Take this Sweet Potato dish. Roasted white sweet potatoes, cut on a sharp diagonal, grilled to make deep, smoky char marks. Indigenous, locally grown chilis, but prepared with a nod to our current affection for the chili crisp created decades ago by Chinese Chefs, and poplarized by hot restaurants like Momofuko. Native meets contemporary, and a bit of food styling on the plate.

Crispy Black Beans

Corn Fried Tepary, Crispy Beans with Sunflower and Berry Purees

If you’ve tried crispy chickpeas on a salad or as a snack food, these tasty Tepary beans will feel familiar as you crunch into them. With a savory sunflower sauce and a sweet berry sauce on each side, you can enjoy the nutty goodness with two complementary flavors. The crispiness and the yin/yang look of the plate elevates a humble bean to gourmet status.

The Indigenous Chili Relleno, Kind Of

Stuffed Poblanos with Wild Rice, Mushroom Picadillo and Hazelnut Puree

Nutty, chewy wild rice, with minced mushrooms that have been sauteed and reduced to a meaty, umami-packed picadillo, and soft roasted poblanos are topped with a creamy puree of hazelnuts and carnished with crunchy bits of roasted nuts. This entree would be just as welcome at a high-end vegan restaurant, like Vedge in DC or Planta in Miami, to name a few, although you don’t see real wild rice on many menus outside the region.

Blue Corn Bread, More Than Meets The Eye

Blue Bread with Lakota Squash Preserves

We were told that today’s blue bread had to cool for 3 hours- a tipoff to the baking method Sherman has perfected, which includes “gelatinizing” the cornmeal so it can be manipulated to build a bread structure without either gluten or post-colonial leavenings, and a long cooling to allow it to stablize. I’ve heard him mention the gelatinizing step in the press, and it makes sense, from a gluten-free baking perspective. Luckily, they had a little bit of yesterday’s bread left, to cut in wedges and seared with some grill marks for presentation. The bread is sweet and redolent of corn flavor, and as you can see, has an open texture to keep it from being heavy. This one might have duck or turkey eggs in it, if that’s an issue.

Pre-Colonial Porridge

Wild Rice Porridge with Wild Rice Milk, Currants and Hazelnuts

Making wild rice into milk is a brilliant move-giving the porridge a creamy richness, and even more wild rice flavor. This was sweet, lush, and studded with crunchy nuts-and you could be forgiven for thinking it had dairy in the mix. You’ll probably never have wild rice milk again, unless you make it yourself, since true wild rice is so expensive and precious.

The Vegan Taco

Corn Taco, with Corn Dumpling, Corn Cob Jam and Sumac Popcorn

My husband had this so I didn’t get a taste! He is still raving about how good it was, and that’s unusual. My spouse is along for the ride and tends to prefer pizza to fancy food, and has been known to walk out of a buzzy-hot and restaurant and comment that “it was pretty good.” So his unprovoked praise makes me want to have one of these.

Manoomin for Your Soul

True Wild Rice with Popped Wild Rice, Labrador and Sumac

Cooking true wild rice is an art. It’s easy to overcook the hand-parched kernels, allowing them to split and turn to mush. I’ve also had it undercooked and crunchy. Popping the kernels has to be a labor intensive process, and require a close eye to keep the precious grain from scorching. This was perfectly cooked, and the crunchy bits of popped rice gave it a lively texture. I wondered why I don’t eat wild rice every day. Wild rice is the “mother grain” of the Natives of the Upper Midwest, considered sacred and essential. It’s also one of the most nutritious grains (ok, actually the seed of an aquatic grass, but we use it as a grain, so let’s not quibble.)

Crickets, Small Game for Dinner

If you are concerned about feeding the human race with sustainable proteins, you really need to take a look at this alternative to meats. Crickets have been consumed by people for as long as there have been hungry humans, all over the world, and many still do. Most Americans grew up with a fictionalized story about pilgrims and pumpkin pie, and we never heard about the fact that Natives traded dried cakes made with insects to the European settlers, who grew to enjoy it. During grasshopper season, or a locust infestation, hordes of easily harvested insects were easily captured, roasted or dried, and provided precious nutrition in winter, and colonists didn’t write home about it.

Cricket Seed Mix, and Red Cliff Trout and White Bean Spread with Tostadas in the back

So I, like the colonials of yesteryear, gave crickets a try. I have tasted cricket flour foods, like energy bars and cookies made with cricket flour, but haven’t munched on the whole bug before. I have to report that the main flavor was the sweet glaze, sesame brittle and hint of tart sumac. They were crunchy, a little nutty, and to be honest, I didn’t really focus on trying to taste them all that closely.

Dairy Free Custard for the Finale

Labrador Custard

Labrador is an evergreen from the rhododendron family that has a piney, slightly citrusy flavor. The leaves are traditionally brewed to drink as a tea by indigenous peoples in the Northern climes where the plant flourishes. This custard was rich and smooth, made from a puree of nuts and seeds, although they weren’t identified, and some eggs, I’m guessing. The labrador added a subtle note, cutting the richness and giving it a little more depth. The sweet drizzle and popped wild rice garnish were lovely.

Non-Alcoholic Drinks Get Special Treatment

Gaagaagiwaandagomin Juniper Coctail, with Juniper, Bay Leaf, Aronia Berry and Sumac

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the care and attention paid to the selection of teas and cocktails served at Owamni. Infusions and tisanes of plants, herbs and leaves, combined with native berries and plant foods have been given a great deal of energy. I’ve had the Cedar infusion at the Tatanka truck and other Natifs events, and it’s lovely, but here multiple flavors have been carefully blended for maximum flavor.

Winning The James Beard Award

If you’ve made it this far, you know I really enjoyed the food at Owamni. I’ve been a fan of the mission of Sean Sherman and Dana Thompson for many years, following the progress of Natifs as it grew and expanded, and I’ve always thought it was absolutely high time that indigenous foods and foodways finally got “discovered” by the rest of the world. We Americans have embraced cusines from every part of the planet, while patently ignoring the one that flourished here before Colonists intentionally destroyed it. Indigenous cuisine expresses thousands of years of terroir and taste of place- exactly what we revere in French or Italian cuisine. But a message alone can’t carry a restaurant to number 1. The food has to deliver on taste and presentation, and Owamni does that.

As a plant-based chef, I can’t help but muse on how a place with so many purely plant-based dishes has won over the critics. Folks who would never set foot in a “Vegan” restaurant go to try indigenous foods, and love them. Put it on the menu at one of our local restos and call it “Vegan Stuffed Peppers” and it would go over like a lead balloon, because it would be removed from context and labeled with a term that people associate with the absence of their favorite foods. Yes, there’s bison and elk and trout on the menu, but most of the food is proof that well-prepared plant-based food is world class, especially if you don’t call it vegan.

Bravo to the Chefs at Owamni for reclaiming their foods, and in the process, giving plant-based dining a new context in which to shine.