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Sacred acorn paste of the Kumeyaay

Eat the way the local Native Americans ate, but better

Pop-up chef Gilberto Morales popped up at Barona to prepare glorified Kumeyaay cuisine.
Pop-up chef Gilberto Morales popped up at Barona to prepare glorified Kumeyaay cuisine.

Tipoff from my friend Ed: “Haute Kumeyaay Cuisine. Barona. Be there or be square.”

“There” is at Barona’s Cultural Center. This Mexican pop-up chef, Gilberto Morales, who created his Baja-based Restaurante Nomada — Cocina Itinerante, has been spending the past few years visiting Kumeyaay communities in Baja, mainly at San Antonio de las Minas, in the mountains between Ensenada and San Felipe, getting to know the people, and their food. And this night, he’s offering a dinner, Kumeyaay-style.

Quail egg with acorn quakes

Maybe fifty people turn up. Everything from college professors to local ranch workers. Many Kumeyaay. Morales starts by explaining the importance of shawii, acorn paste. “It’s like the rice, or the wheat of the Kumeyaay world,” he says. “Like rice, it’s tasteless, but the trick is to combine it with something tasty.”

So the first dish is a siñaw kuatay salad. Cilantro greens, beet, shawii (acorn mush), with quail egg and chili oil. Yes, the shawii is pretty tasteless, but you combine it with the red chile and yellow nasturtiums and chili oil, and it starts to get interesting.

Then comes rabbit with sage butter and pickled pear cactus, along with cilantro, red onion, date, and quince vinaigrette. Tasty. Date’s to sweeten it up.

He emphasizes this is his interpretation of Kumeyaay, meaning not totally Kumeyaay. The dates, for instance. But there are certain rules he has to recognize. Like the acorn paste. “It is a holy food.” The ancestors are involved. The preparer must be alone. “If someone watches, it ruins it,” he says.

Next up, duck, bean, and wheat stew, with a mole yumano (a combo of acorn, pine nuts, sage, dates, and red chili sauce, plus watercress.) These are small samples, but they add up. And they are all lean and healthy.

The most delicious is the dessert, which has shawii, cacao cheese, mespow kumulsh (local honey) wrapped in a flour tortilla, along with freeze-dried fruits.

“You’ll notice no salt, no cooking in fat. The Kumeyaay traditionally had none,” he says.

He has been experimenting on customers in his pop-up restaurants in Baja, in Ensenada, and the Guadalupe Valley. And winning culinary contests, up and down the Californias.

The most delicious is the dessert, which has shawii, cacao cheese, mespow kumulsh (local honey) wrapped in a flour tortilla, along with freeze-dried fruits, accompanied by acorn coffee. Surprising tastes, with the rich native bee honey, and this nutty coffee.

Morales emphasizes this cuisine is not to be confused with the famous Baja Med movement.

“We’ve been hearing about that for so long,” he says. “But what I discovered when I spoke with some of their celebrity chefs, about what I was doing, learning from the people who had been eating here for 12,000 years, they said no, that was not what they were about. ‘We are the Fathers of Baja Med,’ they said. They wanted to create their food clean-slate. No ancestors. Not interested. I was the opposite. I wanted to connect with the foods the Kumeyaay had survived on and created. No outsider had done that before, as far as I knew.”

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Pop-up chef Gilberto Morales popped up at Barona to prepare glorified Kumeyaay cuisine.
Pop-up chef Gilberto Morales popped up at Barona to prepare glorified Kumeyaay cuisine.

Tipoff from my friend Ed: “Haute Kumeyaay Cuisine. Barona. Be there or be square.”

“There” is at Barona’s Cultural Center. This Mexican pop-up chef, Gilberto Morales, who created his Baja-based Restaurante Nomada — Cocina Itinerante, has been spending the past few years visiting Kumeyaay communities in Baja, mainly at San Antonio de las Minas, in the mountains between Ensenada and San Felipe, getting to know the people, and their food. And this night, he’s offering a dinner, Kumeyaay-style.

Quail egg with acorn quakes

Maybe fifty people turn up. Everything from college professors to local ranch workers. Many Kumeyaay. Morales starts by explaining the importance of shawii, acorn paste. “It’s like the rice, or the wheat of the Kumeyaay world,” he says. “Like rice, it’s tasteless, but the trick is to combine it with something tasty.”

So the first dish is a siñaw kuatay salad. Cilantro greens, beet, shawii (acorn mush), with quail egg and chili oil. Yes, the shawii is pretty tasteless, but you combine it with the red chile and yellow nasturtiums and chili oil, and it starts to get interesting.

Then comes rabbit with sage butter and pickled pear cactus, along with cilantro, red onion, date, and quince vinaigrette. Tasty. Date’s to sweeten it up.

He emphasizes this is his interpretation of Kumeyaay, meaning not totally Kumeyaay. The dates, for instance. But there are certain rules he has to recognize. Like the acorn paste. “It is a holy food.” The ancestors are involved. The preparer must be alone. “If someone watches, it ruins it,” he says.

Next up, duck, bean, and wheat stew, with a mole yumano (a combo of acorn, pine nuts, sage, dates, and red chili sauce, plus watercress.) These are small samples, but they add up. And they are all lean and healthy.

The most delicious is the dessert, which has shawii, cacao cheese, mespow kumulsh (local honey) wrapped in a flour tortilla, along with freeze-dried fruits.

“You’ll notice no salt, no cooking in fat. The Kumeyaay traditionally had none,” he says.

He has been experimenting on customers in his pop-up restaurants in Baja, in Ensenada, and the Guadalupe Valley. And winning culinary contests, up and down the Californias.

The most delicious is the dessert, which has shawii, cacao cheese, mespow kumulsh (local honey) wrapped in a flour tortilla, along with freeze-dried fruits, accompanied by acorn coffee. Surprising tastes, with the rich native bee honey, and this nutty coffee.

Morales emphasizes this cuisine is not to be confused with the famous Baja Med movement.

“We’ve been hearing about that for so long,” he says. “But what I discovered when I spoke with some of their celebrity chefs, about what I was doing, learning from the people who had been eating here for 12,000 years, they said no, that was not what they were about. ‘We are the Fathers of Baja Med,’ they said. They wanted to create their food clean-slate. No ancestors. Not interested. I was the opposite. I wanted to connect with the foods the Kumeyaay had survived on and created. No outsider had done that before, as far as I knew.”

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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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