‘Indigenous People Are Still Here’

Chef Andrea Murdoch highlights Andean Venezuelan roots through food

All photos by Jeff Swensen

Chef Andrea Murdoch describes herself as living in multiple worlds — a woman in a man’s world, a person of color in a white world, and an indigenous person in a colonized world.

“I am actually an adopted Venezuelan,” Murdoch, 33, said. “My father was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. My mom was with him when they were in Latin America, and they got me out of an orphanage in Venezuela. My indigenous side is from the San Cristobal region, which is the far west side of Venezuela.”

Through her catering company, Denver-based Four Directions Cuisine, Murdoch combines those multiple worlds to create dishes that celebrate her background and other indigenous cultures.

Four Directions, she said, is a symbol of her Andean Venezuelan roots and stands for the four-sided Inca cross that she carries around her neck. It also represents the four main pillars of her business: to source ingredients indigenously, purchase goods from local vendors, educate others on indigenous culture, and partake in community service and social justice efforts.

By using ingredients from her Andean roots, like quinoa and amaranth, or sourcing from other native tribes, she tells a different story in every dish.

“I like to bridge the gap between North America, Central America, and South America,” Murdoch said. “A lot of people don’t understand how expansive indigenous cuisine actually is. They are blown away when I tell them that tomatoes and potatoes originated in the Andes.…They made their way to other countries through ancient trade grounds in colonization.”

Potatoes are often the star of Murdoch’s dishes. There are more than 4,000 different varieties grown in the Andean highlands.

“I’m obsessed with potatoes,” she said. “Which I find endlessly ironic considering my mother is the daughter of a Polish potato farmer.”

‘You drive all over the United States and you see Italian restaurant after Italian restaurant, fast food after fast food, Thai after Thai. In Denver, I can name three or four Ethiopian restaurants even, but here in America, where are the Native American or indigenous restaurants?’

In a six-course pop-up dinner in early October at Community Kitchen in Pittsburgh, appropriately named “Multiple Worlds Dinner,” Murdoch showed off her affinity for spuds in an Andean potato soup. It was creamy with a punch of peppery goodness. She topped it with a purple potato chip and a maple pickled quail egg — a little floating gem of sour and sweet that balanced the kick of the soup.

She chose this garnish because quail is a pre-colonial animal, and it is one of the game birds that would have been hunted by tribes native to Pennsylvania.

“There are some classic European techniques that I use, but the majority of the ingredients are actually pre-colonial.”

This included her “welcome bite,” called Inca Trail Mix, which featured ingredients exclusively from South America: popped amaranth, roasted quinoa, pepitas, and dried blueberries.

She originally developed the Inca Trail Mix for a friend in the Army who was preparing for a Mission 22 fundraiser run. “I couldn’t participate, she said. “But I donated the trail mix with the story that Inca soldiers took quinoa with them for sustenance.”

Murdoch’s “Four Directions Plate” — which featured a root vegetable medley, Sonoran wheat berries from Ramona Farms (an O’dham tribe farm), duck, and a cider pan sauce — told another tale.

“This was one of the first dishes that I developed when I originally opened this business back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin,” she said. “Even though wheat is not an indigenous product, Native Americans got the wheat berries and turned it into one of their main crops.”

The vegetables and wheat berries are placed in an “X” to represent the four directions of the Chakana cross.

“The center of the cross is open for the sun to get through,” she said, “as Incas believe life comes from Inti, the sun god.”

The duck, she said, is placed in the middle to honor its life, much like the life force from the sun passing through the cross.

Through these ingredients and her cooking, Murdoch connects to her heritage — a process she describes as therapeutic.

“I always had a deep appreciation for food, and I thought that it was the coolest thing to take raw ingredients and turn them into a beautiful and delicious finished dish,” she said. “But I did not realize that the path that I am intended to walk in this life was an indigenous chef until I was going through a life-changing experience of divorce.”

After an emotionally challenging marriage, Murdoch said that her divorce forced her to “press the reset button” on her life.

Toward the end of her marriage in 2015, she began putting together a business plan for a restaurant based on South American cuisine.

“The more work I did on it, the more research that I did, I found myself gravitating more towards my indigenous roots,” Murdoch said.

She began reaching out to North American tribes to learn more about their culture — like Oneida Nation in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“The folks there and in many tribal nations that I’ve talked to are very happy to share their indigenous knowledge with me as another indigenous person and somebody who is working with indigenous foods,” she said. “Those were incredibly healing and productive conversations to have because I felt like I had a secondary home in this very particular cultural community. It spurred on. It fueled the fire for me to learn more about myself and my culture and what my ancestors experienced.”

Not five months after her divorce, she packed up everything she had, moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Denver and reopened Four Directions Cuisine in her new home. Today, she hosts lectures, private events, cooking classes, and demonstrations, all with the goal of sharing her craft and educating others on indigenous culture.

“One of the biggest takeaways that I hope people have is that we as indigenous people are still here. We have an entire culture and history of cuisine, all of which are valid and legitimate,” she said. “You drive all over the United States and you see Italian restaurant after Italian restaurant, fast food after fast food, Thai after Thai. In Denver, I can name three or four Ethiopian restaurants even, but here in America, where are the Native American or indigenous restaurants?”

The seeds of indigenous foods and plants are what sprouted her new life of discovering her past, and she honors them daily.

“There is definitely a lot of connection with the ingredients,” Murdoch said. “I might not necessarily do it all the time, but sometimes I talk to the ingredients. More often, though, I’ll talk to plants while I’m foraging.”

On the mantel above her fireplace at home, she has an altar set up and adorned with native medicine bundles.

“I have a bundle of sage from North America and a stick of palo santo wood from South America,” she said. “I have a little plate with ingredients from South America as well…quinoa and amaranth that grows in the Andes, cocoa shells from cocoa that grows in the rainforest.”

Her right arm is sleeved in tattoos: a split cocoa bean, heritage corn, a purple potato, a vanilla bean and its flower, a coffee plant, and amaranth and quinoa from the Andes. The biggest component is on the inside of her upper arm — the Moray Inca ruins — the site of some of the most important experimental farming for the Incas.

“It’s a form of identity for me,” Murdoch said. “I just look at my tattoo and remind myself where my roots are and how strong and resilient I am, and by proxy my ancestors.”

Francesca Dabecco is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer who is passionate about stories and strives to tell them in the most interesting, innovative, and inspiring formats.

Freelance journalist with a knack for stories about food, culture, activism and sustainability. plant eater. brain tumor survivor.

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