In Pascua Yaqui spiritual beliefs the Sea Ania is the Flower World, one of five spiritual realms, and is considered both “the living beautiful part of our present world” and “the final resting place in heaven for the Yaqui people.” These teachings come from Maria L. Molina (Pascua Yaqui) who explicated the Yaqui worldview in a 2010 handout available to visitors at the tribe’s library, where her daughter Amalia Amacio Molina Reyes serves as supervisor. Flowers as expressions of beauty and holiness permeate Yaqui artwork and cultural and religious symbols; and the Yaquis, especially Maria and Amalia, are known for their hand-crafted crepe-paper flowers that colorfully festoon the tribe’s churches on Easter.
So when a slice of lotus root looking like one of Matisse’s cutouts adorned the first plate of a once-in-a lifetime, special off-the-menu culinary adventure at Ume, the Asian restaurant/sushi bar in the tribe’s elegant Tucson, Arizona resort Casino del Sol, this thought bloomed: Chef Xander Cameron, though not Yaqui himself, is a chef who knows both where he is and why he’s there—to feed people beautifully and make culinary art that inspires.
“I thought about the flow of the flavors, how I would like to eat it,” Cameron said about his ordering of the dishes presented over the five hours in which he cooked, I ate, and we talked about his two simultaneous translations: the transformation of traditional Southeast Asian and Japanese dishes into meatless versions, and the expression of Yaqui values of creativity and beauty in non-Native culinary art.
First Course: King Trumpet Larb
“Larb means mince,” explained Cameron about the traditional meat salad of Laos.
His version combines white, meaty king trumpet mushrooms with toasted crispy rice, black peppercorn, vegetable stock, light soy sauce spiced up with garlic, onions and capers and his own vegan “fish” sauce.
“What tastes like fish? Seaweed, of course,” he explained. He uses nori or wakame “to bring the sea in.”
The sea, especially the big flood, figures prominently in the Yaqui creation story as a defining moment—the Surem, as the ancestors were called, had to choose whether to remain on land and become mortal beings, or enter the great waves and become fish, seals and whales that travel the ocean to this day.
Second Course: Coconut Curry
The second dish was as much a surprise as the opener had been a delight because it featured baby corn, which comes in cans, and is so contrary to Cameron’s previous emphasis on fresh local ingredients.
“I love baby corn for its appearance and texture,” he said without apology. “It should be a vegetarian delicacy.”
To rid it of all traces of the can taste Cameron ferments the baby corn, as he would cabbage, with salt, onion and garlic. To embellish it with some acidity, he accelerates the fermentation process with homemade sauerkraut.
“The coconut cream makes it smooth and creamy, and I dust the plate with kaffir lime leaf powder,” he said.
Its fragrance is intoxicating. The yeka or nose is a prominent feature of Yaqui ritual masks, and are usually long and sharp.
“We eat with our eyes and our nose,” he said with a smile. “Smelling and eating at the same can accentuate tasting. If you’re tasting exactly what you’re smelling, it gets exciting, it makes you happy.”
Third Course: Vegetable Spring Roll
“Whenever I go to a new Asian restaurant I always get the fresh spring roll,” Cameron said, setting down a plate with three bites atop a rich satay sauce, thick with small nibs of toasted peanuts.
He loves the dish for the tamarind juice and what he called “all the usual suspects” rolled inside the rice wrap. His delectable version includes chili, fine herbs, carrots, snow peas and sweet soy sauce, garnished with crispy rice noodles.
Fourth Course: Shredded Potato Salad
It’s not really recognizable as a potato because he shreds and quickly blanches it, so it retains some of the chomp of its raw state. Compiled with carrot and cilantro, it sits prettily formed on an island of pea puree. He cautioned me to remove some of the finely julienned chili threads, an abundance of which were added for the sake of presentation. These evoke the red scarves tied around the deer antler headdresses used in the ritual Deer Dances.
Fifth Course: Sushi Trio
While all three varieties in this course would fall under the heading of sushi, each was a distinct cameo. The first was a color wheel of beet, carrot, asparagus and daikon; the second featured an oyster mushroom bursting the pink rice roll’s contours, just as its chili burst open on the tongue; and the third was an imitation of something familiar that surpasses the original—a Philadelphia roll wrought more delicately, with the “cream cheese” made of macadamias and the “smoked salmon” ingeniously devised from carrot strips marinated in liquid smoke.
The green on the rice is deliberate, the result of a chlorophyll infusion extracted from spinach. “Actually it’s a double extraction, because I wanted a bright green,” Cameron added.
The usual ginger and wasabi were replaced by a “hollandaise sauce” made from turmeric powder, sulphur salt (to give it that eggy flavor), lemon juice and cashew cream.
Sixth Course: Agedashi Tofu
“This is one of my favorite dishes,” said Cameron, who has traveled extensively in Japan where it’s been prepared for at least 200 years. “It’s delicious for its richness and fat, which is hard to do in Asian cuisine.”
His version looks like a landscape of a snow-capped mountain in a rocky terrain, the kind of brushed ink image that might unfurl from a rice paper scroll. In this case the boulders are of chopped shiitake mushroom floating in a dashi broth of konbu, which is Japanese kelp, and soy, scallion, ginger and sugar. The mountain is of silken tofu dipped in potato starch and deep-fried to square it. There is nori on the top with scallion and shiso (Japanese basil) and shaved daikon “snow,” inspired by snow-capped Mount Lemmon, only an hour away from tribal lands.
Seventh Course: Soba Noodle
Black, white and green sesame seeds were sprinkled liberally on soba noodles tossed with pickled carrots, blanched bok choy, micro greens and nori strips, set atop tributaries of sesame vinaigrette dressing.
The challenge in this dish was in the salting. “There’s a fine line between perfect, under or over,” he advised.
Seeds, which also appeared in the sushi course, are crucial to Yaqui values and survival. Well before contact with the Spanish, the Yaquis fed their people by growing maize, beans, calabashes, and amaranth seeds (which is a grain).
Eighth Course: Kimchee Croquette
“My brother came up with the idea for kimchee mashed potatoes,” Cameron recalled, “and it sounded fantastic, so I thought, why not a croquette?”
The accompanying slaw has its own sesame dressing made of tahini, cashew, aloe water, garlic, salt and lemon juice. The red sauce around the bottom is a vegan version of the Korean sauce for bibimbap.
“I build the sauce around the dish. The sauce has got to be in the background,” Cameron instructed, “to lightly complement what you’re eating. The focus is meant to be on the croquette.”
Ninth Course: Crispy Rice Lettuce Wrap
“There’s a dish in Lao culture called Nam Khao. You form rice in balls and fry them, then break the rice ball into the salad,” Cameron explained. “That’s what I did here and added kelp noodles for a squishy texture.”
The lettuce wrap is served in a minted yuzu cucumber gazpacho, made with ginger, scallion oil, and bell peppers, dusted with toasted rice, finely ground.
This dish evokes the terrain of much of the Yaqui homelands, and also the Huya Ania or Wilderness World, one of the five spiritual worlds, which according to Maria Molina is said to be “foothill country, heavily wooded, with low trees and the low lying shrubs.”
Tenth Course: Coconut Sticky Rice
A few bites of sweetness were presented in the form of a small flattened pyramid of sticky rice dotted throughout with bites of firm mango, all in coconut milk.
Liohbwana (thank you in Yaqui language) to the whole Pascua Yaqui Tribe for the life changing gift of being on Yaqui homelands, meeting Xander Cameron, experiencing his culinary artistry, and through it, perhaps gaining a glimpse of the kind of flowering world available to the Yaquis in the Sea Ania.
Special menus of all kinds are available upon request in advance of your visit to Ume.