The Rich History and Flavor of Native American Recipes

Take some time to learn about this country's original foodways and cuisine.

family fry bread
Photo: Allrecipes Magaine

I grew up in the Midwest where Native American foods were sold at events, festivals, restaurants, and street stands: bison burgers, frybread tacos, local greens, and vegetables. As an adult, my family and I planned a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., including the museum's Mitsitam Cafe. I was able to communicate with the museum staff and other Native American food experts to learn more about Native American foods and their history. The museum referred me to additional sources including Sean Sherman, author of The Indigenous Sioux Chef cookbook.

Interactive Dining at the Smithsonian Café

With a food focus, I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Mitsitam Café website, which states they "feature indigenous food from the Western Hemisphere. Each menu reflects the food and cooking techniques from the region featured. Menus are changed with each season to reflect the bounties of that area."

Through the site, I also learned there are five main Native American regions in the Western Hemisphere: Northern Woodlands, Mesoamerica, South America, Northwest Coast, and where I grew up, the Great Plains.

Menu options at the MitsitamCafé include familiar favorites with Native American ingredients from each of the regions: a maple-brined turkey accompanied by chilled corn and heirloom tomatoes, or roasted kohlrabi with a green apple cider reduction. A wild rice and watercress salad and strawberry rhubarb pudding complete meal options. My Great Plains favorite, frybread tacos and bison burgers, are also on the seasonal menus, all with a side of chef interaction.

Get the Cookbook: The Mitsitam Café Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

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Cooking with Native American History

The Smithsonian team referred me to information about their Food History Weekend with a demo by Chef Nico Albert, chef, caterer, and student of Traditional Indigenous Cuisines, sharing a "healthy, simple modern recipe inspired by ingredients indigenous to both the Southeastern homelands and Oklahoma reservations of my people, the Cherokee."

Her Sumac-Crusted Trout recipe makes use of wild greens and sumac harvested near her Oklahoma home, but you can use spinach, kale, or other greens, as well as prepared sumac spice. Chef Albert suggests a side dish of sautéed wild greens and mushrooms.

What Is Sumac?

Sumac, a wild shrub found in North American wooded areas, yields bright red berries with a lemony, earthy flavor. Sumac berries are generally harvested as a spice, and their tart flavoring is ideal as a fish seasoning.

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Duck and Wild Rice Pemmican

In addition to the Sumac-Crusted Trout recipe by Chef Nico Albert, the Smithsonian team also directed me to a recipe featured on the 2018 Food History Weekend: Regions Reimagined with Chef Sean Sherman. The Duck and Wild Rice Pemmican (Mag ̆áksic ̆a na Psíŋ Wasná) features four main ingredients: skin-on duck breasts, maple sugar salt, wind rice, and dried blueberries.

Learn more: Reviving Indigenous Food Cultures

Get the Cookbook: The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen

Cooking Up History at Thanksgiving Celebrations

Roast Duck with Chestnut Stuffing

On the Smithsonian's "Cooking Up History," Thanksgiving is explored further in "Thanksgiving Celebrations and Native American Heritage" With Sur La Table Chef Jordan Carfagno. The episode looks at the questions of: What was served at the first Thanksgiving — and why does today's Thanksgiving table look so different?

Learn more about how Native American Indians and Thanksgiving: Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?

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Sioux Chef Sean Sherman

I was also able to communicate with Chef Sean Sherman, co-author of The Sioux Chef Indigenous Cookbook. He explained that "Native American foods have been with us all along and have never gone away. Native American foods and ingredients exist all around us!" He shared his top Native American spices — cedar, sumac, and culinary wood ash — and favorite recipe for Wild Cedar and Maple Tea.

Learn more with Chef Sean Sherman: The Thanksgiving Tale We Tell is a Harmful Lie. As a Native American, I've Found a Better Way to Celebrate the Holiday

What Is Cedar?

Cedar is a sacred tree, and like sweetgrass and tobacco, it holds a special place in many ceremonies. Cedar is also used to purify homes and as a medicine. The branches can be simmered, and the resulting tea is used to treat fever and rheumatic complaints, chest colds, and flu.

Try Cedar

Cedar-Maple Tea

This brew is delicious warm or cold and is simple to make. Just simmer 2 cups of fresh cedar in 4 cups of boiling water for about 10 minutes until the water becomes a golden color. Strain off the cedar and sweeten with maple syrup, to taste.

From The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley. Copyright 2017 Ghost Dancer, LLC. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

Thanksgiving Celebrations and Native American Heritage

In the November 20: Thanksgiving Celebrations and Native American Heritage Smithsonian event, L'Academie de Cuisine Chef Brian Patterson and Chef Jerome Grant of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian discussed how the first Thanksgiving depended on Native American foodways. They discussed the Wampanoag tribe's fishing and agricultural traditions and examined how their distinctive cooking techniques, ingredients, and flavors sustained the Pilgrims in the face of near starvation shaping the Thanksgiving table.

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Great Plains, Great Bison


Kevin LaHue, chef and culinary educator, shares history and cooking details about buffalo/bison as a Native American food source.

What Is Bison?

Bison, also known as buffalo, is the largest land mammal in North America. Prior to European settlement, millions of bison ranged freely and served as a significant food source and resource for North America's indigenous people until the animals nearly became extinct in the late 19th century.

Bison can be roasted, boiled, broil, or dried like jerky. It's often enjoyed with other local foods, like greens, herbs, onions, and chokeberries. Buffalo milk can also be used for a variety of recipes.

Bison that is 100 percent grass-fed has a lean flavor that is slightly sweet. It's also a great source of protein and is lower in fat than beef. It's also a source of minerals like iron, selenium, and B vitamins.

Learn more: Southern Ute Buffalo & Other Wild Game Cookbook by Marjorie Borst

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Fry Up Some Frybread

Fry Bread Tacos II

Kevin LeHue, chef and culinary educator, also filled me in on details about my childhood favorite frybread. I learned more about its history and functionality.

What Is Frybread?

Many countries and culinary traditions have a version of frybread, and many predate Native American versions. Frybread dates to the era of tribal relocations, when Native Americans were moved from their lands and given sub-par government food rations. Common ingredients include self-rising flour, milk, and sugar. Those are turned into a batter and then fried.

Frybread is also used in other dishes, like the Navaho taco. It can be used as a base for beans, stewed meats, chili, and more. Sweet frybreads can be dessert when topped with powdered sugar, honey, berries, or fruit.

Get the Cookbook: Frybread – Past, Present and Future by Glenn Miller

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