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  • Writer's pictureChef Kelly Unger

Indigenous Cuisine

Native American cuisine is the ultimate in hyper local cuisine. Native tribes are numerous and of course span the various growing climates of America and elsewhere. Their diets are dependent on what was naturally growing on the land where they lived and what could grow in their natural, unadulterated climate, as some tribes also cultivated crops. Seeds were used as currency, trading seeds for other useful items. Native tribes were curious about what other tribes were growing. For our purposes, I'll be sharing recipes for the foods we can find in our area.

Let me give you a short list of some Native American ingredients to give you an idea of the flavors enjoyed. This is a list of popular ingredients and is by no means comprehensive:

Acorn meal, agave nectar, Alaskan King salmon, amaranth, anaheim chilies, arrowroot, Aztec beans, banana leaves, bison, blue cornmeal, cactus paddles (nopales), cedar berries, cedar needles or leaf tips, cherrystone clams, chokecherry preserves, cholla buds, corn, cranberries, cranberry beans, culinary ash, dandelion leaves, Dungeness crab, fiddlehead ferns, figs, hearts of palm, hominy, Indian Summer corn, jicama, juneberries, juniper berries, manoomin, Mexican oregano, mustard greens, Navajo-Churro lamb, Navajo steam corn, pemmican, plantains, preserved lemon, prickly pear, Quahog clams, queso fresco, ramps, sablefish, saguaro seeds, Saskatoon berries, sumac powder, sunchokes, tepary beans, walleye, watercress, zephyr squash. summer berries, cranberries, sea salt, smoked salt, maple sugar, honey, maple vinegar (sour sap), duck and quail eggs, sunflower oil, hazelnut oil, pumpkin seed oil, rendered fat from duck and goose, herbs (sage, bay leaf, bergamot, rose hips, sorrel, mint, mustard), mushrooms, summer and winter squash, apples, sunflower seeds, chestnuts, sweet potato, elk, duck, quail, timpsula roots.

Manoomin, listed above, is the original wild rice, found growing in lake sides and harvested by canoe at a specific time of year. The seed heads would be bent into the canoe and tapped on to release the rice. The “wild rice” we see in grocery stores today is obviously the cultivated variety of this original plant. This type of rice is high in protein, bone building phosphorus, fiber, vitamins and helps reduce inflammation. Wild rice was an important part of the Native American diet where the rice was able to grow.

Corn was also a critical part of many tribe’s diets. And corn is a great example of a cultivated crop that required human tampering and also requires humans to keep going. Teosinte was the origin plant of the corn we love today. It was grown in Mexico and the seeds and heads were the size of wheat, very small seeds. Through some genius natural plant work, native tribes turned tiny, hard seeds into tall green plants with fat juicy and delicious kernels for a whole new flavor and set of nutrition. Along the way they also created fat hard, dry kernels whose best use is for grinding into flour for a whole new set of uses. Genius! Absolutely genius! As a person who adores corn, I am so grateful to these native tribes who not only created modern corn in all its forms but kept it alive for us to enjoy and pass along.

Currently I’m teaching a cooking class titled Indigenous Cuisine for Modern Times. Our menu for this class is Samp topped with Sage Roasted Chicken, Squash, and Sauteed Mushrooms & Pompion Pie with Apples. Samp is coarsely ground corn. In other words, coarsely ground grits. I use Castle Valley Mill's Bloody Butcher grits. These grits require a 3 to 1 ratio - for every 1 cup of grits you need 3 cups of water. No milk is used so you taste all the flavor this heirloom corn has to offer. It's so delicious! You can find these grits at our Doylestown Acme at the end of the coffee and tea aisle, across from the deli, in a stand alone refrigerator case. Keep them in the fridge once you get them home. They are not shelf stable. In my class we are topping a bowl of Samp with some roasted chicken and sauted mushrooms and roasted squash. Traditionally this would have been made with turkey. It's such a delicious flavor combination.

Many native tribes also braised their beans with a piece of a cedar branch. The cedar improves digestion of the beans and helps your immune system, as well as adding flavor. I love this kind of wisdom.

Here are two Indigenous cuisine cookbooks that I love and use as my reference and guide: The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman,

New Native Kitchen by Chef Freddie Bitsoie.

For more interesting information, visit Chef Sean Sherman’s website:

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