For a cuisine that originated in North America and has been around for thousands of years, Native American foods seem surprisingly exotic to the average American diner. “I call this food ‘ironically foreign,’ because it’s the food that grows right under our feet and is everywhere around us,” says Dana Thompson, co-owner and COO of The Sioux Chef, an indigenous food education and culinary team led by chef Sean Sherman.
But with the rise of foodie culture and consumers’ interest in healthy, more sustainable options, Native American cuisine is slowly becoming more prevalent in the limited-service segment. But that doesn’t make it any easier to define.
Generally speaking, native cuisine is often identified by ingredients that were present in North America before the era of colonialism. This includes everything from the “three sisters”—corn, squash, and beans—to any number of vegetables, berries, seeds, and wild game such as turkey, bison, and rabbit. What it doesn’t include, in the most traditional sense, are items like wheat flour, beef, chicken, dairy, and refined sugar—all of which traveled to North America alongside the Europeans.
But to lump it together this way does indigenous cuisine a disservice, as the traditional dishes and ingredients used can vary widely from region to region or tribe to tribe. And with more than 560 recognized tribes in the U.S. alone, there’s a lot of variety.
“The foods of the Pacific Northwest are obviously going to be really different from the foods of Arizona, Mexico, or the Southeast,” Thompson says. “In every different region all over North America, there’s really specific, super-delicious, and nutritionally dense foods—from manzanita berries in California to acorn flour across the middle of the country.”
The Sioux Chef’s concepts include a nonprofit organization, indigenous food lab, a soon-to-open full-service concept, and, formerly, a food truck. Each focuses on the foods of the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes from the Northern Plains region. When Thompson and Sherman were operating the Tatanka Truck, its indigenous tacos—made with heirloom corn flour seasoned in juniper ash and fried in sunflower oil, then topped with beans, smoked turkey, fried sage, and toasted pumpkin or squash seeds—were the most popular dish on the menu that reflected the Northern Plains region.
Cactus and wild onions remain a staple of the Southwest region, which spans from California to New Mexico and Colorado. Ben Jacobs and Matt Chandra are bringing this cuisine to the masses at Denver-based Tocabe, a fast casual whose menu is inspired by the Osage and other tribes in the area. The lineup at Tocabe includes Indian Tacos, Wheatberry Posu Bowls, sauces like the Osage Hominy Salsa, and proteins such as braised organic turkey and the much-loved bison ribs. The latter are dry-cured for 24 hours, then seared and slow-braised in bison stock.
Chef Freddie Bitsoie and his team at Mitsitam Café (located in the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.) are well-versed in the regional variations of native cuisine. That’s because the café is broken up into five regions from across the Western Hemisphere, with both traditional and modern dishes featuring ingredients from each geographical area.
“The technique of the food is done to reflect the native tribes—things that I’ve researched as far as food preparation or things that I know personally from growing up,” says Bitsoie, whose family is of Navajo descent.
Dishes at Mitsitam (which means “let’s eat” in the language of the Delaware and Piscataway) include Buffalo Chili from the Great Plains, Seafood Posole from Mesoamerica, Clam Soup from the Northern Woodlands, Wild Rice Salad from the Northwest Coast, and Ceviche from South America.
But despite the variety of ingredients across native regions and tribes, much of indigenous cuisine has something crucial in common: healthfulness. Many native dishes are plant-based, nutritionally dense, and full of protein. They often feature meats that are wild or naturally raised.
However, just as with any other cuisine, native cooking does have some not-so-good-for-you dishes, most notably (and most popularly) fry bread. Made from dough that’s deep fried in oil or lard, the dish bears the brunt of the blame for the native community’s modern-day challenges with obesity and diabetes. And for good reason: One pancake-sized serving alone can contain upward of 500 calories.
“Yes, we do the fry bread,” Jacobs says. “But if you’re going to have a piece of fry bread, then let’s put a really high-quality protein on it. Let’s put on vegetables that we’ve brought in house, that we’ve washed, we’ve cleaned, we’ve cut, we’ve sourced, and we know where they’re coming from.”
Dishes like fry bread notwithstanding, native cuisine continues to have a health halo associated with it, due in part to its sustainable sourcing practices. “The Native American perspective of food gathering all across the world was that they pictured themselves to be stewards of the land,” Thompson says. “The colonial perspective is to come in and take resources and profit from them, but Native Americans didn’t think that way at all.”
In fact, Native American tribes continue to leave food for the animals, reseed any crops they’re harvesting, and only take what they can eat—and never any more. At the same time, these groups will follow eco-friendly practices like composting, Bitsoie says.
Though the cuisine still has a long way to go in reaching mainstream status, those within the niche expect it to rapidly gain greater acceptance. “The amount of native eateries has doubled, maybe even tripled since 10 years ago,” Bitsoie says. “Native food will be twice as popular in half the time as it took in the past 10 years.”