Staples of Native American Cuisine

Long before the Mayflower made land in North America, the first peoples were harvesting, hunting, and foraging for a delicious variety of foods. And though our appetite for “ethnic” food jumps from trend to trend, Native American cooking remains largely neglected. While some of us are familiar with fry bread (it’s amazing and the tacos ... oh my), there’s a continent of pre-colonization cuisine to enjoy. Here are ten ingredients to add a bit of Native America heritage to your table.

Squash, Corn, and Beans: The Three Sisters

Corn, squash and beans on table
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We can’t pick a number one, because these three ingredients are so closely entwined and are among the most important domesticated crops across much of Mesoamerica. According to Iroquois legend, the plants were a gift from the Great Spirit.

Planted together, they thrive. Corn provides support for the beans. The beans pull nitrogen into the soil, fertilizing itself and the others. Squash shades the ground, slowing evaporation and keeping weeds down.

Eaten together, they form a nutritious diet, with beans providing protein, corn offering carbohydrates, and squash being rich in vitamins. “Three Sisters Soup” is a popular stew that ties them together in one hearty and healthy bowl. Native American chef Sean Sherman’s “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen” won a 2018 James Beard Award, and has a wonderful version flavored with maple syrup and sage. Try the recipe here.

Bison

A wild bison standing in a field
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Fun fact: Song aside, they’re not actually buffalo. Long ago, an estimated 30 million of these bearded beasts roamed the Great Plains between the Appalachians and the Rockies, and were driven nearly to extinction (less than 1,000) in the 1800s. Native Americans hunted the herds and used everything from hide to hoof, pounding the meat into pemmican (like jerky) to preserve the post-feast protein. Lean and mild, a slow braise brings this cousin of our domesticated cattle to fork-tenderness, while grilling makes for an unsurpassed steak.

Wild Rice

Wild rice in a wooden spoon on a table
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Technically an aquatic grass as opposed to grain, this indigenous plant is referred to as rice because of its similarity to the more familiar white and brown grains. Native to the waterways of the Great Lakes region and Canada, the pseudo-grain also attracted ducks and geese, which were then hunted from the cover of the tall grasses. Called manoomin (“good berry”) by the Ojibwe nation, it has more protein, minerals, and B vitamins than its Asian counterpart.

Berries

Raspberries growing
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Vast varieties of these tart and sweet treats grew in abundance across the continent, providing vitamins and added flavor to the diet of Native Americans. Feasted upon when fresh and dried for out-of-season sustenance, they are an integral component of the cuisine. Golden cloudberries cover the ground in the tundra, sea grapes spring from the sands of the Caribbean, and puckery sour chokeberries (thus the name) flourish in the Eastern swamps.  

Chiles

Pile of chile peppers
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Hot, sweet, green, red — where would almost any cuisine be without beloved capsicum, which originated in Mexico and was one of the earliest crops cultivated in the Americas. European colonizers called them “peppers” for the heat and spiciness that is native to Indian pepper, but these fiery friends were 100% North American before being adopted by the rest of the world. Native Americans enjoy them in a multitude of preparations — drying, frying, and stuffing them into delicious dishes from mild to wild.

Wild Turkey

Group of wild turkeys in a field of grass
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True wild turkeys are native to North America and can actually fly. Early indigenous Americans prized the lean, flavorful meat and featured it in dishes like Wompanoag society favorite Sobaheg, a grits- and seed-thickened artichoke stew often adorned with the Thanksgiving fowl.

Salmon

Salmon swimming up stream
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Wild Pacific salmon were the primary protein source for Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest for millennia, and are still an important part of cuisine and culture today. A traditional salmon bake would find the fish butterflied and boned, woven into a branch basket, and cooked over an open flame. Smoking and salting are still used to preserve the rich and nutritious flesh outside of season. In Native American art, the fish symbolizes prosperity, fertility, and renewal.

Nuts

Acorns on branch
Credit: Epitavi/ iStock

From acorns to pinon, nuts played a vital part in Native American cooking. Calorie-dense, nutrient-packed, and shelf-stable, nut-laden trees across the continent provided an annual bounty for both hunter-gatherer and farming societies. Ground into a fine meal, acorn flour thickens stews and can be baked into breads. Crushed nuts make a fine coating for freshly caught fish, and pecans carry enough sweetness to be a dessert on their own.

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