Native American cuisine has a long history in the United States, much longer than any of the dishes we call American these days (including American breakfasts). Yet Native American foods are historically misunderstood and ignored. We pay much more attention to foods from almost every other part of the world than from North American ones.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is that we’re not taught much about where our food comes from. So, we don’t have a background knowledge of how Native American foods have influenced modern dishes or just how much of our current cuisine has its roots in Native American foods.
This history of food is also complicated, as staples and similar dishes are often found in multiple parts of the world and some of the patterns have been lost to time. Nevertheless, there’s plenty that we do know, including the foods on this list.
Some of these foods are wild plants, ones indigenous to America, but there are also cultivated crops and entire dishes that we still eat today. Modern versions of Native American dishes do often have their own European twists and impacts, but they still strongly retain their Native American roots.
Wild rice isn’t actually rice at all. It’s a completely different type of grain that traditionally grows in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Northern Minnesota. It has historically been hand harvested and continues to be so in many places.
What’s more, wild rice is a versatile ingredient. It can be used in any number of dishes, either on its own or combined with rice, quinoa, or similar ingredients.
Wild rice is interesting as it functions like regular rice in recipes, but is nutritious and is a decent source of protein. It also works well with many ingredients, including mushrooms and even cranberries.
Fry bread is one of the few Native American dishes that remains popular these days. It was developed after colonization, at a time when displaced Native Americans were issued specific foods and did not have access to their native lands.
Because many of their traditional dishes were no longer realistic, Native Americans needed to find new approaches and fry bread was one of these.
The dish’s history makes it troubling for many Native Americans, so it’s one that some choose to ignore entirely. Others have reclaimed the idea or don’t find it problematic, so they continue to serve fry bread at social gatherings. It’s also a dish you’ll find in many other situations and an excellent one to try for yourself.
Fry bread can also be used to create a riff on tacos, where it is filled with meat and veggies. This dish is sometimes known as Indian tacos or Navajo tacos, although it isn’t as authentic as fry bread on its own. Fry bread is also an excellent side for chili and many other meals.
Not surprisingly, Native American dishes often relied on buffalo. The meat offers more protein than beef, along with less fat and plenty of nutrients.
One traditional dish that relied on buffalo was Wasna, which also goes by the name pemmican. This includes dried buffalo meat, fat, and dried berries. The ingredients were ground together to create a sustainable source of protein, one that is still sometimes used today.
Of course, this was just one way to use buffalo meat. There were many other dishes, including simply eating buffalo steak. The meat was also cured to create buffalo jerky. Doing so was an important practice, as killing buffalo provided a large amount of meat that would not last long. Curing the meat was the best way to ensure that nothing was wasted.
Avocados aren’t the result of colonization. They were cultivated in Central America and Mexico, long before the European world ever got a look in.
It’s easy to forget such history these days, especially as avocado seems like a trendy ingredient. But, many generations have been there and done that already – using avocados in both familiar and distinct ways.
Like avocados, quinoa has been trending as a modern health food. It also has a long history, as a grain that Native Americans relied on extensively. This isn’t surprising either, as quinoa contains more protein than most grains.
Native Americans even toasted quinoa seeds, ground them, and used them to make bread. The leaves of quinoa were sometimes used too, such as being added into soups and stews along with the grains.
While we normally see cornbread as a modern invention, Native Americans had their own version. Theirs was much simpler, using a combination of cornmeal and water that were mixed and then baked.
This version of cornbread ended up denser than modern versions, which isn’t surprising, as it didn’t rely on the ingredients we use today, like milk and eggs.
Still, the modern version wouldn’t exist without Native Americans. They even introduced the dish to settlers, who started to make it themselves and tweaked the recipe as time went on.
The Three Sisters – Corn, Beans, And Squash
The ‘three sisters’ consist of corn, beans, and squash. These dissimilar ingredients are often lumped together because they’re the most significant North American native crops. What’s more, these three were traditionally planted together, as each crop helps the others to thrive.
Corn, beans, and squash also complement each other nutritionally. The combination of these three in the same meal provides a wide selection of nutrients, protein, and important fatty acids.
Each of these crops has become a critical part of modern cuisine, adding structure, flavor, and nutrients to many of our meals.
Corn has a particularly strong place in our history. The traditional name is maize, which you’ll still see from time to time, while corn is the European name instead.
What’s more, corn wasn’t just used as corn on its own. Early cultures created flour from it, allowing them to create foods like tamales and tortillas, ones that we still regularly enjoy today.
We can’t forget beans either. They’re a fantastic source of protein and perfect for times when meat is scarce.
Tomatoes And Tomatillos
Tomatillos are a form of green tomatoes that have a strong role in Mexican cuisine. They were originally domesticated back in 800 BC by the Aztecs and have since spread throughout the world.
Tomatoes too have their roots in Central America and South America. They were regular cooking ingredients in Mexico, long before the country was colonized. Tomatoes were used in traditional recipes and also ones that used a combination of pre- and post-colonization ingredients.
Like many items on this list, tomatoes are so common these days that it’s easy to miss their traditional roots.
Tepary beans aren’t as famous as some of the other items on this list, but these small flat beans are still used in some parts of the United States and by native communities. Like most beans, these are an excellent source of protein and fiber, which makes them a perfect source of sustenance.
That’s not all.
Tepary beans are notable for being tolerant to drought and heat. This allows them to survive in conditions where other beans would fail.
In modern times, the beans can be used in familiar dishes, like making baked beans, a bean salad, or chili. They also feature in protein bowls, which leads to a very filling meal.
Maple syrup was never an invention of colonizers. Instead, Native Americans were creating maple syrup for a long time beforehand. The first written mention of maple syrup dates the process back to 1609 and it’s likely that native Americans were harvesting from maple trees long before this.
However, the Native American approach was quite different than the one we see today. Dried maple sugar was created much more often than maple syrup. This isn’t surprising, as maple sugar weighs less than maple syrup and is much easier to transport.
Ah, sweet potatoes. They’re tasty, delicious, and have a long history in Native America. Sweet potatoes are also well-traveled, as DNA evidence suggests that the sweet potato made it all the way to Polynesia long before Columbus ever visited the Americas.
We can’t forget about the humble potato either. Many varieties of wild potato thrived in America long before colonization. However, like sweet potatoes, wild potatoes weren’t always found in North America. Some evidence suggests that they initially came from Peru and were introduced to many places from there.
The modern potato was also introduced separately, so it’s easy to forget that some versions of the tuber were enjoyed much earlier in American history.
Then there are peppers. These are an important type of Native American cuisine that indigenous people introduced to the settlers. We’re not just talking about fresh peppers either, as smoked jalapenos and dried poblanos have their origins Native American culture as well.
It goes without saying that these ingredients have made waves in modern cuisine. They now feature in countless dishes, providing extra flavor and color.
Berries featured heavily in Native American diets. Some of these are familiar and remain popular today, like blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and cranberries. In fact, some of these types of berries are now cultivated throughout the world.
Other types of berries are less well-known these days, such as serviceberries, buffalo berries, and chokeberries. However, each type provided valuable nutrients and phytochemicals for the Native American people.
While the berries were often eaten fresh, they were also used in other ways, such as ingredients in desserts, jam, and even tea.
Amaranth is seeing a modern revival, as part of the same superfood movement that has put quinoa back on the map. Both products are considered pseudocereals, which means that they’re used much like cereal crops, even though they’re seeds instead.
Like quinoa, amaranth has a long history. It was particularly significant in South America, in the Andes region and was controversial among colonizers due to its ceremonial role.
There are more than 100 different species of wild amaranth, which were often harvested for their seeds or their leaves. Some species were even used as a natural food dye.
Fish And Meat
Not surprisingly, many types of fish and meat played important roles in Native American cuisine as well. They’re an incredibly valuable source of protein and nutrients.
Which types of meat and fish Native Americans focused on was strongly influenced by their location. Those that lived near water were more likely to focus on seafood, particularly salmon, creating versions of dishes that we’re familiar with today – like salmon cooked on cedar logs over coals.
Other groups of Native Americans needed to rely more heavily on meat instead. This included not just buffalo, but also deer, caribou, elk, rabbit, geese, and turkey. Meat was frequently roasted, used in strews, or dried to make it last longer.
Who can deny the importance of mushrooms? They provide a rich earthy flavor to many dishes and combine well with plenty of ingredients. It’s not surprising that they feature heavily in North American cuisine as well.
Of course, it’s not just meals that feature mushrooms. Plants were often used in religious ceremonies as well, particularly psychoactive mushrooms.
We’ve already talked about berries, but cranberries deserve a special mention. These were especially popular in the Northeast. Cranberries were particularly common as ingredients – used either fresh or dried in a variety of dishes to provide extra flavor.
Cranberries often featured in pemmican, which was a high calorie dish made using dried meat, tallow, and dried berries. Pemmican functioned much like modern protein bars, providing both Native Americans and Europeans a long lasting and high energy food.
While pemmican isn’t incredibly well-known, it is still made by some Native American tribes. There are also companies that produce pemmican or pemmican-like foods
Acorns played a surprisingly big role for some native Americans, particularly those living in Southern California. Here, acorn meal was used in a variety of dishes, including acorn bread and soup.
Not only did acorns function as an excellent source of carbs, but in the right location they were also easy to harvest in abundance. However, the created acorn meal needed to be leached with water multiple times before use. Doing so made the acorns safe to eat and dramatically reduced bitterness.
Modern recipes for acorn bread are often quite different from than Native American version, as post-colonial ingredients like sugar are now found in the mix too.
Grits are another dish with a surprising history. The meal is based on a thick Muskogee ground corn dish, which was introduced to the Europeans.
However, grits become most significant in the South after colonization, as it became a frequently prepared dish by Southern slaves. The meal is still regularly enjoyed in the South today, although there are now more variations of it than ever before.
Herbs And Spices
Finally, we must mention herbs. Like many cultures, Native Americans relied on a variety of herbs and spices to flavor their foods. Cedar, sage, allspice, vanilla, sumac, and pepper are particularly significant, although plenty of others have been used as well.
Some of these herbs and spices also had other uses, such as featuring in traditional medicine or being used to create herbal teas. In fact, sage, cedar, sweetgrass, and tobacco were sacred herbs for Native Americans and were relevant to a variety of traditional ceremonies.