For most cultures, their cuisine is as much a representation of who they are as the various customs or holidays that they celebrate. And one often-overlooked culinary niche is that of Native Americans. In truth, even just saying “Native American foods” is a blanket statement, since there are 573 federally recognized Native American nations within the United States. While there might be similarities between some nations, it’s important to remember that each collective has its own language, traditions, and cultures.
And when we talk about food, many Native American nations had their “traditional” cuisine shifted because of interference and relocation efforts from the U.S. government over the years. Often, when nations were relocated onto reservations, it wasn’t always the choicest of land options. So, growing and raising food independently to serve their community was a difficult task. As a result, many nations were placed on public assistance and received food from the government. But people are resilient and learned to create dishes that still reflected their culture—and were tasty too. But that doesn’t mean you should skip out on the chance to eat Native American cuisine if you have the opportunity.
Fried Green Tomatoes (Cherokee)
You might have thought that there’s nothing more Southern than a plate of fried green tomatoes, right? Well, it turns out that this tasty dish was first created by the Cherokee nation who originally lived in the American South before their forced relocation on the Trail of Tears. For the curious, you can thank the Cherokee for other “traditionally Southern” eats like cornbread and hoecakes. As a side note, some people also credit the Seminole nation for inventing fried green tomatoes.
Fried green tomatoes are pretty easy to make—as long as you pay attention to your heat and don’t wander away from the stove. To master the dish, pick firmer green tomatoes, be sure to salt them before cooking, and blot the excess water after 10 minutes. While you might think this step is optional, it’ll ensure that your tomatoes won’t be a soggy mess when you’re done. Coat the tomatoes in cornmeal (or your choice of seasoning-flour mix) and fry until golden brown on both sides.
Three Sisters Soup (Haudenosaunee-Iroquois)
The “Three Sisters” is a legend that explains how Turtle Island, or North America, came to be. One of the end results of the story is the creation of the titular three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. It’s important to note that these three ingredients are staples across a number of Native American cultures. In the past, these crops were planted together on one plot of land because they complement each other rather than siphon off resources from each other as they grow.
As a meal, Three Sisters soup features the key ingredients of corn, beans, and squash. More importantly, this recipe is fairly easy to replicate on your own as you simply combine hominy (corn), beans, squash, potatoes, and chicken bouillon in water and cook until tender. Then you create a roux and combine into the simmering vegetables and season to taste.
Remember how we mentioned that some dishes are a result of government interference? Frybread, as tasty as it is, is one such dish. The earliest sources claim that frybread began to pop up in Navajo cuisine when the nation was relocated by the U.S. government in 1864. The Navajo were forced to relocate to land that was less suitable for farming. As a result, the government provided rations that included flour, sugar, salt, and lard.
Frybread is a tasty yet thick variation of flat dough bread. It was originally made by combining sugar, salt, and flour and frying it in lard. The recipe is simple, making it easy enough for anyone to replicate. Also, the lard has been replaced with shortening or oil these days. You can eat frybread by itself or add toppings. A popular dish that incorporates frybread is the Navajo Taco, an open-faced taco complete with meat, beans, cheese, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes.
This lima bean-based dish is yet another recipe that’s credited to more than one Native American nation. Some references list the Cherokee nation as the originators, but others push its origins back to the first Thanksgiving and the Narragansett nation. The name succotash is derived from the Narragansett word sohquttahhash which translates to ”broken corn kernels.” As the story goes, the Narragansett introduced the dish to the struggling settlers, and it has lived on since then. Succotash fell in mainstream popularity until the Great Depression because it was cheap and easy to make. Usually, succotash has a mix of various vegetables and is often cooked in bacon fat to give it a savory edge. However, many people include various cuts of meat.