A Renaissance of Indigenous Foods
Spurred by the tasty efforts of Native chefs like Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), a.k.a. The Sioux Chef, Indigenous dishes are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Also: Watch a video of our "Native Peoples" editor making The Sioux Chef's recipe for Duck & Wild Rice Pemmican, exclusively on our digital app.
Chef Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), aka The Sioux Chef. Photo by Heidi Ehalt.
In the early 1990s, when my son, Clay, and I were in the process of opening the Corn Dance Café in Santa Fe with the plan to serve only pre-contact Native American foods, we were faced with the multifaceted dilemma of what foods to serve, from which tribal groups, and where to get the ingredients.
We had a story to tell with this “first of its kind” restaurant. The story was, and still is, the amazing bounty of foods that were in the Americas before we were “discovered.”
The Corn Dance opened and enjoyed a thrilling 10-year run; but, after that, the Native foods movement seemed to go on hiatus. The only time of year our foods and dishes seemed to be in demand was around Thanksgiving.
Fast-forward to today, and I see an exciting renaissance of Indigenous foods. Whether it’s a trend toward healthier, sustainable, regional foodstuffs or simply an awakening to the history and loveliness of Native foods—brought again to the forefront by a younger group of chefs from across the country—creating authentic menus of exciting, Indigenous food is in demand.
Foods and dishes from pre-colonial diets are being researched, planted, grown and shared in creative ways. These foods are seasonal, regional, sustainable, gluten-free and dairy-free—hitting all the marks in today’s mainstream move toward healthier eating.
Of course, these foods, like the people who ate them, have been here all along, and I wish to pay tribute to those like chef Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), who is working to popularize and sustain this unique culinary art form.
Known as “The Sioux Chef,” Sherman is no food-scene newbie. With nearly 30 years of culinary research and experience in South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, among other areas, Sherman has perfected a fusion of modern and traditional Native American cuisine.
“I feel as Indigenous peoples, we need to continue to work to regain our ancestral knowledge and spiritual connection with our traditional foods,” Sherman says. “Our foods have maintained our cultures for millennia and are symbiotic to our health as individuals and as communities as a whole.”
While he’s known for creating these delicious, healthy and authentic dishes, I would like to offer another side to Sherman. Rarely, in the many years I’ve been working in kitchens across the world, have I found someone who is both focused on his own food prep and presentation and aware and considerate of those around him.
Busy kitchens can be stressful environments, to which anyone who has watched a TV cooking show can attest. The heat, the pressure, the long hours and working in tight quarters with other people wielding sharp knives—it’s intense.
I have worked with Chef Sean on two occasions. One of those was rather difficult, and I was astounded at his Zen-like calmness amid the cacophony of a busy kitchen trying to get dinners out to a hundred hungry people at a food conference. And everything that could go wrong did, including product not showing up and being forced to work in a kitchen not intended for full-service food preparation. We had a number of courses to prepare and plate, and he worked as diligently on others’ dishes as on his own. The food was well received, and we all walked into the dining room to thunderous applause.
The other event, while not as frenzied, was a take on Iron Chef (Indigenous-style) at an arts academy in California. I was one of the event judges, so I was free to observe what was going on in the makeshift kitchen, which consisted of propane camp burners set up on folding banquet tables. The three event chefs worked with culinary students, and the dishes prepared were extraordinary. Sherman won and humbly accepted the prize, which he immediately presented to the culinary student who had been serving as his sous chef. Yes, there were tears. To me, this act speaks volumes.
“We need to instill into our youth the knowledge of our great-grandfathers and -grandmothers so we can have the tools to heal and grow into a positive future,” Sherman says. “As a chef, I feel we have an important role to continue to innovate and learn how to share our food knowledge with the public, to educate ourselves and stand out as positive role models for future generations, and to help our communities produce, provide and sell foods to stimulate much-needed forward-moving economics on our tribal lands.”
For more information about The Sioux Chef, Sean Sherman (Oglala Lakota), visit http://sioux-chef.com.
Duck and Wild Rice Pemmican (Serves 4-6)
Created and consumed among many Native American tribes, pemmican refers to a paste of dried and pounded meat mixed with melted fat and other ingredients, often represented as a kind of jerky.
Prep time: 25-30 min. / Cooking time: 60 min.
2 duck breasts, with skin
1 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons maple sugar
¼ cup raw, hand-harvested wild rice*
4 ounces dried blueberries
Render duck fat: Remove duck fat from breasts and place in a shallow sauté pan on low heat to render fat (approximately 45 minutes). Then remove fat and save the oil.
Dry the duck: Mix together the salt and maple sugar in a small bowl. Slice duck breast into long strips, along the grain. Rub duck-breast strips with the salt/sugar mix. Dehydrate duck strips either in the oven on very low heat or in a food dehydrator until dry.
Pop the wild rice: Heat duck fat in a sauté pan on low/medium heat and place wild rice in the pan. Stir and shake pan until wild rice begins to “pop” and “puff” (usually 5-10 minutes). Remove popped wild rice and place on a paper towel.
Using a food processor (or a mortar and pestle, if you feel strong enough), mix the crisp duck fat, dried duck-breast strips, puffed wild rice, any leftover
Editor's Note: I hope you enjoyed the duck pemmican how-to video I made using this recipe I modified from Chef Sean Sherman, aka The Sioux Chef.
I’d like to make clear that no one would accuse me of being any kind of a good cook. Most of my good dishes are accidents, like “Hey did you know Sriracha and Alfredo sauce make magic together when poured over a bunch of noodles and veggies?” or “Who knew cereal could be eaten without milk?” I’m definitely one of those “30 minutes or less” kind of people when it comes to meals I have the patience to make, although, it will not come as a shock to anyone when I say I love to eat food regardless of how long it takes to make.
OK so back to the pemmican recipe. I think it’s super important we as Indigenous people reclaim as much as possible when it comes to food sovereignty, so I support any and all efforts to make that happen and give props to those of you who are able to indigenize your food and its sources as much as possible. However, I also know it’s not easy for everyone to incorporate an entirely decolonized diet. Access and cost are big issues for a lot of folks, as is time.
Where I live in downtown Phoenix, one duck breast cost nearly $20; maple sugar cost $16 for 13oz. That’s pretty cost-prohibitive for a lot of folks, including me. So I used brown sugar and that tasted fine. The wild rice, I’m ashamed to say, was store bought. My husband is Red Lake Ojibwe and can generally get us legit manoomin - but we didn’t have any for this recipe, sadly, so I spent waaaay too much time trying to separate the “wild” (precooked) rice from the long-grain white rice, which I picked up at a local grocery store. Meh. whatever. It came out OK, I think, even if I didn’t have the right kind of strainer (you'll see in the video that I use my, um, tea strainer).
I also wasted a bunch of rice (and time) trying to pop wild rice in a frying pan with just a little oil - the directions didn’t work for me and maybe that’s because I wasn’t using the right kind of rice. However, after watching a couple of YouTube videos and learning that deep frying was also an option, I used regular vegetable oil and deep fried those suckers with my tea strainer. Worked like a dream.
In the end, I ate everything and learned some valuable lessons along the way:
- I don’t know what “with” or “against” the grain means. So I just cut really thin slices of meat and hoped for the best. Seemed to come out OK.
- Don't try to film making food without first ensuring you have all the needed ingredients and cooking tools.
- Cooking stuff in duck fat tastes amazing.
- Duck jerky is the bomb-diggity.
Wopila tanka - many thanks - to the Sioux Chef for providing this wonderful recipe for us to try. We Indigenous people are nothing if not resourceful and able to persevere through whatever life throws at us. Wave after wave of frustration crashed into me as I collected ingredients and tried this recipe, from trying to find duck breasts in Phoenix to separating rice grains and not having dried fruit. But I reminded myself of what my Lakota ancestors went through in order to feed themselves after their primary food source, the buffalo, all but disappeared. We learned to farm, made survival meals out of commodity food, used flour bags in really cool ways and much, much more.
Using Indigenous menu items and decolonizing our diets is undoubtedly important, but so is recognizing and valuing our Indigenous strength, in whatever form that comes in. Use one - or both - and you’ll serve your loved ones some mmm mmm GOOT food no matter what.