It would be hard to overestimate how completely foods indigenous to North, Central and South America changed world cuisine. Italy wouldn’t have tomato sauce, Belgium wouldn’t have pommes frites, your favorite chili-laden Indian curry would lack its spicy kick, and the world would be without chocolate.
So why do we know so little about the cuisines of the people who were cooking with these ingredients for thousands of years before European invaders touched down? Well, the short answer is basically a combination of colonialism, imperialism, genocide and the deliberate quashing of American Indian cultures by European settlers. Often, tribes were moved from their fertile lands to reservations where farming was all but impossible, forced to subsist on nutritionally deficient foods provided by the US government, while their lands were seized and farmed and hunted by others. This is still a reality today.
Fortunately, many American Indian people have never stopped cooking traditional dishes, and their culinary traditions are enjoying a sort of rennaissance – farm-to-table and foraged cuisine are all the rage with hipster foodies, but it was just the way of life for people living in the Western Hemisphere before European invaders arrived.
You can sample a few North American Indian recipes from our slideshow. And if you’re looking for ingredients, we’ve got a pantry list right here.
These foods are just some of the staples of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota people of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa and parts of Canada, and of the Ojibwa, Menominee, Cree and other peoples of the Great Lakes region.
1. Wild rice
Wild rice is a staple of the people of the Great Lakes region and Northern Midwest. This nutrient-packed grain, which is not directly related to the rices of Asia, has a nutty outer husk and fluffy interior. It grows in shallow lake waters and along stream beds.
Use wild rice to make poultry stuffing, grain salads or porridge; add it to soups and stews; or simply cook and enjoy on its own.
Where to find: Red Lake Nation in Northern Minnesota produces and sells hand-harvested wild rice.
2. Chokecherries, blueberries, wild plums and other berries
Foraged berries and fruits were an essential part of the diet of American Indian peoples of the North and Midwest.
Some of these fruits, like blueberries, were eaten fresh, while others, like chokecherry, wild plums and high bush cranberries were cooked and sometimes sweetened with maple syrup before being consumed due to their bitter, tannic flavor when raw. Fruits and berries were often dried in the summer to be enjoyed in the winter or were mixed with fat and dried meat to create pemmican, the original energy bar. (Pemmican is a mixture of dried meat and berries with rendered fat.)
Maize (corn), native to the Americas, was a staple of Midwestern peoples (and is still a huge crop in the Midwest today). Early wild maize was nothing like corn as we know it today, but through selective farming, American Indians were able to increase cob length and kernel size over thousands of years to create dozens of hearty varieties of maize.
Some varieties of sweet corn were eaten fresh, but more often corn was allowed to dry on the stalk, where it was then harvested and used throughout the winter. It could be added whole to soups, or could be ground into cornmeal and corn flour and then used to thicken stews, to make porridge or to make bread.
Other times, it was nixtamalized, which happens when dried corn or cornmeal is soaked in a solution made from lime (not the fruit, but a byproduct of limestone) or wood ash and water. The process makes the vitamin B in the corn digestible. Nixtamalization is also how corn is made into hominy and how cornmeal is prepared for tortilla making.
Where to find: You can try some of the non-GMO corn products grown by Ramona Farms on the Gila River Indian Community website.
Bison was an extremely useful animal to American Indians. Not only did just one bison provide hundreds of pounds of meat, but its bones, hide and fur could be used to create tools, clothes and housing materials, too.
Bison meat is extremely lean and protein-rich. Its meat was often dried into jerky, which could be eaten all winter or used to make pemmican.
Bison was almost hunted to extinction at the turn of the 20th century. The U.S. government had a campaign to eliminate bison as a means of committing genocide against the American Indian people who depended upon it for food.
It was only after the bison were nearly extinct (it’s estimated only 100 to 500 of the animals were left by the early 20th century, down from nearly 40 million in the mid-1800s) that new conservation plans and individual ranchers stepped in to stop their disappearance.
Where to find: Today, bison meat is available in restaurants and grocery stores nationally and hailed as a healthy alternative to beef due to the fact that it is lean, high in protein and low in cholesterol.
5. Potatoes and turnips
Potatoes and turnips were both farmed and foraged by the American Indians of the northern Midwest. These hardy root vegetables could be kept for long periods of time without spoiling, including through long winters. They were used in soups and stews, and also eaten on their own, boiled, mashed or baked in the fire.
6. Maple syrup
There was no refined cane sugar in this area before it was invaded by the Europeans. Maple syrup, made from boiling the sap of maple trees in the spring, was used instead. It could also be further reduced into a dry maple sugar or into a fudge-like candy.
Where to find: You can pick up maple syrup at just about any grocery store or farmer’s market around the country. But Native Harvest sells hand-harvested maple syrup from the Anishinaabe of Northern Minnesota.
Honey was also used as a sweetener in everything from porridge to bread to pemmican. Try using it where you would use sugar to add an extra something special to your food.
Like bison, deer were used for more than just meat. Their hide and bones were incredibly useful for creating leather and tools.
Deer meat is also a very lean source of protein. It could be dried into jerky and eaten throughout the winter and on trips, be reconstituted in soup and stews or dried and added to pemmican (or simply eaten freshly cooked).
Where to find: Fresh wild venison can be hard to come by if you don’t know a hunter. But there are a few sources online, such as Broken Arrow Ranch (Texas).
Hazelnuts and other foraged nuts were an important food source for the American Indian peoples of the northern Midwest. Nuts are high in protein and healthy fats, making them an ideal compact source of energy.
Some foraged nuts could be eaten raw, while others were dried or roasted and kept for eating throughout the year. Nuts could also be ground into meal or flour to create porridge, breads and cakes or be used to thicken soups and stews. Try adding ground hazelnuts to your oatmeal or experiment with them in a batch of cookies.