April 21st, 2020 Last Updated on: June 30th, 2022
Native American recipes (that are actually Native) aren't always easy to find. Whether you are a member of one of the recognized tribes or come from a different background, these Native American recipes will give you a delicious taste of authentic, natural cooking enjoyed through the centuries.
If you did not grow up in a Native American family, you may associate ethnic foods with the types of stereotypical dishes served at Thanksgiving such as roast corn, sweet potatoes, turkey, and cranberry dishes. If you prefer spicier fare, a southwestern style of food may interest you more including tortillas, chili peppers, and fried beans. While some of these popular modern foods have their roots in history, most of them have been commercialized and changed somewhat for a different type of palate.
Traditional Native American Foods
Before getting into the amazing recipes later on in this article, take a moment to understand what ingredients are commonly found in the diverse cultural dishes of the native peoples. Of course, Native American foods come from a wide variety of locations from the cold northern reaches of Alaska all the way down to modern New Mexico and Arizona. If you want to cook traditional meals, you need to pick a geographic location first so you can choose the types of ingredients that would have grown naturally there many years ago.
Corn, Beans, and Squash
All across the continent, Native American food focused on these three staples. Corn was eaten as is, or ground up and used in a variety of recipes. Hard beans of various types were especially popular in the Southwest. Squash was just one of the families of vegetables commonly used in recipes both traditional and modern.
Other Plant-Based Ingredients
Native Americans were skilled farmers by the time the European settlers showed up. Even when they gathered natural food during their nomadic migrations, they enjoyed a host of vegetables, wild grains, and herbs to flavor their recipes. Some of these included melons, nuts, mushrooms, cactus, cabbage, onions, sage, mint, and pumpkins.
Traditional Meats in Native American Foods
While many people associate venison or deer meat with historical Native American recipes, people from all across the nation also ate rabbit, buffalo, mutton, pork, both saltwater and freshwater fish, and a variety of shellfish. Of course, northern Canadian and Alaskan natives also ate seal and whale meat.
Today, you are unlikely to feast on whale blubber or grind your own corn with a stone mortar and pestle. Instead, try out these traditional or culturally inspired Native American recipes in the comfort of your own home.
Native American Recipes to Try at Home
When it comes to recipes that aim for authenticity in a historical context, many people believe that you should only use ingredients that were naturally found on the North American continent. This leaves out many tasty dishes that use wheat flour, mutton, or any other foods that were brought over from the old world of Europe.
This collection of Native American recipes uses both to give you more options to try. There's a lot more to Native American recipes than fry bread (not that there's anything wrong with fry bread), so let's dive into some of these stellar indigenous dishes!
Soups, Stews, and Casseroles
Three Sisters Soup
This hearty soup or vegetable stew uses the three “sisters” or staples of many Native American food plans: corn, beans, and squash. Other than the squash, which is roasted for additional flavor, the hard corn and beans were exceptionally useful in the cold autumn and winter months because they stored well. Today, you can use canned food varieties to get the same basic flavor of the Three Sisters Soup with a much shorter cooking time.
Buffalo Stew With Hearty Vegetables
Buffalo meat is protein-rich and has a much lower fat content than beef from modern cattle. It was used as a cooking staple primarily in the Midwest and western plains where the American bison roamed in the millions. Buffalo stew or tanka-me-a-lo in Cherokee would have been a staple of their cooking. The recipe would also include potatoes, carrots or other root vegetables, and herbs like sage for flavor. This Native recipe is every bit as hearty as you want it to be, but won't leave you feeling bogged down.
Chicken, Corn, and Chili Soup
For a bit of Southwestern flavor, try this chicken and corn soup with a bold taste of green or red chilies. Today, you can use a carton of chicken broth and canned food in the recipe to make it easier. The rich flavor of the chilies, onion, and cloves make this a very warm and hearty Native American soup to enjoy on a cold day. This might just make your list of go-to Native American foods.
Algonquin Nut Soup
Called paganens in traditional language, this indigenous soup recipe forms a creamy concoction made with simple stock, parsley, salt, and black pepper, shallots, and hazelnuts. All you have to do is blend everything together and heat it up. Modern chefs may want to use a food processor for this recipe to break down the roasted nuts or strain the soup at the end to prevent lumps.
While this recipe for corn and bean succotash is relatively simple, it packs a lot of flavor and nutrition. All you have to do is mix the ingredients together and enjoy it as a side dish with some pork roast, fried catfish, or bison stew. There are many different variations of succotash that you can find recipes for online. Some of them include lima beans or other types of beans, too. This gives you a lot of flexibility when it comes time to make this scrumptious American Indian side dish.
Savory Baked Pumpkin
Pumpkins were a popular food in the eastern part of North America for centuries. One would yield quite a lot of vegetables for a whole family or tribe to enjoy. Baked pumpkin is quite simple and can be added to many different dishes. Adding some roast meat, dried berries, or other vegetables to roast pumpkin itself makes for a very different flavor. All it takes to bring this indigenous recipe to life is pumpkin cut up and roasted in an oven for up to an hour.
Maple and Butternut Squash
Different varieties of squash were found naturally all over the continent, and the butternut squash is a good modern option to choose for this tasty indigenous recipe. Cut it up and mix it with cinnamon, allspice, butter, and syrup after boiling or roasting it until it is soft. It's a versatile Native American recipe so you can serve it in chunks or blended together into a smooth concoction.
Wild Rice and Cranberry Salad
While not directly associated with a traditional Native American recipe, this wild rice and cranberry salad is definitely something that could have made an appearance at the traditional meal. Cranberries grow quite readily in the eastern United States, and wild rice can be found in quite a few authentic Native American recipes. All it takes is the wild rice and cranberries, then add some broth, shallots, garlic, rosemary, maple syrup, and a few other herbs and spices to taste.
Wild Gitigan Salad
While much of a traditional Native American recipe, this wild rice and greens salad was created by native youth leaders in Minnesota. It does combine foods that would have been found in the region long ago including wild rice, black beans, and kale. More modern ingredients for this indigenous recipe, including cherry tomatoes, cheese, and lemon zest are also included in the dressing. Still, it is an exquisite vegetable side dish created by modern-day American Indian people.
Traditional Wild Greens Salad
A more authentic take on salad would have included a collection of any type of edible greens that were native to the area in which the tribe lived or traveled. Some of the more common ones would include watercress, sorrel, dandelion leaves, and wild onions. A simple dressing with herbs, oil, and maybe a touch of maple syrup would add a great flavor to this indigenous dish.
Fried Green Tomatoes
Sliced-up green tomatoes, cornmeal coating, and some herbs and spices to taste make these vegetables easy to prepare and eat. Although adopted in southern cooking and popularized by a movie of the same name, this American Indian recipe has been enjoyed by indigenous people wherever tomatoes and corn grew in the U.S. and Canada for many years.
Meat and Fish Recipes
Pine Nut Crusted Catfish
A variety of different fish dishes were quite popular with American Indian groups who lived near the shore, around lakes, and by rivers. This crusted catfish features the rich flavor of chopped pine nuts and cornmeal in the batter. All you have to do is blend the pine nuts and cornmeal and mix in some salt, pepper and chili if you like a little spice, and fry it up in a large skillet. Note: pine nuts aren't cheap, so if you're seeking a cheaper alternative, you can opt for walnuts.
Sweet Smoked Salmon
Salmon was a very large part of various American Indian groups diets in the Pacific Northwest traditionally. This unique sweet and savory smoked salmon is an excellent yet unexpected way to enjoy this rich fish. The salmon itself is soaked in water, salt, sugar, maple syrup, and honey for at least one day before smoking it to perfection. This indigenous seafood dish won't disappoint!
You may have to order American bison ribs from a specialty butcher, but the taste is worth it. It has lower fat and a richer taste than beef from modern cattle. All you have to do for a hearty repast is cook the ribs for two hours or more (depending on their size) with beef or bison stock and seasonings. At the end of it all, you'll have an outstanding, hearty indigenous meal.
Poyha Chicken and Cornmeal Loaf
A type of Native American meatloaf uses chicken or turkey ground up and mixed with corn, onion, eggs, and sometimes diced vegetables or even fruit. To cook it, simply form it into small loaves and bake it in an oven or create meat patties and fry it in a large skillet. It comes out tasting amazing and makes for a great part of a hearty meal either way.
Pueblo Pork Roast
While European hogs may not have shown up in the Americas until the settlers arrived, there have always been wild sources of this popular meat. This delicious pork roast adds in many seasonings that would have also been available at the time: onion, garlic, juniper berries, tomatoes, red chilies, and even cocoa. This would have been enjoyed by indigenous people in the Southwest and into Mexico.
Trout with Fiddlehead Ferns
As all Native American tribes would have settled near a freshwater source, fish like brook trout would have been a popular dish for many. This unique trout recipe also uses fiddlehead ferns, which would have been gathered in the forests in the surrounding area. All you have to do is coat the fish fillets in flour, cook them in bacon fat (lard or simple oil would do) and serve some up with the boiled ferns.
Breads, Grain or Nut-based Food
Acorn Nut Bread
This hearty loaf bread is unique in that it uses ground acorns, which were found primarily in the eastern US and the far west. Traditionally, this American Indian recipe may not have involved yeast and the rising process. It is possible to make this dish sort of like a pancake or fried bread with similar dough.
This simple bread recipe is very similar to a fried pancake in consistency and look. All it takes is wheat flour, baking powder, and a bit of sugar or salt if desired. Mix it up with water, fry it in a pan, and your bannock is complete. This is the type of American Indian recipe that would be a great accompaniment for a hearty stew or even stewed berries if you want something sweeter.
Many people see fry bread as one of the most traditional Native American recipes of all. Other people consider it a more modern invention because it uses wheat flour primarily. This version includes flour, baking powder, oil, milk, and salt mixed together and deep-fried in vegetable oil. Traditionally, this indigenous dish would be fried in lard instead. People often use fry bread to create Southwestern tacos or as a simple complement to a chili dish.
While many different families will have their own take on authentic tamales, they are delicious any way you make them. They traditionally use a type of cornmeal prepared with lime water called masa harina, corn, chilies, and various spices. The mixture is wrapped up in soft corn husks and steamed until they are cooked through.
Desserts and Sweet Treats
Simple Berry Pudding
One of the simplest Native American recipes made by various tribes would provide a sweet treat with summer berries or even dried berries during the winter. Easy berry pudding only uses berries, traditionally chokecherries or blueberries were used, flour, water, and sugar. When this mixture is boiled together in the correct way, the result is a delicious dessert with an indigenous flare.
Sweet Cornmeal Pudding
This sweet pudding blends milk, molasses, sugar, butter, and cinnamon together to make a hearty and absolutely delicious dessert. While this recipe suggests adding a bit of rum, that is not necessary if you prefer a non-alcoholic treat.
Unique Native American Recipes
Pemmican With Fruit
This unique indigenous recipe gained popularity as a hearty dish that was easy to carry along on trips. Pemmican is simply a combination of dried meat such as Buffalo or venison, dried berries, and lard or meat fat. Traditional recipes used chokecherries, but more modern recipes can use any type of dried fruit you prefer.
Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly
A unique concoction from the Southwest would taste delicious on fry bread or with other meals. Prickly pear cactus jelly may be a more modern invention with a store-bought packet of fruit pectin and white sugar. But it does harken back to native use of this delicious cactus in various dishes. In the same way you make most jelly, you boil the fruit with the sugar and pectin. Then, you strain it well, and keep it in sterilized jars.
Questions and considerations about the authenticity or traditional methods and flavors in Native American recipes found here and elsewhere will always arise. If you are aware of the types of foods that were native to North America centuries ago, you can better pick meat, vegetable, grain, and fruit dishes that have historical context.
However, indigenous people adopted European ingredients like wheat flour rather quickly when the settlers arrived on the shores. Also, using modern conveniences such as sticks of butter instead of lard can make your cooking experience at home much easier. In the end, you can enjoy a wide variety of Native American-inspired foods with unique recipes that run the gamut from sweet to savory.
Enjoy your exploration of Native American recipes. Introduce them to your family and friends. Do research about their authenticity and learn something about the people that would have eaten them long ago. Food is, after all, a huge part of culture. It can give you insight into how indigenous people used to live and how they still enjoy their favorite meals today.
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