Much confusion surrounds indigenous foods. “Before 1492, tomatoes, potatoes, wild rice, salmon, pumpkins, peanuts, bison, chocolate, vanilla, blueberries and corn, among other foods, were unknown in Europe, Africa and Asia. Today, we think of tomatoes as an Italian staple, of potatoes as quintessentially Irish or northern European, and even of peanuts as native to Africa. But Native American farmers cultivated and developed these foods over hundreds of generations, long before Europeans exported them throughout the world,” explains Kevin Gover (Pawnee), director of the National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution, in the foreword for The Mitsitam Café Cookbook: Recipes from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian by executive chef Richard Hetzler.
Many of the items people love today have grown and been planted, stewarded and eaten on Turtle Island for centuries, if not millennia as indigenous foods.
Indian Country Media Network has rounded up a list of 10 key plants, nuts, seeds, berries and roots that Natives have farmed and foraged for time immemorial in the present-day Americas. In a second installment, we’ll feature some of the indigenous game, fish and shellfish our ancestors fished and hunted pre-European contact.
It is a common misconception that tomatoes are of Italian origin, but in fact, they first grew in South America, with seven species flourishing from Chile to Ecuador. Birds are believed to have carried their seeds northward, spreading them in present-day Mexico as early as 800 B.C. Aztecs embraced the red tomato as they did their green husk tomato, or tomatillo, native to Mesoamerica.
Europeans, however, initially feared the bright red fruit, considering them poisonous.
People typically associate potatoes with the Irish, often forgetting that it was the pre-Inka peoples in the highlands of Peru who domesticated potatoes between 3700 and 3000 B.C.
When explorers first returned to Europe with samples of the tubers in the 1500s, they were received with suspicion. Once they became accepted, Europeans still struggled to recognize the potato’s agricultural and culinary possibilities, despite the fact that Inka farmers had developed varieties of potatoes suited to every climate, from tropical to high-altitude, according to The Mitsitam Cafe Cookbook.
North America didn’t see potatoes until Irish immigrants introduced them in the 1700s.
Today, Peruvian markets display a vastly more colorful array of potatoes than anywhere else in the world.
3. Maize (corn)
In the 1600s and 1700s, many European colonists considered maize inferior to wheat, because the gluten-free grain does not, combined with yeast, make bread rise. Eventually, settlers adapted Native recipes to create cornbread patties, known as johnnycakes, by mixing maize flour with water and eggs.
Arepas are considered the corn breads of the Americas. Originally, arepas were made from large-grained maize that was dried and cooked briefly in lime or wood ashes and water. Small cakes were formed and cooked on a special flagstone slab or on a utensil known as “aripo,” from which the name arepa is believed to have derived.
Corn was first domesticated in Mexico and Central America. Indigenous people often refer to corn as “our relative,” as it plays an integral role in many creation stories.
It’s widely known throughout Indian country that Winona LaDuke’s father once told her, “Don’t talk to me about sovereignty until you have learned how to grow corn.” LaDuke, a Harvard-educated economist, heeded her father’s advice. The Indian rights activist grows her own corn and other indigenous foods on her farm on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota.
4. Manoomin (Wild Rice)
Manoomin is the only grain indigenous to North America. It was a part of the Anishinaabeg migration story—prophecies instructed people to “go to the place where the food grows on the water,” says Winona LaDuke.
“A millennium later, the Ojibwe stretch across the northern part of five states and the southern part of four Canadian provinces. With the exception of the far-western reservations, where there is rice, there are Ojibwe,” LaDuke says. “Manoomin is a supreme food for nutrition—it has twice the protein and fiber of brown rice, it is the first solid food given to a baby (as mazaan, or broken rice) and it is one of the last foods served to elders as they pass into the Spirit world. Wild rice is gluten-free, and when served with blueberries, cranberries and a meat, provides some of the most amazing cuisine from the North American continent.”
Real manoomin differs from store-bought wild rice. Manoomin is “hand harvested”; harder, commercialized versions are often described as “cultivated” or “paddy rice.” Real manoomin has been harvested via traditional methods, from canoes (not airboat), using sticks or poles called “knockers,” explains Heid Erdrich in Original Local: Indigenous Foods, Stories, and Recipes From the Upper Midwest.
Real manoomin may be dark and smoky, possibly somewhat translucent, light green, or almost milky if picked early. Machine-processed wild rice loses much of its brown-green outer coating.
“Each year, my family and I join hundreds of other harvesters who return daily with hundreds of pounds of rice from the region’s lakes and rivers. We call it the Wild Rice Moon, Manoominike Giizis. On White Earth, Leech Lake, Nett Lake, and other Ojibwe reservations in the Great Lakes region, it is a time when people harvest a food to feed their bellies and to sell for zhooniyaash, or cash, to meet basic expenses. But it is also a time to feed the soul,” says LaDuke.
American Indians first introduced pumpkin as a food to immigrants when they encountered the Spanish at the Rio Grande River in the late 1500s, offering the Spaniards roasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas) as part of a peace offering, according to LocalHarvest.org.
American Indians roasted, baked, parched, boiled and dried the flesh in numerous ways. Each tribe developed its own ways to prepare and enjoy the pumpkin. Diné cooks fry it with mutton, while Taos Pueblo cooks make a succotash by cooking unripe pumpkin with corn kernels and onion, explains Dale Carson, Abenaki, the author of New Native American Cooking.
In Woodland areas, pumpkin is eaten similarly to winter squash, occasionally cut into rings to dry and be reconstituted when needed.
As a medicine, American Indians used pumpkins as a remedy for snake bites. Pumpkin had other practical uses—many tribes flattened strips of pumpkins, dried them and made mats, especially for trading purposes. They also dried out the pumpkins’ shells, turning them into bowls and containers to store grain, beans and seeds.
Carson advises, “The smaller ones work beautifully in recipes. Sugar pumpkins, usually under four pounds, are the ideal size for cooking. Their skin is smoother and they taste sweeter than the field varieties. Cook pumpkin in the same way you would winter squash or sweet potatoes. Throw in chunks of pumpkin with tomatoes, celery and onions in soups and stews.”
On Martha’s Vineyard, the Aquinnah Wampanoags celebrate Cranberry Day on the second Tuesday of October. Offices close. People harvest the berries, and elders teach children about “cranberrying.” In the evening, both Native and non-Native locals gather for a community potluck.
To the Wampanoags, they are sassamenesh. The berries flourish in the wetland areas and sandy soils, growing twice as big as any other variety.
It was the New England settlers who deemed the tart berries “crane-berries,” because their blooms of white flowers bobbing in the bogs in summer reminded them of crane’s heads.
Natives also used cranberries, among other berries, to flavor their drinking water. The bitter berry was considered a beneficial tonic.
The cranberry is just one of 34 berry varieties that grew on Turtle Island before the 1700s, according to the USDA.
Archaeological evidence reveals that in Peru around 3000 B.C., peanuts were roasted in the shell and eaten, just like they are at baseball games today.
Peanuts made their way to Mexico by around the 1500s. The Portuguese are responsible for bringing peanuts, along with maize and sweet potatoes, to West Africa from Brazil. The U.S. was introduced to the legume through Africa.
The American classic peanut butter owes its roots to the Indigenous Peoples of Peru! A valuable source of nutrition and sustenance, nuts were often ground into various nut butters, or dried and ground into flour for breads and cereals, or pounded into meal to thicken soups and stews.
7. Maple Syrup
In early spring, as soon as warmer weather begins to thaw the sap in sugar maple trees, Ojibwe families gather in sugaring camps to harvest it. The first month of the spring in the Ojibwe calendar is called Iskigamiige-giizis or Maple Sugar Moon.
They boil it overnight, over a slow fire, granulating the thickened syrup in wooden troughs. They then store it in birch bark containers called makuks, which preserve the natural sweetener for months. Heid Erdrich explains in Original Local that real Ojibwe maple syrup acquires its taste from the bark containers and the wood fires used to cook down the sap. “Me, I like my maple dark and smoky, like my manoomin or my coffee,” she says.
Indigenous cooks have long relied on maple sap to season various vegetables, grains, fish and game.
Unlike other sweeteners or its commercial counterparts, maple syrup has been proven to have profound antioxidant properties as well as contain essential vitamins and minerals.
The Maya and their Olmec ancestors developed chocolate by grinding cacao beans between about 1000 B.C. and A.D. 900.
Mayan culture called it “xocoatl,” or “god’s food,” for it symbolized life and fertility, and many of their carvings depicted cacoa pods. Similarly, the Aztecs believed their god, Quetzalcoatl, brought the cacao plant to them.
The prized cacao in solid form was carried exclusively by Aztec warriors and long-distance traders as their professions were valued as crucial to the strength of their people.
It was most often consumed in liquid form. Mayan and Aztec aristocracy mixed the bitter powder with water and spices. The commoners blended it with maize porridge and chile or other flavors.
Chocolate took off in Europe after Cortez brought some cocoa beans back to Spain and added sugar cane. It became very popular with Spanish aristocracy, so they planted the cacao beans, launching their own industry. They kept this profitable industry a secret from the rest of Europe for nearly a century. Once the reputation of this delicious “food of the Gods” spread across the rest of Europe, the Swiss developed many versions of flavoring and processing, making them the master producers they are today. The United States, however, does produce the most chocolate and consume the most pounds of it per year, though the Swiss eat more per capita.
Indigenous to the Andes mountain range of Bolivia and Peru; the Inca called quinoa chisa mama, “mother of all grain.” During solstice celebrations, they offered vessels of quinoa to Inti, the Sun. The seeds of quinoa yield the highest protein content of any grain, and the plant’s leaves are also loaded with nutrients. Incas added both the seeds and leaves to soups and stews. Quinoa seeds—which can be white, yellow, red or black—were additionally toasted, ground and made into breads.
This ancient grain grows at higher altitudes than maize, which may be why the commercial version we can buy locally is from the Rocky Mountains, given its similar terrain and climate to the Andes.
The vines of beans climb the corn stalks, and the squash plants hold moisture in the ground. The Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash—work together and supply all the nutrition necessary for survival. The Three Sisters typically refers to tepary beans, which are indigenous to the southwest. They are among the most drought and heat tolerant crops in the world. The white tepary bean variety generally impart a slightly sweet flavor, while the brown tepary beans are more earthy.