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
Many of the foods people love today have grown and been planted,
stewarded and eaten on Turtle Island for centuries, if not millennia.
Indian Country Today 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
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
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
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 storyprophecies
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 nutritionit 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.
Heid Erdrich 'Indigenizes' Her Recipes: Fish Soup, Duck Egg
Meatloaf and Cadillac Manoomin
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
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 usesmany 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
To the Wampanoags, they are sassamenesh. The berries flourish
in the wetland areas and sandy soils, growing twice as big as any
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
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 grounded into various nut butters, or dried and
grounded 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
seedswhich can be white, yellow, red or blackwere 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 Sisterscorn,
beans and squashwork 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.