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Foods of the Americas: Native Recipes and Traditionsby Fernando Divina
Among the most fundamental of any culture’s traditions are those surrounding its cuisine. For American Indian people, local foods and traditional ways of preparing food have always been and remain important sources of spirituality and community. Native recipes likewise reflect the diversity and adaptability of indigenous cultures.
It is fitting, then, that Foods of the Americas arises out of our work with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which takes as a guiding principle the affirmation of Native values. Created in 1989 in collaboration with Native communities throughout North, Central, and South America, the museum reflects Native American cultures from the Native perspective. The goal of this collection of recipes, essays, and images is to provide a sense of the diverse landscapes, the basic flavors, and the strong, vital cultures that have together produced a truly indigenous American cuisine.
Native American groups have acquired intimate knowledge of the foods that surround them, and they have cultivated to the fullest the food sources nearest at hand. Plains Indian tribes used every part of the buffalo they hunted. Northwest Coast peoples developed myriad techniques for preserving year-round the salmon that crowded their rivers only during certain seasons. People of the wooded Northeast and Great Lakes regions created hundreds of recipes, both culinary and medicinal, for the nuts that grew around them in abundance. And with the cultivation of maize, beginning some seven to ten thousand years ago in Mexico, corn became the physical and spiritual foundation of most American Indian cultures.
Most people don’t pay close attention to the origins of the foods they enjoy today. Many foods commonly found on our shelves are credited to European or Asian origin—Irish potatoes, Italian tomatoes, and Thai chiles. But all of these foods originated here in the Americas. Potatoes were domesticated and bred by pre-Inka civilizations. Tomatoes and chiles were widely grown throughout South, Central, and North America before the arrival of the conquistadors. The Americas are also the source of turkey, buffalo, corn, squash, amaranth, wild rice, avocados, pineapple, papaya, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes), pecans, peanuts, cashews, black walnuts, hazelnuts, tapioca, chocolate, and vanilla. After 1492, America’s native foods transformed most of the world’s cuisines.
While precious metals and other spoils of the Conquest bolstered a sagging European economy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the foods of the Americas have endured as the true New World legacy. What would the pomme de terre, the French “apple of the earth,” be if not the American potato? As anthropologist Jack Weatherford has noted, Italians might still be eating pasta sauces derived only from carrots and beets if New World tomatoes, sweet peppers, and zucchini squash hadn’t appeared. The fire in Asian and East Indian cookery would not exist if it were not for the spark of American chiles.
Some would assign origins of an American cuisine to the first settlement of Europeans in the Americas. Yet Native people, indeed entire Indian civilizations, were present when Europeans first arrived in the Western Hemisphere. One of the oldest and most continuously inhabited regions in North America is located on the border of Washington and Oregon, on the Columbia River about ninety miles east of present-day Portland. Dating as far back as 6000 b.c., a grand bazaar and trade market was located at Celilo Falls. As many as five thousand people from indigenous and diverse cultures gathered year after year to trade, feast, and participate in games and religious ceremonies.
By the time Europeans arrived, some of the Western Hemisphere’s vast cache of raw materials had already undergone sophisticated hybridization and was incorporated into Native cuisines. The peoples of the Americas were diverse in their use of locally available ingredients, but they shared many preparation techniques and cooking methods. From early times, in all corners of the Americas, Native people harvested both wild and cultivated foods and harnessed the sun’s energy for the preservation of their foods. For centuries, indigenous peoples explored a variety of cooking methods, using water and fire for steaming, boiling, and baking.
American cuisines continue to evolve, yet certain dishes are prepared or served today in the same fashion as they were thousands of years ago. Roasted potatoes, guacamole, popcorn, and toasted peanuts are splendid examples of ancient food preparations that remain popular with little change. Present-day Quechua people, descendants of the Inka, continue their centuries-old work toward the hybridization of the perfect potato for all climates. Maya people from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to El Salvador are still preparing and serving recados, the intense flavoring pastes that can be slathered over meats before steam-cooking them. The Hopi continue to prepare piki bread and blue corn dishes, which have changed little through the centuries. Narragansett fishermen are still tending lobster pots, the form of which originated thousands of years ago. Aleuts are digging razor clams much as did hundreds of generations of their ancestors.
Other American foods undoubtedly await global discovery. Highly perishable fruits and vegetables such as the avocado were largely unknown beyond their native regions until the advent of improved shipping practices. New technologies influence the use, availability, or practicality of foods in the home and could open the door to the widespread use of foods that now are only locally available. Wapato, or arrowhead root, once an American staple with potato-like uses, may again appear on tables if technology advances its practicality as a food crop. A resurgence of demand for heirloom varieties of produce may engender research for new, more effective means of distribution.
The recipes included in this cookbook represent modern cultures of the Americas—they do not attempt to describe the ethnobotany of American civilizations nor do they reproduce authentic tribal specialties. After learning the basics of each dish, you’re encouraged to borrow the flavors of one culture and pair them with those of another, basing your selections on flavor compatibility. For example, a Oaxacan masa dumpling can be cooked with a Pueblo- or Zuni-style succotash. As you become familiar with pre-Columbian foods, you will begin to understand the interrelationship of the ingredients and how the cuisines of the various regions changed and expanded with increased trade between civilizations.
This cookbook is intended to celebrate the original foods of the Americas; the recipes are designed to perpetuate a truly American tradition. In bringing Native foods and preparations to the fore, we honor those who came before us and recognize the contributions of all indigenous peoples to our American cuisine.
The Americas are composed of more than thirty separate countries—from Canada to Argentina. In pre-Columbian days, however, those boundaries had no meaning. Trade routes extended from the Andean cultures of South America to the Northwest Coast cultures of Alaska. Great trade centers were established in the Columbia Plateau region (now Washington and Oregon states), the Mississippi River region, the Southwest region of the United States, and in Mexico City, the Yucatán Peninsula, Ecuador, and Peru.
Through trade, indigenous people shared their knowledge of food cultivation and preparation with one another. The early Hohokam people, whose culture flourished from approximately 300 b.c. to a.d. 1500 in what is now Arizona, are one example. The Hohokam were highly skilled farmers. The Hohokam introduced irrigation agriculture to the arid West, building hundreds of miles of canals to carry water from the Rio Verde, Salt, and other rivers to their fields of maize, beans, squash, and cotton around present-day Phoenix and Tucson. Their ideas and skills were adopted by other cultures.
In pre-Columbian Chile, the Atacamenos and Diaguitas farmed the northern desert. The fertile lands of central and southern Chile were originally populated by seminomadic people known as the Mapuche, the Pehuelche, and the Tehuelche. These people were part-time farmers and hunter-gatherers. Along the coastal regions were nomadic canoe sailors known as the Alakalufe, the Yaganes, and the now-extinct Ona. These early Chileans consumed native land animals and enjoyed the great bounty of the ocean. They also cultivated and cooked potatoes, quinoa, beans, llama, deer, guanaco (a member of the South American camel family), vicuña (a relation of the alpaca), and rhea (a giant flightless bird related to the ostrich). Wild mushrooms, chiles, and avocados are among the foods domesticated by those cultures.
Native foods with histories dating back many thousands of years, such as potatoes and sweet potatoes, inspired the development of some of the traditional and nontraditional recipes in this chapter.
This recipe was inspired by a type of potato cake made throughout the former Inka Empire, from Ecuador to Argentina. Try these cakes with a few slices of crisply fried potatoes for added texture or with crunchy fried plantains. For an experience that transcends time, serve them with peanut sauce. Peanuts and potatoes were among the earliest crops developed in South America. This recipe offers a creative solution for using leftover mashed potatoes.
Makes 6 cakes
Makes 2 cups
1 large tomato
2 tablespoons paprika oil or annatto oil (page 210)
1 small white onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup natural chunky peanut butter
1/2 cup vegetable stock (page 207) or water
Pinch of sea or kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of ground aji or cayenne pepper
4 russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 ramps or green onions, white part only, thinly sliced
Pinch of sea or kosher salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1 egg white
Masa harina or whole wheat flour, for dredging
Paprika oil or annatto oil, for cooking (page 210)
To prepare the sauce, prepare a hot fire in a charcoal grill, preheat a gas grill to high, or preheat the broiler. Place the tomato on the grill rack or in a broiler pan and cook, turning often, for 4 to 5 minutes, until the skin is slightly blackened and blistered. Peel the tomato and dice.
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until transparent. Add the tomato and garlic and cook, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the peanut butter, stock, salt, pepper, and aji and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce is somewhat thick but pourable. The sauce may be stored for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator and reheated, if desired.
Place the potatoes in a saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a fork. Drain the potatoes. Reserve 1 potato. Mash the remaining potatoes with a fork or pass through a food mill. Allow to cool completely.
Coarsely grate the reserved potato, cover, and set aside. Place the mashed potatoes in a bowl and add the ramps, salt, and pepper. Lightly whisk the egg white in a separate bowl. Add the egg white to the potatoes, and mix to incorporate evenly.
To form the cakes, divide the potato mixture into 6 equal portions. Shape each portion into a cake about 3 inches in diameter and 2 inches thick. Spoon about 1 teaspoon of the grated potato onto a work surface and place 1 of the formed cakes on the grated potato. Depress the cake firmly into the grated potato to coat the cake. Turn over and repeat with the other side of the cake. Repeat the process for the remaining cakes.
Sprinkle the cakes lightly with masa harina. Heat some of the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the cakes and cook, turning once, for about 7 minutes on each side, until nicely browned with a firm crust. Serve immediately with the peanut sauce on the side.
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