A Look Inside the Cookbook Redefining Native American Cuisine

November 29, 2017

What do you know about North American food? I mean food that originates on this continent. Food that uses ingredients like squash and beans and cranberries, food that was perfected by people who lived here before Europeans showed up?

I am embarrassed to say I didn’t know very much at all before I read The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, a new cookbook from Minneapolis chef Sean Sherman. I am not alone, I suspect. Sherman’s book, while not the first of its genre, is nonetheless groundbreaking in its scope and mission. Never before has the indigenous cuisine of this continent been presented to such a wide audience. And most of us have a lot of learning to do.

Thankfully, Sherman has made it his life’s mission to study, cook, and write about indigenous cuisine. Born on the Pine Ridge Reservation on the border of South Dakota and Nebraska, he moved to the Twin Cities and spent most of his 20s working his way up through the restaurant world. But he was burnt out by 29, and went to Mexico to regroup. It was there, in the markets and beaches north of Puerto Vallarta among the Huichol people, that he had what he calls an epiphany: “After seeing how the Huicholes held onto so much of their pre-European culture through artwork and food, I recognized I wanted to know my own food heritage. What did my ancestors eat before the Europeans arrived on our lands?”

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Reinvigorated, Sherman went back to Minnesota and studied not just the food of his own Oglala Sioux people, but anything he could get his hands on that discussed the pre-European foodways of North America. The result is the Sioux Chef, a “mission-driven enterprise of indigenous team members” with a mission is to reclaim, reinvent, and revitalize North American indigenous cuisine.

No small goal, but with this book Sherman goes a long way towards establishing both a comprehensive philosophy of his cuisine and its foundational dishes. The book functions as an introduction for home cooks and as a jumping off point for chefs.

So what is Sherman’s cuisine, exactly? He eschews ingredients introduced by Europeans in favor of foods indigenous to this continent. The famous three sisters of squash, corn, and beans are here, as are other native ingredients like sunflower (oil, seeds, and, in one recipe, the heads) and greens (sorrel, mustard, dandelion). Sherman also makes good use of ingredients specific to the Upper Midwest like wild rice and cranberries. Meat consists of duck, goose, grouse, venison, bison, lamb, even bear—no beef, chicken, or pork here.

As for the preparations, some recipes dig deep into Sherman’s roots, like a wojape berry sauce the smell of which transports Sherman back to his "freewheeling six-year-old self.” There are several varieties of cakes (bean, wild rice, hominy) that are griddled until crispy and topped with braised or smoked meats, or vegetables. There are stews and sweets and teas. And, in a section that I wish was bigger (perhaps in Sherman’s next book?), there are recipes from chefs that focus on indigenous foods from other regions: Ontario, Colorado, New Mexico, and more.

The recipes I tried from The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen were delicious and, thanks to the trope of seasoning dishes with sage and maple syrup, very autumnal. Cider-braised turkey legs were the basis of a great Sunday supper, served alongside a wild rice pilaf popping with dried cranberries, chestnuts, and mushrooms. (An aside, but: did you know that cooked wild rice will keep for “several weeks” in the refrigerator? Blew my mind.) A wild greens pesto that I made with store-bought mustard greens, sorrel, and mint was thickened with sunflower seeds, giving it an entirely different flavor and texture than the Italian version, and was great both folded into rice and served with grilled meat. And a mix of roasted root vegetables (acorn squash, turnip, sweet potato) were tossed with a very well-balanced maple syrup, apple cider vinegar, and whole grain mustard glaze.

Growing up in Wisconsin, these are all flavors I’m familiar with; goodness knows I’ve had my fair share of wild rice and cranberries. But The Sioux Chef opened my eyes to their context: the cream of wild rice soup of my youth is universes different from Sherman’s recipes, least of all because indigenous cooking doesn’t use dairy. Sherman’s food is thoughtful and well-researched, pointedly a departure from the fry bread tacos people typically associate with Native American cooking. It is simultaneously deeply rooted and Sherman’s own: the recipes benefit greatly from his restaurant experience and extensive research.

I spent my entire childhood surrounded by these foods, but until Sherman came along, I knew next to nothing about their history. That’s on me, but I am grateful that he has taken it upon himself to educate others about this rich cuisine, and, beyond that, to help mold its future. With The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen as his manifesto and playbook, I can’t wait to see what Sherman does next—and who will follow his lead.

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Paula Forbes has reviewed cookbooks for nearly a decade for sites like Epicurious, Eater, Eat Me Daily, and now Food52. She's currently working on a cookbook about the foods and restaurants of Austin, Texas.