Rediscover a bounty of Midwestern flavors with 'The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen'

A gourd read

A gourd read Lucy Hawthorne

“What did my ancestors eat before the Europeans arrived on our lands?”

This question has driven chef Sean Sherman. To wonder why he can find only one Native American restaurant in the U.S. To open a food truck. To spend years foraging and researching and meeting with other indigenous folks. To run a full-service catering company. To launch a Kickstarter for a brick-and-mortar restaurant that netted nearly $150,000.

With his new cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (written with Beth Dooley), Sherman brings that above question to everyday kitchens and seeks a return to the mindfulness of a pre-European diet. The expansive book is a goldmine of ingredients and techniques at once familiar and unusual to the average non-Native Minnesotan—familiar because the ingredients are culled from plants and game and fish surrounding us, unusual because European colonizers (often intentionally) obliterated indigenous foodways, methods, and traditions. Sherman and his team want not only to revive but reinvigorate these traditions, this way of cooking and eating and honoring the seasons and the bounty around us.

As with any cookbook detailing a whole cuisine, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen covers a broad spectrum: It offers recipes, ingredient guides, stories from Sherman’s childhood, notes on his pursuits of indigenous cooking. “Why isn’t the original indigenous diet all the rage today?” he asks in the introduction. “It’s hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy.” It’s accessible and engaging—a diet and a cookbook that invite you to re-assess your pantry, your eating habits, and what you learned (or didn’t) about indigenous culture in history class.

Though many indigenous diets were supplemented with foodstuffs acquired in extensive trade with other regions of the continent, Sherman focuses here on the upper Midwest, which means readers will find an abundance of sumac, juniper, maple syrup, sage, nuts, and seed oils along with duck, bison, trout, and venison.

Some of these foods are still common on our tables. Others have fallen away. But don’t worry: Many of the recipes and their supporting material are a terrific introduction and jumping-off point for even the most casual of home cooks. Griddled maple squash, cider-braised turkey thighs, and cornmeal mush are well within the quick-weeknight-dinner realm, while deviled duck eggs, a seed-heavy indigenous granola, and acorn meal flour might require a little more preparation. And yes, Minnesotans: There’s walleye and wild rice aplenty.

Wild rice pilaf with wild mushrooms, roasted chestnuts, and dried cranberries

Wild rice pilaf with wild mushrooms, roasted chestnuts, and dried cranberries Lucy Hawthorne

If you can’t find certain ingredients, Sherman suggests substitutes. Can’t track down sumac? Use lemon juice. No juniper? Pinch of black pepper. Out of fresh tamarack shoots? Sub in fresh rosemary. Other ingredients—such as cedar branches and rose hips—are tougher to replace, especially for the average home cook who may not have the time or know-how to forage for and preserve them.

But it’s these very pantry items that prove Sherman’s point: European colonization destroyed the indigenous diet. These foods—sumac, cedar, Labrador plants, tamarack, and more—are available in abundance in our region, but who goes out to forage for them? How many people are using them in their home cooking? Globalization and colonization mean you can easily find dried limes for Iranian cooking, but it also means Cub doesn’t carry timpsula, and ramps are just a complement to your weekly CSA share.

Many Americans do gesture at indigenous cuisine on Thanksgiving, and the recipes in The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen would work well on a holiday table: roasted turkey and squash and cranberry sauce. However, Sherman reminds his readers that few Native Americans celebrate the holiday—too much whitewashing of “the atrocities, genocide, and forced migration our people suffered at the hands of the Europeans.” He adds, though, that many people do gather to honor the harvest.

Rounding out Indigenous Kitchen is a collection of recipes from Sherman’s collaborators and partners across the country, along with a series of suggested menus from previous Sioux Chef pop-up dinners, each held on a night with a full moon. Sherman discusses the importance of the indigenous lunar calendar and notes how different nations may describe one moon, whether it’s about leaves changing color, the ripening of the pawpaw, or the harvesting of nuts. These sections are effective reminders that indigenous food systems live in closer harmony to the changing of the seasons and, even when in far-flung parts of the continent, share common ground.

The cookbook might have benefitted from a brief guide to foraging for and storing some of the pantry ingredients, or suggested resources for such activity. However, it’s already ambitious in scope, and adding such a section might have made it unwieldy. Similarly, readers would have likely appreciated a centralized list of resources on where to find certain items. Suggestions appear throughout the book—find Wozupi’s products at farmers markets, check the aisles of your co-op or local grocery store—but for people outside the Upper Midwest, certain things might be out of reach.

Of course, this again underscores that colonization destroyed ways of eating that relied on what grows all around us. The time is more than ripe for indigenous cuisines to return to prominence. Not to have “a moment” or to be a “trend” as so many “ethnic” cuisines are deemed by a wider (often white) audience. Sherman and his collaborators are doing important work: bringing back indigenous foodways, connecting over a shared past, rewriting history, and inviting everyone else to come learn and cook together.

You, too, can join this evolution in indigenous cuisine. “Over the past few years,” Sherman writes, “the search for wild, indigenous edibles has helped me see the natural world through an ancestor’s eyes, to perceive more clearly the complex and beautiful web of food, history, and culture. The lifelong education is fulfilling beyond measure.”

While many of the ingredients called for in The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen are easy to find (especially if you’re adept at foraging), here’s a guide for where to find some of the more specialty items.

• Hazelnut, walnut, and sunflower oils are carried at Cub grocery stores.

• Find sumac at Middle Eastern groceries and co-ops.

• Find juniper berries at Penzeys.

• Trout and walleye are sold at Coastal Seafoods, Cub, Kowalski’s, and Lunds & Byerlys.

• For game and more unusual fowl such as pheasant and duck, visit St. Paul Meat Shop, Hackenmueller’s Meats, Oakwood Game Farm, and Splendor Ridge Elk Farm.

• Find amaranth and hazelnut flour wherever Bob’s Red Mill products are sold.

• If all else fails, maple vinegar, rose hips, and more can be ordered online.