Fork in the Road: Flagstaff Frybread

Tuesday, August 3, 2010 36 comments
Lamb and Piñon Stuffed Frybread
I hope you'll enjoy Fork in the Road, a series of posts in which I recount the places we've been, recreate the most memorable meals we've enjoyed, and rehabilitate the ones we'd otherwise rather forget. Last time, the Roadtrip Dinner Redux was in Santa Fe, New Mexico and a simple side dish of Posole.  Heading west, we found ourselves in Flagstaff, Arizona where a not-so-traditional Native American dish piqued my interest . . .

It's amazing how different the scenery looks when viewed through a bug-splattered windshield.

As Mr. Noodle and I continued on our 'round-the-West roadtrip, I must admit to carrying clichéd images and expectations of what we would find, especially in the Southwest. Some were confirmed, like the dried chiles, deep red and clustered in ristras, hanging against sun-baked adobe walls; solitary buttes rising into blue skies like massive sentinels, and a dust devil twirling and twisting in a frenetic dance across the desert floor. Others were completely upended, such as the lush evergreens that draped over the famous red rocks of Arizona, belying my image of a dry, bleached state. But the landscape wasn't all I had wrong: it turned out that the foodscape was just as surprising.

Evergreens and red rocks near Flagstaff, AZ
Mr. Noodle and I were keen to taste regional specialties during our travels. In New Mexico, wonderfully piquant chile sauces were most often mentioned as a must-try, although the highlight of our Santa Fe eats was a side of simple posole. As we headed into Arizona toward Flagstaff, I looked forward to trying prickly pear cactus, the fruits and pads (nopales) of which are used in everything from salsas to salads and sweets. Arizona cookery is heavily influenced by the cuisine of the northern Mexican state of Sonora, which is noted for its milder use of spice and the prevalence of beef and wheat in recipes, rather than the pork and corn more common in other regions. But while we were gearing up for some Sonoran-inspired specialties such as carne seca, we kept hearing about another foodstuff whose origins are firmly rooted in American history.

Bread. Fried. 
Frybread frying
Are you going to have frybread? asked one person. Don't miss the frybread! enthused another. Frybread is exactly as its name suggests: a simple flat bread traditionally pan-fried in lard and served plain, topped with meat, cheese and beans, or sweetened with sugar or honey. Often preceded in name by Indian, Native American, or a specific tribe or nation, frybread is a potent and popular culinary symbol of this country's indigenous peoples - a somewhat surprising status given the implications of its history and the repercussions of its present.

While the terms Native Americans and American Indians serve to broadly identify the aboriginal peoples of the United States, they may also erroneously imply that there is a singular culture shared amongst them. In fact, the federal government, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, officially recognizes 564 tribes, with scores more recognized on the state-level or in the process of petitioning for recognition. Although they share regional similarities in certain customs, language and other aspects of culture, each of these groups is a separate self-governing entity with distinct cultural identities. Yet somehow, frybread transcends the differences and is found in some version or another in nearly all tribal cuisines.

Contrary to what its importance to Native Americans implies, the origins of frybread are neither ancient nor based on any traditional food sources. The Navajo (Diné), whose semi-autonomous territory encompasses nearly 27,000 square miles in northeastern Arizona, western New Mexico and southeastern Utah, are generally credited with creating the frybread known today, but under painful, tragic circumstances. In 1864, during a period known as The Long Walk, nearly 6000 Navajo were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and marched on foot over 300 miles east to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, where they were incarcerated in an area just 40 square miles in size. There, the Navajo and a smaller group of Apaches were cut off from their traditional food sources of wild game, fish and fruits, and unable to grow their staple crops of corn due to the poor quality of the land, limited water resources and pest infestation. To avoid starvation, the US Army provided rations of wheat flour and lard; with these meager ingredients, the Navajo made frybread, which helped sustain them for four arduous years at Fort Sumner before they were finally allowed to return to their homeland.

The Navajo's Long Walk
(photo from
Wikipedia.org)
Symbol of Pride, Reminder of Oppression or Health Threat?

How, then, did a purportedly Navajo creation come to have such an ubiquitous presence in the food cultures of so many other tribes throughout the US? Unfortunately, it's difficult to say how it spread among such varied and distant groups. One train of thought is that the concept of frybread existed well before The Long Walk, as a form of bannock, or flat quick breads:
"The bannock of Aboriginal people was made of corn and nut meal, and flour made from ground plant bulbs . . . [and were] cooked by various methods. Some rolled the dough in sand then pit-cooked it. Some groups baked the bannock in clay or rock ovens. Other groups wrapped the dough around a green hardwood stick and toasted it over an open fire."
(from Bannock Awareness, British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range)
In her book, American Indian Food, author Linda Murray Berzok refers to frybread as Ban ik' aha (bannock?) and notes that "there is absolutely nothing native about it, not its ingredients, technique or the cooking vessel . . . Fried breads were a Spanish tradition; they brought wheat, lard (from pigs) and metal fry pans to the Southwest . . . The relocation of tribes brought them into contact with new ones and could have facilitated the spread of fry bread"(p. 36-7).

Regardless of its origins, the modern version of frybread is a deeply contested symbol in Native American societies. Many question how a food, whether as an adaptation of a foreign culture or borne of a miserable and unconscionable internment of a people, and with no links whatsoever to the traditions of indigenous tribes, could become so ingrained in their food culture. But even more say that it is precisely this history - of Other dominance and oppression - that makes it an appropriate representation of the American Indian pride and unity shared by all tribes.
"Indian rocker Keith Secola celebrates the food in his popular song Frybread. In Sherman Alexie's awared-winning film Smoke Signals, one character weaers a 'Frybread Power' T-shirt. Both men call frybread today's most relevant Native American symbol. They say the food's conflicted status - it represents both perseverance and pain - reflects these same elements in Native American history. 'Frybread is the story of our survival,' says Alexie."
(from "Frybread", by Jen Miller/Smithsonian.com)
It's a survival in peril, says writer/activist Suzan Shown Harjo, who wrote a controversial 2005 article vilifying the cherished frybread as a primary culprit in the high rates of obesity and related health issues among American Indians (according to one CDC report, rates of Type 2 diabetes is about 12% versus 5% for the general population, and as high as 50% in some tribes). More recently, Health.com named frybread as one of the 50 fattiest foods. With as much as 700 calories per flat loaf and more than 25 grams of fat, it is such a nutritional black hole that an oft-repeated joke is that 'frybread has killed more Indians than the federal government.' And yet judging from the vociferous response to Harjo's viewpoint, many Native American are loathe to give up this food. It remains a staple in many households and no powwow, feast or celebration is complete without it. Recently, restaurants such as The Fry Bread House in Phoenix, AZ and Tocabe in Denver, CO aim to make 'Indian tacos' as popular in mainstream American culture as the original Mexican favorite.

Fusion Food

Indian Taco (Wikipedia.org)
Actually, Indian tacos more closely resemble another Mexican dish called tostadas, with frybread standing in for the toasted or deep-fried corn tortillas, then topped with beans, cheese, lettuce and meat. Considered the unofficial state food of Arizona, where it is known as Navajo taco, it was the dish that popped from the menu when Mr. Noodle and I sat down for a meal at Salsa Brava, one of Flagstaff's most popular restaurants. With all the recommendations to try frybread ringing in my ears, how could I pass on it?

Perhaps I should have started with just plain old frybread. It's not that Navajo taco wasn't tasty - in fact, it was really quite delicious . . . if its components were served individually. The pork carnitas was beyond tender, dissolving with full flavor with just one bite. The delicate texture of the savory meat was in perfect contrast to the frybread's pleasantly chewy and slightly sweet interior beneath a satisfying outer crispiness. That is, the fried crispiness that hadn't yet become soggy-soft from a generous layer of beans. I was not unhappy with my meal, eating as much as I could (which was rather a lot!) but something was missing.

After the built-up expectations of tasting frybread, I was rather disappointed that it had been relegated to a mere platter for a mound of toppings belonging to a different food tradition. After learning more about this fried dough's history and symbolism of tribal pride, I feel as if the Indian taco also represents something else: just as the frybread was hidden beneath all those toppings, so has Native American cuisine been obscured by our fascination with the foods of other, more distant cultures. I can name favorite dishes from various Asian cuisines and I've cooked traditional recipes from lands I've never visited, but how much do I - or any of us - know of the foods of the people who have lived off this land for millennia, beyond frybread and wild rice? Not much, unfortunately. But I hope to remedy this lack by exploring the history and diversity of American Indian food traditions in future posts.

Roadtrip Dinner Redux: Frybread, Stuffed

To start, I decided that my Navajo Taco from Salsa Brava in Flagstaff, AZ would be my next Roadtrip Dinner Redux. As delicious as this dish was, I wanted to find more of the essence of Indian frybread beneath all those toppings . . .

Plain frybread
There's a basic reason that frybread is so popular, despite its nutritional failings and dubious historical antecedents: it's tasty! But the best qualities of this fried dough - crispiness yielding to a pillowy sweetness - are almost overwhelmed by other flavors and textures in typical Indian/Navajo tacos. So, I thought I'd try bringing the focus back on the frybread and its Native American connections by swapping out 'toppings' for 'fillings' made with ingredients more common to Navajo cookery:

Lamb - Introduced by the Spanish in the 16th century, sheep is the Navajo Nation's most important livestock and the Navajo-Churro breed, considered one of North America's earliest domesticated farm animals, is highly prized for its wool and meat. Mutton stew, along with frybread, is most often named when referring to the best representations of Navajo dishes.

Piñon (Pinyon) - For thousands of years, these pine nuts have provided American indigenous peoples with cholesterol-free calories (nearly 2500 kcals per pound!), many of the 9 essential amino acids for growth and other important nutrients needed to sustain a healthy diet dependent on wild food sources (Lanner, 101-2). Today, over 80% of the pine nuts consumed in the US are mostly imported from China, but the seeds of two native pinyon trees found primarily in the Southwest - Colorado piñon (Pinus edulis) and Singleleaf piñon (P. monophylla) - are still harvested by hand much as they have been for millenia and continue to be an important Navajo food (Sharashkin, n.p.).

Piñon nuts, freshly shelled
Sage - Specifically, white sage (Salvia apiana, part of the mint family) has a variety of uses in Southwestern Native American traditions, including ceremonial, medicinal, cosmetic and culinary purposes. It should not be confused with another white sage (Artemisia ludoviciana) which is also used in American Indian ceremonies and medicine, but belongs to the daisy/sunflower family [source: Wikipedia]. As I could not find either kind of white sage, I substituted the more common garden sage (S. officinalis) for my recipe.

Peaches and Apricots - The cultivation of peaches and apricots in the American Southwest was introduced by Spanish settlers in the early 17th century and first adopted by the Hopi, who then passed along the knowledge to their regional neighbors, the Navajo. Peaches eventually became such an important crop in the Navajo diet that the destruction of thousands of their fruit trees, in late summer of 1864 by Captain John Thompson and the First New Mexico Calvary, was considered the breaking point for the last holdouts of the Long Walk (Jett, 368). While it may have been more appropriate in an historical context to use dried peaches, I chose to use the smaller, more plump dried apricots for purely aesthetic reasons.

As you may note, these ingredients have a decidedly Navajo bias, in keeping with the origin story of frybread. However, for the frybread recipe itself, I deviated from this theme. Although this fried staple consists of very basic ingredients - flour, water and salt - some tribal variations do exist. Most Navajo frybread recipes call for powdered milk (in some, fresh milk), but I opted for a simple combination of flour (all-purpose and whole wheat), salt, baking powder and water.

Finally, to stuff the frybread, I chose an Indian method - as in the South Asian country. Parathas are an Indian flat bread which are also pan-fried and often made with fillings, making it an ideal model for my version of frybread. For guidance on how to fill and roll out the dough, I followed this video of two guys, one messy kitchen and a very versatile wine bottle!

Other works cited
Jett, Stephen & John Thompson. "The Destruction of Navajo Orchards in 1864: Captain John Thompson's Report". Arizona and the West. 16:4 (Winter 1974), pp. 365-78.
Lanner, Ronald M. The Piñon Pine: a Natural and Cultural History. University of Nevada Press, 1981.
Sharashkin, Leonid and Michael Gold. Pine Nuts: Species, Products, Markets, and Potential for US Production. Northern Nut Growers Association 95th Annual Report, 2004.

Lamb and Piñon Stuffed Frybread

One of these filled breads is quite hearty, but sliced into triangles, they would make excellent appetizers. I was fortunate enough to find piñon nuts as we traveled through the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona (a whole 'nother post), but Italian pignolas or other pine nuts would do just as well.

Savory stuffing
Makes 10-12 stuffed breads

Frybread Dough
(adapted from Pueblo Indian Cookbook, Phyllis Hughes [ed.])

Ingredients
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 cup whole wheat bread flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water

Combine salt, baking powder and flours in a large bowl. Add water in small increments and knead with your hands until dough is soft but not sticky. Cover bowl and let dough rest for 20 minutes.

Lamb and Piñon Filling

Ingredients
1/2 lb ground lamb
1/4 cup onions, finely chopped
1.5 - 2 tsps ground sage
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
1/2 tsp coarse salt
3 dried apricots, chopped very small
1/4 cup piñon or other pine nut
1/2 tsp fresh sage, minced (about 2-3 leaves)

1. Using your hands, mix lamb, onions, ground sage, white pepper and salt until well-combined;
2. In a non-stick skillet over medium heat, cook lamb mixture, breaking up the meat so that it is in crumbly pieces and just until the meat is no longer pink;
3. Turn off heat and add apricots, then piñon nuts and fresh sage, stirring well into the lamb mixture;

To stuff the frybread dough: (watch this video for guidance)

In a cast iron skillet or fry pan, pour oil to about 1/4" deep and heat.

1. Pull off a piece of dough about the size of a small egg and roll into a ball between your palms;
2. On a floured surface, roll dough ball with a rolling pin (or wine bottle!) into a flat circle, about 5" in diameter;
3. Spoon 2-3 Tbsps of the lamb filling in the center of the flattened dough, then gather the edges toward the center and pinch close. Make sure that there are no gaps in the seam;
4. Place the stuffed ball, seam side down, on floured surface and gently roll out again to a slightly smaller circle than before (about 4" diameter). Try not to let the filling break through the dough as you do not want oil to saturate the inside;
5. Carefully place stuffed dough in hot oil and fry until lightly golden, then gently flip/turn over;
6. Remove from hot oil and place on paper towel-lined plate to blot excess grease. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.
7. Serve hot, or allow cooked frybreads to cool down, then stack with wax or parchment paper between each layer, and freeze for later.

If you'd like to try open-faced Indian tacos instead, check out these versions from the recent International Incident Party: Tacos, hosted by Penny of Jeroxie: Addictive and Consuming:

Anh of A Food Lover's Journey - Fry Bread Taco with Mexican Spicy Meatballs
Evelyne of Cheap Ethnic Eatz - Navajo Tacos
Brie of Le Grand Fromage - Native American Frybread Taco

36 comments:

  • lisaiscooking said...

    Interesting history of fry bread! I've never tried a Navajo taco, but I'll be on the look-out when I'm back in Arizona next month. Great idea to stuff the bread too. Looks delicious!

  • Stephanie Meyer said...

    Tracey, this is fascinating and beautifully thought out and written. I'm reading The Last Stand right now, the back story of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, how delightful when I'm thinking so much about Native American culture to read this today. It's a very impressive - and delicious! - piece.

  • Phyllis said...

    Your stuffed fry bread looks delicious! One of the 50 fattiest foods?! Pass me some quick!(LOL)
    And who knew 80% of the pine nuts consumed in the US come from China?

  • Gera @ Sweets Foods Blog said...

    Wonderful travel and awesome landscapes.

    The frybread here is called "torta frita" and it's a must in rainy days but only with some sugar on top.

    Adore piñones although here is scarce to shop them.

    The complete recipe with lamb and the frybread is totally mouthwatering!

    Cheers,

    Gera

  • Chef E said...

    Oh my goodness this looks so good, and I might have to make it when hubby returns, did I just say might? I mean I am making it!

    Love the goldfish pointing on the map- they are good helpers!

  • UrMomCooks said...

    Wonderful post! Luv reading about travels thru my favorite part of the country! Arizona and New Mexico are awesome in their splendor and in their history... Fry bread and posole are such unique local treats. Like you, I cannot visit without being struck by the realities of life for those peoples who have lived and still live in that area. Lovely tribute.

  • Jenn said...

    I'm really lovin' you road trip posts. This sort of reminds me of the cheese bread I had when I went on a day trip to Baguio. They had a similar bread with nuts and fruits. That looks really delicious.

  • girlichef said...

    I LOOOOOVE fry bread! And I kid you not, I've been meaning to make some and some Navajo tacos lately, just haven't gotten around to it yet. Thank you for bringing us such a thorough and insightful history...one that actually runs through my veins. Amazing post...gorgeous food!

  • Lori said...

    I love those scenic pictures. It reminds me I have so much left to see in the US! The only fry bread I have had is Langos in Budapest. I know, I'm missing out! This recipe looks incredible. I have been feeling uninspired with cooking lately and you have reignited the flame. :)

  • zerrin said...

    This stuffed frybread looks so tempting! We have a very similar version of it in our town. Actually our town is famous for its frybread(we call it çiborek). The only difference is its filling. We have only ground lamb, onion and black pepper. This one sounds intriguing with apricot and nuts.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you, everyone, for your comments! I will be back to respond but I've hit a particularly busy patch for the next 3 days - all food & blogging-related! It's fun but hectic . . . if I can make it through in one piece until Sunday, I will hopefully be back to 'normal'.

    Will return with proper replies! 8-D

  • Table Talk said...

    I am an ASU grad and sure do miss all the the Native American culture in Arizona. So glad you got to experience the beauty of the red rocks and the Fry Bread!
    Your whole wheat stuffed version is not only healthier, it sounds delicious!

  • sophia said...

    Have I mentioned how much I freaking LOVE your blog? Seriously. You are so awesome, researching and learning new stuff and then listing them down in simple terms with amazing recipes so that we benefit from them, too.

    Fry...bread...what lovely two words together! ;-)

  • Kelly said...

    I just discovered your blog via Natasha's and am thrilled, partly because I love your writing style and partially because as I understand it you live in Minnesota where I grew up!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hello, everyone, and thanks for your patience! It's been a hectic few days but I finally carved out a bit of time to respond to your lovely comments. 8-)

    Lisa - Please let me know where you go! We were in Flagstaff for just one evening, so no chance to check out other restaurants. I'd be curious to know what you think of Navajo tacos!

    Kat - AZ was the first time I tried frybread although I've heard many a Minnesotan mention them! It just seemed natural to stuff them. 8-)

    Stephanie - Thank you so much! I enjoy your writing tremendously, so it means a lot to know you liked this post.

    Oops - please forgive me! I have to run off again for a bit. Will return with more replies!

  • Stephanie Savors the Moment said...

    That frybread looks delicious! I had never even heard of bannock until the other day when I say it on TV and now here it is in your fabulous blog. Will have to give it a try! I just signed up to follow you - please stop by and visit me at www.stephaniesavorsthemoment.com. Lookng forward to your next post:)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Okay, I'm back!

    Phyllis - I know, huh? The problem with such a list is that we're compelled to say we've gone through them!

    Gera - Oh, I'll have to explore 'torta frita'! Fried breads are a universal treat, aren't they? Piñons are quite scarce here, too although other kinds of pine nuts are easier to find.

    Chef E - Just one of these was so filling. With a salad, it would be a nice meal. And the Goldfish was our guide during our roadtrip!

    UrMomCooks - Thank you so much! Traveling through AZ and NM was a true revelation to me and I am so excited to explore the Native American cultures of the Southwest, as well as the rest of the nation. 8-)

    Rebecca - Thank you! I so enjoyed doing it. 8-)

    Jenn - Oh, I am going to keep that in mind! I would love to visit Baguio. So glad you like these posts! 8-)

    Marla - Thank you so much! The danger is that now I know how easy it is to make, it's so tempting to have it more often ... 8-)

    Magic of Spice - Thanks! It was such a marvelous trip. I honestly think I'd choose a roadtrip over an airplane for our next travels. 8-)

    Girlichef - So happy you enjoyed this! AZ was my first taste of frybread and now I'm hooked. I want to try it it different versions now. 8-)

    Sarah - It was such a quick trip through the Southwest so my husband and I are determined to return for a proper, long visit. We have to have more frybread . . .! 8-)

    Lori - So happy to provide a spark! Wow, I think I will have to explore fried breads throughout the world. I would love to travel around the world as you've done but in the meantime, there is a lot of amazing places here, too! 8-)

    Teanna - Thank you! Even plain frybread is so tempting. 8-)

    Zerrin - Again, another version of fried bread! It truly seems to be a universal favorite. I would love to try çiborek! 8-)

    Midge - I also had no idea until I started reading about it. There's still so much more to learn about Native Americans and their food cultures; I can't wait to explore! 8-)

    Table Talk - Thank you! Despite the short duration of our visit, I am so enamored by AZ and NM - what a beautiful land. I am so eager to explore the history and culture of its residents. 8-)

    Mardi - Thanks! It was such a treat to make Top 9. I had fun with this post! 8-)

    Jeannie - Thank you! So happy you enjoyed it. 8-) And your blog makes me so hungry for kuihs and kaya!

    Mysimplefood - Thanks for asking: the bread will naturally soak up a bit of oil, but mainly on the surface, creating a nice crispiness. But it does not penetrate through the entire bread; in fact, the bread is somewhat fluffy. In the first photo, the frybread was sliced and in doing so, the bread was slightly compressed, but in the second photo (the bread was just pulled apart by hand), you can see it's a bit more fluffy. 8-)

    Sophia - You are so sweet! Thank you!! I am so happy that there is this forum for me to just research and share what I've learned. As for the words fry and bread, don't they put a smile on your face? 8-)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Sook - I hope you'll try it out! Frybread, stuffed or not, is so tasty. 8-)

    Elra - I am still a long, long away from the breads and other baked goods that you make but I was quite pleased by how well these turned out! 8-)

    Samantha - It's my pleasure! 8-)

    Conor - Thank you! I hope you give these a try. 8-)

    Kelly - Welcome!! Thank you so much for coming over from Natasha's site (isn't she wonderful?) Where from Minnesota do you hail? It's a beautiful area but I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm still trying to get used to winter after 5 years! 8-)

    Juliana - The frybread in Arizona was the first time I tasted it and I loved it right away! I hope you have a chance to try for yourself. Thank you! 8-)

    Anh - Oh, these are deep-fried, too! They didn't get that lovely bubbly form of yours. And don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the Navajo taco with toppings. But I was so focused on the fry bread itself that I almost didn't need anything extra! 8-)

  • Forager @ The Gourmet Forager said...

    What a interesting post - I love being surprised and discovering new things about a culture and food. And fry bread sounds yummy - well, anything fried in lard has got to be right? But YOUR recipe looks awesome! Like a delicious stuffed naan pocket!

 

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