We’re in Mesa Verde National Park right now and touring the Anasazi cliff dwellings. I have a hard time imagining how these ancient peoples made a living here but they did it relatively well for over 700 years before leaving to go elsewhere in the Southwest. I look at these stone homes and structures and think of the men and women who cultivated and hunted food every day. What exactly did the Anasazi people eat? The archaeological record indicates corn, beans and squash supplemented by the occasional deer or rabbit. It was a simple diet without all the additions we take for granted today.
Frybread, this recipe's central ingredient, arose from a dark chapter of American history: the theft of Indigenous lands and forced relocations of Indigenous peoples to reservations. In 1864, the United States government forcibly removed the Navajo and Mescalero Apache peoples of Arizona to Bosque Redondo, an internment camp in eastern New Mexico—a deeply traumatic event known as the "Long Walk." The forced march to Bosque Redondo killed several hundred Indigenous people, who, unable to keep up with the pace, were either shot or left for dead. Starvation, exposure, and disease killed almost a third of the ten thousand Indigenous peoples forcibly imprisoned at Bosque Redondo.
Because the Indigenous peoples held at Bosque Redondo were unable to grow their staple foods on account of the poor land quality, the United States government supplied lard, canned items, white flour and sugar. Lard, white flour, and sugar would be used to create frybread. In Indigenous cultures of the United States today, frybread symbolizes "both perseverance and pain," as Jenn Miller of the Smithsonian Magazine puts it.
Whenever I make frybread tacos, sometimes known as Navajo tacos, I not only enjoy a delicious meal, but I am also reminded of the resilience and rich cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples in the United States.
Authentic Frybread Tacos
- About 2 cups flour
- About 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2/3 – 1 cup lukewarm water
- About 1 pound of lard or Crisco for frying
- Chili: 4 cups canned pinto beans, 1 lb. ground beef, browned; season to taste with chili powder, cumin and salt and pepper
- 1 large onion, chopped fine
- 1 large tomato, chopped small
- 1 head shredded iceberg lettuce
- 1/2 pound cheddar or Mexican style cheese, shredded
- 8 ounces sour cream
- Green or red salsa or pico de gallo for garnish
- Make the dough first. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl.
- Add warm water to the flour mixture, and working with your hands, make a smooth dough. Don’t overwork it or it will become tough. It will be a little bit sticky – not too dry, not too sticky is the key.
- Cover the dough and let it rest for about 30 minutes.
- Make the toppings while the frybread dough is resting.
- Once the dough has rested and you have the toppings ready it’s time to fry the bread. I’ve found that frybread is best hot right out of the pan. This is why it’s important to have all the toppings ready before you start the bread. The simple chili beans can sit on the warming burner. Everything else is cold.
- Heat 2 inches of lard or Crisco, in a heavy pan at a medium-high heat. If using a thermometer, go for 350 degrees. Fat must be hot enough. Pinch off a little bit of dough and put it in the hot fat to see if it fries.
- Once the fat is hot enough, we’re ready to fry. Pinch off dough balls about the size of a lemon. Roll between your hands into balls. Pat balls into round flat shape and stretch further until they’re about a 1/4 inch thick. Immediately and gently lay dough in hot fat.
- Fry the dough quickly, one circle at a time, until golden on both sides, turning once with a fork or tongs. Watch so they don’t burn. Drain on paper towels.
- Putting the tacos together. Put a frybread or two on a plate. Add the toppings in this order: a layer of chili, some lettuce, chopped onion, shredded cheese, and chopped tomatoes. If you like add a dollop of sour cream and any kind of salsa. In truth you can put anything you like on a frybread taco but traditional ingredients always have some kind of chili beans and meat.