Sustainable. Local. Indigenous. The last word, “indigenous” is being used by Chef Sean Sherman to redirect the concept of Native American cuisine back to cooking and processing what is local and has been sustainable for centuries. His book, co-authored with Beth Dooley, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, just received the Best American Cookbook award from the James Beard Foundation.
Sherman shared, “I came to a point in my chef career, when I was living in Minneapolis and realizing that I could find food from all over the world, but nothing that represented the land or my ancestors. It just seemed silly and it sent me on a quest to understanding my own heritage, growing up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and being enrolled as a Oglala Lakota. I wanted to know what my ancestors ate, and wondering why there wasn’t a cuisine like theirs out there.”
Fry bread and Indian tacos come to most people’s minds when they think of Native American food. Sherman wants to change this perception. “For us it is really understanding the wild plants and regions that really define who we are.” The plants supply nourishment as well as flavoring for other foods, and many times, nutrients and medicine for health.
Sherman started his business The Sioux Chef about four years ago where he catered, operated a food truck, and organized cooking classes and lectures. Dana Thompson, now the CEO of The Sioux Chef said this of meeting Sherman, “I got to taste his food and hear his story from the very beginning and I have four lines of native blood on my mother’s side and I was so inspired by what I heard from him. I was completely taken aback and I literally felt electric shocks running through my body about the importance of what this means to native communities and to the world communities.”
Sherman and Thompson travel the world to teach people to value and use the ingredients thriving right at their feet. Thompson shared, “We are working very hard to try to change that. We have been talking to all these people here that have a lot of knowledge of food sovereignty and why this is important.”
Thompson speaks of the diversity of native foods across America. The foods in the Pacific Northwest are different than those found in the Southeast or in the Midwest or in Mexico or in Alaska. At her current home in Minnesota populated with lakes and forests, she finds different native ingredients than would be found in Montana. “When we break it down for people we want to say we want to “decolonize” the mind. We want to remove the colonial ingredients and look at what Native Americans were really thriving on, and not just surviving on, but thriving on for so many thousands of years, and so we remove wheat flour, dairy and refined sugar first. We don’t even use beef, pork, and chicken, and if you just start with that, then you look at what you have left, and to use that discipline to move forward and you are left with all these beautiful wild edibles that are so nutrient dense, packed with vitamins. The wild game is so lean, and there’s all these great fats and nuts, and the sunflower oil. The flavors happen to be delicious and beautiful, but they are also medicine.”
Sherman started cooking in restaurants at age 13. He worked “out of necessity because we were poor and my mom moved my sister and I off the reservation and she was going to school and working three jobs. I started cooking at home at a really young age.” After learning foreign cooking techniques from France, Thailand, Japan, Italy and Ethiopia, Sherman realized he knew little about the cuisine of his own heritage. “I started on the path of trying to find out figure out why and what it was all about and I spent quite a few years of researching before I opened up my business.”
Through his research found “back in those days everybody’s job was food. You were either hunting, gardening, foraging, or building things to hold food. Everything was centered around food.” Hunting and growing were community efforts.
Recently, Sherman spent three days at MSU Bozeman lecturing, teaching a Masters class to the Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Montana ProStart students in the Gallatin Arts kitchen, and hosting a fundraising dinner for the ProStart Program.
Three ProStart students from Flathead High School had the opportunity to work with Sherman in the kitchen. Anthony Dimeo helped cook a stewed rabbit cooked with sunchokes, dandelion greens, and dried strawberry, discovering new ways to flavor meat. Angela Brimberry said of amaranth seeds, “I didn’t know you could pop them. It was something fun and new to learn. You just took a dry pan without oil and put the heat on medium low heat and it starts popping.” After roasting and creating a nutty flavor, the seeds were ground up for the base of an apple, mint and squash tart. Anissa Gruvench learned that soaked wild rice could be used as a binder for bison meatballs in place of breadcrumbs or eggs.
Most cooking techniques featured by Sherman avoid fats. Thompson shared, “One of my most favorite thing Sean does is when he burns a corn cob all the way down and just uses the ash from that as a seasoning.” The corn ash supplies slight sweet flavors with a creamy texture. In The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, Sherman also uses sage ash for peppery notes, and juniper ash for its dark inky blue color and earthy, piney peppery essences.
Culinary Services’ Sous Chef Jill Eva Flores, who procured the ingredients for the fundraising dinner, made concerted efforts to source locally. Bison, one of the key ingredients came from Flathead through the university’s Farm to Campus program with the initiative of developing relationships with farmers and ranchers. In town, Flores depends on Root Cellar Foods to secure needed produce. The company develops relationships with local farmers to coordinate product for supplying to larger institutions. During the summer, the campus purchases animals from the 4H sales at the fair.
Last Thanksgiving, “We also served the cedar braised bison that night. We also did several cookies, and we did deviled duck eggs, and we did a pheasant dish and a hazelnut soup. We did some corn cakes where we did nixtamalization on the corn. We started with the dry corn and went through the whole process. I learned that process from my husband’s family who is from Mexico and that’s something that I had been doing for the last 25 years so we just brought it right into the kitchen.” In nixtamalization, hard corn kernels are soaked in an alkaline solution to soften the corn for grinding into masa for tortillas or tamales.
The dinner, served family style included:
RABBIT stewed rabbit | sunchoke | dandelion | dried strawberry
YUCCA roasted yucca puree | rosehip | smoked trout | watercress
BISON cedar braised bison | turnips | huckleberry | corn shoots
APPLE sunflower + amaranth tart | apple | mint | squash
CEDAR & MAPLE TEA
On the back of the menu was a pronunciation guide for the key ingredients in Crow. When Sherman teaches at a location, he attempts to honor the closest tribe. In this case, it was the Crow Reservation.
RABBIT llSASHPÍTE (ease-esh-pá-dah)
BISON BISHÉE (bi-zhá)
APPLE BULUHPCHISUUA (bóol-puh-shoo-ah)
TEA BILISHPITAAPE (bi-leésh-bi-dah-ba)
(In the radio show, Curtis Yarlott, who grew up on the Crow Reservation helps pronounce these words.)
Flores summarized, “With this dinner we are able to form a great partnership with the MSU Culinary Services, the culinary school on campus, ProStart kids in the high school programs collaboration is really great for all of us. I hope people think more about the importance of food and how it can bring people together and just how simple food taste so much better and can be more nutritious for you.”
For Sherman and Thompson, their next chapter is NATIFS, North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems with the goal of creating The Indigenous Food Lab with “an indigenous food hub consisting of an indigenous restaurant and educational training center designed to be a place to work, learn, research and share knowledge and skills surrounding indigenous food systems.”
In life we often do not notice the good things right in front of us believing better is beyond. Chef Sherman is working on refocusing our visions.
From The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017.
WILD GREENS PESTO
Makes 1 ½ cups
To make a bold flavorful pesto, I try to balance a range of flavors: fragrant mint, potent mustard, citrusy sorrel or purslane, bitter dandelion, neutral lamb’s quarters. Making pesto the old-fashion way by pounding together the greens, nuts, and oil will yield a thick, rough sauce.
If you’d like something smoother, blend it all in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. This will keep a week or more in the refrigerator in a covered container.
Wood sorrel, like its domestic cousin, adds a bright, lemony flavor to this sauce.
2 cups wild greens, some combination of sorrel, dandelion greens, purslane, lambs quarters, wild mint, and mustard
1 wild onion or ¼ cup chopped shallot
¼ cup toasted sunflower seeds
2/3 to ¾ cup sunflower or hazelnut oil
Pinch maple sugar
Pound together the greens, onion or shallot, and sunflower seeds with a mortar and pestle or by whizzing in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Slowly work in the oil and season to taste with salt and a little maple sugar.
Serves 6 to 8
This makes a simple and hearty one-pot meal. The meat becomes fork tender and the stock simmers down to a rich sauce. Leftovers are terrific served over corn cakes.
When braising meat, we always add a handful of the ingredients we intend to serve alongside-such as hominy, wild rice, and dried berries. You need to soak the dried hominy overnight before adding, so be sure to plan ahead.
2 to 3 pounds bison or beef chuck roast
1 tablespoon coarse salt
2 tablespoons maple sugar
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
2 to 4 cups Wild Rice or Corn Stock (see note)
Several sprigs sage
1 sprig cedar
2 cups dried hominy soaked overnight and drained
1 tablespoon sumac
½ cup maple syrup
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Season the bison with the salt and maple sugar. Add oil a Dutch oven or large flame-proof baking dish and set over high heat. Sear the bison on all sides until dark and crusty, about 10 minutes. Remove the bison and set aside. Stir in the stock and sage, scraping up any of the crusty bits that form on the bottom of the baking dish. Add the hominy, sumac, and maple syrup and return the meat to the baking dish. Cover the Dutch oven or the baking dish tightly. (Use aluminum foil, if necessary.) Place the bison in the oven and cook until so tender it falls from the bone, about 3 hours.
Remove from the oven. Tent the meat with foil to keep warm. Strain the remaining stock into a saucepan and reserve the hominy. Set the stock over high heat, bring to a boil, and reduce the liquid by half. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Carve the bison and serve over the hominy with the sauce drizzled over the meat.
Note: For Wild Rice Stock: Do not discard wild rice cooking water, it makes an excellent cooking stock for soups, stews, and sauces. For Corn Stock: Save the corncobs after you’ve enjoyed boiled or roasted corn on the cob or you’ve cut the kernels for use in a recipe. Put the cobs into pot and cover with water by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil and partially cover. Reduce the heat and simmer until the stock tastes “corny,” about 1 hour. Discard the cobs. Store the stock in covered container in the refrigerator or freezer.