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Getting into the kitchen with an Indigenous chef who uses North American ingredients


Some Indigenous chefs are now using mainly ingredients that are native to North America. As Elizabeth Caldwell with KWGS in Tulsa, Okla., reports, these chefs are determined to show the benefits of Indigenous cuisine.

NICO ALBERT WILLIAMS: This is kind of where we stock all of our goodies.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: In her pantry in Tulsa, Cherokee chef Nico Albert Williams is showing off her supply of wild rice. She has several tubs that she bought directly from the Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: You know, they go out in a canoe, and they have canes, and they knock the rice into the canoe.

CALDWELL: After the rice is emptied out of the canoe, it's parched over a wood fire.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: They toast it and roast it, and that's how they dry it and get it ready to store.

CALDWELL: There's some other prizes in her pantry - hominy from a Haudenosaunee farmer in South Carolina and yaupon holly tea, which comes from one of the only caffeinated plants in North America.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: Yaupon holly is a traditional ingredient in a lot of our medicines when you're making teas and things like that. It's kind of going to be the next big thing.

CALDWELL: Today the wild rice is important. Albert Williams, who is a caterer, uses it in a lot of different dishes.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: And I might even add just a skosh more oil.

CALDWELL: She starts to saute some dried cranberries with mushrooms, then adds cooked wild rice to the pan and liquid left over from boiling it.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: So the technical term for that is that we're deglazing the pan.

CALDWELL: The liquid helps loosen tasty brown bits off the bottom of the skillet and plumps up the dried cranberries.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: So, like, the cranberry juice mixes with that rice, cooking liquid mixing with the juice from the mushrooms. And it's really creating, like, this really beautiful little sauce in the pan.

CALDWELL: She piles the filling into lettuce wraps. These appetizers are featured at a gathering sponsored by the University of Tulsa to showcase Indigenous foods and Indigenous chefs. Here, she serves the wraps on plates made of pressed palm leaves that can be composted.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: Because it's all - there's nothing added to it. It's just a leaf.

CALDWELL: Albert Williams takes the stage to tell the audience why she started using ingredients like wild rice. She didn't grow up eating these foods, she says. But as she gained experience as a chef, she started to appreciate the benefits.

ALBERT WILLIAMS: We have all of these health disparities in our communities, but those health disparities are not just in the Indigenous community. They are countrywide. People are suffering from these things. And the ways that we heal ourselves also heal the planet when we make those good decisions.

CALDWELL: Like eating foods that grow around us, which she says is the heart of Indigenous cooking. Another chef at the gathering is Sean Sherman. He grew up on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, watching his community eat government-canned fruits and vegetables. Then he became a chef.

SEAN SHERMAN: Just working really hard, learning about all the foods, learning all about a lot of Eurocentric foods and then getting to a point of realizing the complete absence of Indigenous anything out there and then starting to work towards that.

CALDWELL: Today, he runs a restaurant in Minneapolis called Owamni, which roughly means place of the falling, swirling water.

SHERMAN: So we took away colonial ingredients - removing dairy, wheat flour, cane sugar, beef, pork, chicken - really focusing on the bounty that we have around us.

CALDWELL: His menu instead has venison, bison, corn, sweet potatoes and pumpkin custard. When thinking about food, Sherman says people should appreciate what nature has to offer. The first step, he says, is getting outside.

SHERMAN: Creating a relationship with the plants, with the trees, like, finding the Indigenous names for those plants and those trees and just seeing the world differently.

CALDWELL: For these Indigenous chefs, seeing the world differently is part of their recipes. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Caldwell in Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Caldwell
Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.