Chef Sean Sherman - founder of the company The Sioux Chef - has made a name for himself in the Upper Midwest by sourcing and cooking with ingredients originally used by Native American groups across the region. The result is an eye-opening and healthy take on modern cuisine. However, his interests are not limited to the native peoples of the Midwest. For his new book, The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen, Sherman and co-author Beth Dooley pulled from his travels to and experiences cooking with native cultures all over North America. Sherman talked with Francis Lam, and shared with him some unique food and ingredients. You can make Sherman's recipes for Maple-Juniper Roast Pheasant and Cedar Tea.
Francis Lam: I would love to start from the beginning with you. You grew up on a reservation in South Dakota – Pine Ridge Reservation. Tell me about growing up there and what you were eating.
Sean Sherman: Pine Ridge Reservation sits in south-central South Dakota. It's wide open and vast. It's almost desert-y because it's right on the edge of the Badlands. There were a lot of cactus and deserts plants around. There were a lot of coyotes, rattlesnakes, and bullsnakes. We didn't have a lot of the traditional foods growing up; we definitely had a lot of commodity foods. We did hunt, so we did have antelope, venison, goose, and duck on occasion. Lots of pheasant and grouse. And we did pick things like chokecherries, juniper berries, and timpsila, which is the wild prairie turnip. But looking backwards as a chef much later in life, I realized there should've been a lot more knowledge of the traditional foods of the Lakota. That's what set me off on the path; I was trying to figure out the food of my own heritage.
FL: You came from the reservation and eventually got a job – quite young – cooking at restaurants, and you cooked for over 20 years. You were well into your career as a chef before you decided to focus on researching indigenous foods. In some cases, this is the foods of your heritage, but also the foods of indigenous people around the country and across North America. What inspired this mid-career change in your focus?
SS: I was a few years into my official chef career in Minneapolis. I was learning lots of different styles from all over the world, and it just hit me once. It was when I was living down in Mexico that it became apparent; it felt like an epiphany where I saw the path of trying to understand the indigenous foods of, first off, just Lakota, of where I grew up, and really trying to dig backwards and realizing that I needed that knowledge of wild plants. I needed the knowledge of agriculture and food preservation. It set me on that path of trying to figure all those different pieces out to this point today where we are looking at North America as a whole through all the different indigenous communities from the tip of Mexico all the way up through Alaska, the whole picture of it.
It's exciting to think about, but looking backwards, when I first had that epiphany, I realized that there wasn't a lot of information out there, and there was hardly any representation. There were a few restaurants that tried and did well like Loretta Barrett Oden's restaurant and a few other people like Lois Ellen Frank; they’re in the Southwest.
I wanted to further it and try to make food that was as authentic as possible, digging through all of it with the culinary sense of trying to put it all back together.
FL: It must be hard to learn about the past when – like you said, as you grew up in your family – there wasn't a whole body of traditional knowledge that you knew of. Somewhere along the line those traditions had been dissipated or were cut off. In a situation like that, where you are looking at native foods in a place where native people often were removed from the land where they developed their traditions – and where a lot of their history wasn't written down – how do you find the truth of the past?
SS: Part of it was researching the food. I felt like the plants had a lot of the story to tell, so I got to know nature and the plants and how the indigenous communities were utilizing the wild plants around them, not only for food but for medicine, crafting, and daily life in general. But, for me, I'm not trying to dig all the way back to 1491, to pre-Columbian.
SS: I was digging to find out: how Lakota were eating before they were influenced by another culture? That doesn't go that far backwards, if you think about it. For my family line, my grandparents were the first generation of kids to go through boarding schools on Pine Ridge Reservation. In my great-grandparents' era, they were still growing up on the plains with the Lakotas. They always had and still maintained a lot of their indigenous food systems at that point. So, it's only looking back a few generations.
But, because of the oppression and the way things went with relocating and moving Lakota around, and placing them in a place where they weren't used to staying all year-round, it was tough to try to piece it back together. I spent time talking to elders and looking at other parts of the country, at how other people are doing things. There are varying degrees of different tribes that have more or less of their food systems intact. I realized there are a lot of commonalities with it out there.
FL: What is the food you're cooking today? What are some of the ingredients and the dishes that are important?
SS: We like to focus on region as we travel around. We've traveled across the U.S. and Canada, and we like to think about where we are when we're there. We also think about the season. We think about the history of the people that were living there before, and we try to bring out that authenticity of those areas because there's so much diversity. When you look at the indigenous map of North America, you see so much diversity. It changes religion, culture, beliefs, and food every few hundred miles. It’s exciting to explore in a culinary sense because there's just so much food out there that we haven't been utilizing.
FL: As a chef, there are things that would be common in restaurant kitchens that you don't use?
SS: We've tried to cut out anything that wasn't here before; things like dairy, wheat flour, processed sugar, beef, pork, and chicken. We look at the wild foods that are around and the flavors that are there. If there was indigenous agriculture in those regions, what kind of varietals are there? And if they're still around, looking at all the fish, birds, animals and the techniques that people would have utilized to produce these foods – then creating something new with them. We're not trying to do a time piece; we’re actually rebuilding the pantries and then doing some new things with it. The food becomes extremely beautiful, simple, and healthy.
FL: You brought a few things with you. This is a cedar maple tea?
SS: That was our main beverage for the Tatanka Truck food truck when we opened it. Since we weren't selling any sodas, Gatorades, or anything like that, we were just using simple teas. This is cedar bough and maple; we have that recipe in the cookbook. It’s simple, healthy, and delicious.
FL: It's delicious. It has a piney, almost juniper-y flavor; it’s very light.
SS: Very light and sweet. It tastes like camping.
FL: It totally tastes like camping. That's beautiful. And you have a few other things here.
SS: We have pinon pine nuts that come from the Southwest. They have a bit of a tougher shell, but they're really sweet on the inside – almost honey sweet.
FL: Crazy. It's almost like it's candied inside the shell already. And they’re sort of creamy.
SS: It’s a big deal to go out harvesting those in that part of the States.
FL: Amazing. And you have some wild herbs, as well.
SS: Yeah, there's some Labrador, which is also known as swamp tea, which grows heavily all throughout here. There’s some dried apple blossom, which is sweet and tangy. There’s some ocotillo blossom from the Southwest. Again, that's kind of tangy. We look at these wild herbs and try to grab them while they're in season. It's fun that we get to trade some of these flavors with other people around different parts of the country, so we have some diversity to play with.
FL: I think most people don't know much about what you might call Native American food to begin with. If you do bring it up, if there is an item that people think of, it's usually fry bread, right? But you don't make fry bread.
SS: Nope, we didn't see any point in it. I mean, I grew up with fry bread, and it tastes great, but it is everything that isn't Native American food in the sense of digging backwards. Since we removed flour, that's pretty much the bulk of it. Then we look at the origins of fry bread, and it really is coming from the army, basically. It's showing people how to make a very simple staple out of flour, lard, salt, and sugar by deep frying it in a pan. It was widely used, but there's no reason that fry bread should be the go-to piece for every single indigenous community across North America, because there's so much awesome diversity and so much more to learn.
FL: You brought this other thing I'd love to try now. Can you describe this little bite I'm about to try?
SS: That’s amaranth cooked down and dried out into a cracker, so it's light, sweet, and crisp. And there is some cedar-braised rabbit that we caramelized it with a little bit of maple sugar. It's got a little piece of nasturtium on top and a little bit of the wojapi, which is a mixed berry sauce. It’s a simple bite with a bunch of flavor.
FL: I love how crunchy that amaranth gets. You said you cooked it down –
SS: Almost like a polenta. Very simple, with some water and a tiny touch of maple. We cooked it until it was thick. Then we formed it and ran it through a dehydrator. The next day, it's perfect little crackers.
FL: It's so crunchy, and you get that little bit of earthiness from the amaranth. I'm sure from the rabbit as well. The maple sugar is mild, but it really tastes like the woods. The bit of nasturtium gives it a pepperiness, even though you're not using black pepper that was brought here by Europeans.
FL: What an amazing treat to get to taste that, but also to think about how this is telling a different story of Native American food. This is not the Indian taco. This isn't fry bread. This is going back to these flavors that existed before Europeans came to this country, and doing something new with them. It’s amazing. Thank you, chef.
SS: Thank you very much.
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