From the roots: Indigenous restaurants use native ingredients for delicious dishes

Nicole Underwood

By Nicole Underwood / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ

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Fry bread with green chile and muttonEmerson Fry Bread Facebook

(PINAL COUNTY, AZ) Arizona attracts curious travelers far and wide for the magic of the desert, with its resilient nature and majestic terrain. What one can find, even today, is that the unique relationship to the land and the resilient spirit is still alive, especially among those native to the area.

The state of Arizona is currently home to 22 Indian tribes, representing a large population of tribes in one area. In the United States alone, over 570 tribes are represented. Each unique tribe has their own rich history, language, traditions and culture. Having inhabited what is now the state of Arizona over approximately 12,000 years ago, many Indigenous peoples who still reside here work diligently to preserve their cultures and deep-rooted history. Here in the Sonoran Desert, the Navajo Nation has a large presence (alongside the other 21 represented tribes) and offers unique cultural experiences visitors are invited to partake in.

Understanding the history of these vast desert lands and ingredients connected to the soil is a special dive into what sets Arizona apart from other states. Because Native restaurants are scattered across the state, we will focus on a few key Native restaurants that focus on key ingredients essential to many customary dishes. According to Visit Arizona, “squash, beans and corn are the ‘three sisters’ of American Indian cooking.” While these aren’t the only ingredients prominent in Native cooking, it is a good place to start.

Let’s start with a dish that everyone enjoys: infamous fry bread. Traditionally called “dah diníilghaazh” by the Navajo Nation, this simple bread made of flour, sugar, salt and lard is widely popular with good reason. The slightly fried, chewy texture of the bread, with its airy quality makes it the perfect vehicle for meats, beans, cheese and green chile for those craving a savory option, or honey and powdered sugar if you desire a sweeter take on the bread.

While this food is enjoyed by many, it is important to mention its dark history, where the Navajo people in present-day Arizona were forced to walk 300 miles from what's now considered eastern New Mexico to escape genocide. Thus, not being home to where their crops were located, the fry bread became an important symbol of overcoming immense pain and difficulty. You can enjoy homemade fry bread from local chefs such as Renetto-Mario Etsitty, owner of The REZ or popular restaurants like Emerson Fry Bread and the James Beard Award-winning Fry Bread House, featuring cuisines of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Many times, the Native food and ingredients you can find are in non-traditional spaces. Such a place is a new restaurant called WILD Arizona Cuisine, where Diné chef Jaren Bates is experimenting with ingredients of barrel cactus seeds and underground-roasted corn for dishes like ice cream, or fermenting saguaro fruit vinegar and acorn miso for one-of-a-kind dishes, always focusing on offering traditional foods in unique ways. According to CopperCourier.com, the new WILD Arizona Cuisine restaurant holds pop-up meals every couple of months and “has served food at Nook Kitchen Arcadia, North Mountain Brewing Company, and Crepe Bar in Tempe.”

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Duck confit tacosCafé Gozhóó Facebook

There are many other unique pop ups and hole-in-the-wall concepts to explore, especially on the reservation, but one final special restaurant to mention is Café Gozhóó in North Fork. Through their food, they hope to activate ancestral knowledge while supporting local Apache artisans and foragers. They see their restaurant as a “fueling station,” according to the mission statement on their website.

Located on the north end of Whiteriver in the communities of North Fork and Diamond Creek at the intersection of AZ-73 and East 57th Street. By providing accessible and affordable quality food, coffee-based products, and a spirit of wellness, they better serve the White Mountain Apache Tribal members that live nearby. Their Western Apache landscape focuses on a calorie-rich menu celebrating the Indigenous “flora and fauna.”

You can find daily specials located on their Facebook page, such as duck confit tacos, refried beans, sweet red chili three sisters salad, queso blanco and spicy salsa or arancini (quinoa) with butternut squash lemon purée, avocado crema and greens from their local farm.

Enjoy the richer side of our desert landscape and experience the many Native restaurants Arizona has to offer.

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