Get Back to Your Roots with Indigenous Foods
Indigenous foods—native foods that are sustainable and nutritious—offer many health rewards. Learn more about how to boost your diet with these healthful, traditional plant foods.
Food, in the most basic sense, nourishes the body and sustains life. But, on a deeper level, food nourishes our souls. Culture, history, and identity are carried through food—it’s at the core of who we are and where we come from. And there’s profound wisdom in the relationship between people and their food, their connection to the land and the traditional diets prepared with indigenous crops that have fed communities around the world for centuries. That relationship has changed with modern agriculture. Local food cultures have been largely replaced by globalization and homogenization, with serious consequences from malnutrition to chronic disease. The revival of indigenous foods and cooking may be just what we need to rekindle lessons of the past in a way that complements today’s food system.
What Are Indigenous Foods? Species of plant foods that are native to a specific area, such as fruits, vegetables, roots, grains, nuts, and seeds, are known as indigenous foods. These foods and crops have been important food sources for hundreds of years, providing diverse nutritional quality. Traditional diets of people around the globe were built on these foods, along with traditional cooking methods, gathering and farming practices, and cultural food ways.
Millions of people depend on native foods and crop varieties, including wild crops, but, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 75 percent of the world’s plant genetic diversity has been lost since the early 1900s and another third is predicted to be gone by 2050. Farmers have turned to high-yielding crops with little genetic diversity. This decline in diversity puts the health of people and the planet at risk. Read more about the benefits of biodiversity in your diets.
Health Benefits. Traditional diets made with indigenous foods, which are diverse and high in nutritional quality, have been largely replaced by the modern Western diet, which consists largely of highly processed and pre-packaged foods, high intakes of refined grains, fried foods, animal proteins and processed meats, and added sugars, which has resulted in serious diet-related health consequences, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Bringing indigenous foods back into our diets can help counter malnutrition and disease. Nutrient-dense and packed with health-promoting and protecting phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, fiber, and protein, these foods could benefit all communities.
Sustainable. Indigenous foods are not only better for our health, they’re better for the health of the planet. They are sustainable because they’re well suited to the environment, which means they have adapted and continue to adapt to a region’s temperatures and conditions, such as drought, pests, and disease. Because they are sustainable, they provide food security—access and availability to healthy, culturally appropriate food. They also don’t overly damage the ecosystems, as they require less watering, fertilizer, and pesticides, and because they are local, require less transportation, a major cause of pollution.
Organizations, seed banks, and farmers are collecting and protecting traditional varieties and breeds of indigenous seeds to help revitalize the rich biodiversity of native foods. And many chefs are joining the cause with indigenous cuisine, moving toward a closer connection between community and environment, while rediscovering and getting creative with heritage ingredients. But it’s not just for chefs—this is something we can explore and have fun with in our own kitchens. Isn’t it time we all got back to our roots?
Indigenous plant foods come from all over the world—Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and Oceania, and the Americas. A global food system means we can enjoy foods from any of these regions, such as Asian lemongrass, European Perinaldo artichokes, or South American yacon. But since the point of indigenous foods are that they’re native to our geographic region, why not serve up a few of our delicious North American offerings?
Squash. One of the “three sisters” along with beans and corn, squash was a major staple of Native American agriculture. The three were grown together for mutual benefits—corn provided a place for beans to climb, squash benefited from the corn’s shade, the beans richened the soil for the corn and squash, and the squash leaves kept the soil moist for all of them. There are many varieties of winter squash, including butternut, acorn, pumpkins, and delicata. Roasted, stuffed, or pureed into soup, they are versatile and delicious.
Beans. Grown alongside squash and corn, beans were important to Native Americans diets, because they complement corn by providing essential amino acids that corn doesn’t have. As early tribes ate little or no meat, this combination of corn and beans was essential. We have a much larger variety of beans today to enjoy, such as pinto, black, kidney, and great northern beans. Packed with protein, dietary fiber, and iron, they are satisfying and simple to prepare. Try them baked, in soups, stews, and chili, or pureed into hummus.
Corn. Traditionally known as maize, corn is the name given by English settlers who depended on it as a food source. Because corn could be eaten fresh or stored, it was an especially valuable part of their diet. Native Americans soaked dried corn to make hominy, which they could then use to make corn meal for other uses like corn bread or corn pudding. We’re fortunate to have corn available to us in myriad forms like tortillas, masa to make tamales, fresh for use in salads and sides, or even right off the cob.
Wild Rice. An integral part of the diets of many Native American tribes, wild rice is native to the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes region and Canada. Not only a dietary staple, wild rice was a part of cultural and religious ceremonies and stories. Wild rice beds are not as plentiful as they once were, so wild rice tends to be more expensive than other types of rice. But, the flavor, texture, and beautiful color make it worthwhile. It does have a longer cooking time than most other whole grains, so consider slow cooker or instant pot recipes.
Avocado. Valued by indigenous peoples for thousands of years for its high (monounsaturated) fat and protein content, the tasty avocado was quickly embraced by European explorers in North America as well. Perhaps best known as the star ingredient of guacamole, smashed with lemon or lime juice and perhaps additional onion, tomato, or cilantro, avocado is great on toast, sliced into sandwiches and salads, and accents spicy Mexican dishes, like tacos especially well.
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Written by Lori Zanteson
Images by Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN