Southwest cuisine returns to its indigenous roots

Evan Johnson Media
A dish at Kai, the Pee-Posh Garden, rests on a plate.

Native American food has re-entered the mainstream palette.

Today, fine dining menus infuse indigenous flavors and themes. And the trend is recognized nationally. CNN recently profiled six restaurants serving Native American-inspired meals, including Kai at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix. Kai has a 2018 Forbes Travel Guide Five Star rating.

Kai’s menu boasts what Forbes lists as must-try – grilled tenderloin of tribal buffalo. Prices for these infused dishes skyrocket, with Kai’s menu running about $300 for a full-course meal titled “The Journey.”

Kai’s Head Chef de Cuisine Ryan Swanson has been with the restaurant since 2015.

Ryan Swanson, Chef de Cuisine at Kai in Phoenix.

Swanson creates dishes and courses that intertwine fine dining and the cultures of the native Pima and Maricopa communities.

Cuisine plays a quintessential part of indigenous community and culture, according to Rachelle Simpson, interim director of the University of Arizona’s Native American Student Affairs.

Simpson identifies as Acoma and Jemez, both Pueblo tribes.

“Looking at food and the importance of sharing food … in my family that’s a way of conveying our love for each other,” Simpson said. Simpson’s maternal grandmother taught her traditional ways of making tortillas, stews and pies. “Sharing in that cultural and familial wealth, I hold that very dear.”

Indigenous cuisine is often misunderstood. For many, the thought of fry bread with honey is a staple of all Native American diet.

In reality, fry bread made its way into indigenous culture during the Long Walk in 1864. U.S. Army soldiers gave rations of lard, flour and sugar to the indigenous people marching from Northern Arizona and New Mexico to Fort Sumner, N.M.

Navajo marched in the winter, according to Crow Canyon Archeological Society, and almost 200 tribal members died on the walk.

Indigenous elements are making their way back onto the plate. With restaurants like Kai and others embracing the marriage of Indigenous flavors and practices with modern techniques, the public eye is more focused on Native American food.

“It seems like there is starting to be an appreciation for new knowledge of these ancient ingredients,” said Swanson. “Perhaps we’ll soon find cholla buds and mesquite flour in a supermarket?”

An authentic Indian Taco from Cafe Santa Rosa in Tucson, Ariz.

In a Youtube video by Buzzfeed, non-indigenous people try food typical to Native culture. The participants rave about how healthy and tasty the food is and wonder why there’s such a lack of knowledge about indigenous culture and food.

Simpson and others are working on bridging the gap between the confusion in pop culture and the rich traditions that are under the radar.

“That’s where I find it’s problematic,” Simpson said. “White society (and non-natives) with cultural appropriation, there’s this desire to appropriate our designs or our style of dress, our food, our medicine, our prayers. But when it comes down to advocating for our land, our sacred sites, our water…it’s crickets, sometimes.”

In an article published by CNN, Sioux Chef Sean Sherman said Native American cuisine was far out of the public eye for so long due to the oppression of Indigenous communities – “Out of sight, out of mind.”

This has been the reality of indigenous culture in the United States. Racist caricatures of indigenous people are associated with teams such as the Atlanta Braves and Washington Redskins, or with Halloween costumes of moccasins and beaded headbands.

An important step in the reclamation of the indigenous culture is to decolonize the way you think – especially with food, according to Simpson.

Some tribes have been using less pre-processed foods and instead returning to the diets that their ancestors had before the waves of colonization.

In an article by the Minnesota StarTribune, members of an indigenous community are returning to their roots (literally) for two reasons: the native crops are cheap and easy to grow, and the community is tapping back into their ancestral culture.

“There’s a lot of sugars that are added, preservatives. … I know there are several tribes that are decolonizing their diets,” Simpson said.

Simon Asher is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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