Ancient Cuisines: Native American Ute Tortillas

It was driven home on every field trip and every vacation that the ancient people, the Anasazi, and their descendants were very close to the land they lived on. Almost like a symbiotic co-existence. Fish, turkey, quail and wild game were the main courses. Texture came in the form of seeds, nuts and roots. Sugary sweetness came from berries, fruits and sap from trees. Fresh corn to dried corn to ground corn was used in cooking to add sweetness, thicken sauces and provide texture.

They reused almost every part of the wild game they hunted. Buffalo bladders were used as pouches to store and carry water. Buffalo stomach liners also served a similar purpose. I remember all the kids going yeow in unison and they each swore that they never would have drunk that water. Buffalo fat and even bear grease was used in cooking. Animal sinew was used to make bows and arrows and to tie sharp spearheads to long wooden spears.

Food was cooked in the most simple manner possible. Meat was boiled, roasted or baked in pits lined with charcoal. Seeds and nuts were eaten raw or they were toasted. Berries were ground into the meals. Seasoning, as we know it, was limited to wood ashes, salt, chiles and sharp berries.

Food often simmered for hours and in general, there was always enough food to welcome guests with. The native Americans ate according to the seasons, storing dried corn, seeds and nuts for use in harsh winters. During hunting season, there was always an abundant supply of fish and meat. Whatever could not be consumed immediately was cut into strips and either smoked or dried. Almost all meals were eaten directly out of the pot by hand and stews were eaten with a variety of breads.

The white man brought with him both disease and new influences. Native American food absorbed these new influences, without losing the simple earthiness of their food. The three recipes I tried were:
- Ute Tortilla, from the South West
- Mohegan Succotash, from the North East
- Pueblo Chicken, from the South West
These recipes are based on recipes from Spirit of the Harvest, North American Indian Cooking by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs, a very well written book that delves deep into native American heritage: their food, their customs and some history.

Ute Tortilla

Most breads are fry breads and are an integral part of their cuisine. They are everyday food and they are also served at festive occasions like powwows. Fry bread is often served with some kind of sweetener, like berries, powdered sugar or honey. There are savory versions of fry bread with chopped onions and chillies mixed into the dough. The recipe varies from tribe to tribe but the ingredients remain essentially the same.
  • 3 cups unbleached flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder (3 tsp at high altitudes)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 and 1/2 cup warm water or milk
  • 1 tbsp oil or shortening
  1. Combine all ingredients except for the oil and knead until smooth.
  2. Rub oil all over the dough and cover. Let this dough rest for about half an hour
  3. Divide the dough into 10-12 equal parts and either pat or roll out into a circular shape that is about 1/8 inch thick and about 6 inches in diameter.
  4. Cook these on charcoal grill or over open fire. I cooked these on a cast iron tava and then did the final roasting over the gas flame, where they puffed up almost like rotis.

  • I used a half-and-half mix of unbleached white flour and whole wheat flour
  • These Ute Tortillas tasted a lot like whole wheat pita bread.
  • They complemented the succotash and the chicken very well.
  • I tried patting these out but the dough kept springing back. So I rolled them out quickly and threw them on the tava, where they shrank even more!

Navajo Fry bread can be made using this same recipe. Instead of being cooked over an open fire, it is deep fried in oil. Based on the pictures in the book, you can get creative with the shape! I preferred to make Ute Tortillas for obvious reasons. Although given a chance, I would love to have Navajo Fry Bread, especially the savory kind!


Anita said...

Roti by another name...this is indeed a simple recipe. I hope you can post the chicken recipe too so we can get a taste of the meal.

How wholesome and 'green' we used to be...all ancient people were! And now,we are trying to go back a little - how much ever modern lifestyles will permit.

Pav said...

Very informative post! Very intriguing!! Now you got me hooked to Native American cooking with this post of yours!

Anita said...

ANd I am reeeealy curious to know what Succotash is? It looks all gooey deliciousness...

musical said...

And i am totally gonna' try this one! Once again, its heart warming to see the similarity between cultures: like Anita said, the ute tortillas remind me of roti!

Love this "Ancient Cuisines" series of yours (i hope it does become a series) :-D.

Indian Food Rocks said...

Almost like a roti, except that it has baking powder in it. Baking powder, I am sure, is a new ingredient. So until the time that it was incorporated into the dish, it was very much like our roti. I liked the idea of rubbing the dough with oil. My roti ka atta goes dry on the outside even if I cover it with a damp paper towel. The oil kept the dough moist!

Succotash is coming! Hold your horses! The recipe I followed as well as the other succotash recipe has no cream in it. I haven't looked it up further so I don't know if that is an adaptation for the Western kitchen or if there were some tribes that did that. If any of you find out, please let me know!

Musy, I'm hoping it will be, too! It's been quite an adventure. Although the Persian cuisine has taken a back seat! And that is mainly NaBloWriMo's fault!

Mythili, it's simple cooking. Lots of stewing and a lot of frying, too. I stayed true to the flavors and didn't add any chillies or any other spices or seasonings.

Suganya said...

Funny that I didn't pay attention to this question, bcoz it is everywhere around me. Not that I get tired, but thank you for turning my focus. I should visit the library.

lakshmi said...

the tortillas seem close to naan/ tawa bread

Srivalli said...

whatever it is, it looks great..and of course we get to have a good read am not complaining or questioning you Manisha...Now don't go blaming NaBloWriMo's Okie!..remember you said you were doing oct mainly to practice for get ready to write for Nov..and am sure by now you know what to write on right..just about anything ..we don't mind anything in particular...:D

Padmaja said...

Wow!! another master piece, never given a second thought about these ancient cuisines, lovely read!!!
and hey quite a nice dish!!!

sunita said...

Wonderful post...I love the hearty cuisines of yore...something so warm and inviting about them...if only we could bring back even an iota of that lifestyle into our's.

Mrs. K said...

The unbleached flour in the dough makes it shrink. I bought a tortilla press couple of years ago, but never used it for making tortillas yet! I use it for rice flour rotis. Works well with rice flour. I will try tortillas some day.

Saju said...

looks so wholesome and tasty. You are right baking powder must be new addition. GReat info on the Native American cooking

Nabeela said...

This answers my question about fry breads. I might try it too if I get time.

Mandira said...

Manisha, congratulations on your well deserved "Click" win :) I loved this post... wonderful info and I hope this becomes a series too!

bee said...

hone ground corn or wheat has a really earthy taste and aroma and i can imagine how wonderful it would taste the way they made it.

do visit the ute museum at monstrose if yo go to black canyon of the gunnison.