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In the Southwest, the Best Tacos Are Flat, Fried, and Puffy

Navajo tacos reveal the region’s Native American history.

Mapbox/Emily Jan/Katie Martin/CityLab

The frybread is a soft golden-yellow disc, puffy through the middle and crispy on the skin. It’s made with white flour, water, salt and sometimes a touch of sugar or baking powder, then fried in shortening or lard. Serve it topped with some combination of beans, beef, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, onions, and chile—the usual taco fixings—and you have a Navajo taco, sometimes called a frybread taco or Indian taco.

A meme-filled debate over the proper name rages in a Navajo Taco Facebook group. One commenter says, “I don't care what the hell you call it, put it on a plate, throw some hot sauce on it, and get outta my way.”

Writing for The Atlantic, Emily Deruy lamented that Native American cuisine is often overlooked by foodies, possibly because, with so many tribes and traditions, there’s so much variation in the dishes and many diners aren’t familiar with them. Outside the restaurant world, projects such as Roxanne Swentzell’s Pueblo Food Experience and Tewa Women United’s Healing Foods Oasis seek to revive culinary and agricultural practices to combat health problems and economic distress in Native communities. And as Eater reported in September, a forthcoming Native American restaurant in Minneapolis recently bested the Kickstarter record for food establishments, with 2,358 backers promising $150,000. The Sioux Chef’s kitchen will prepare “pre-contact Native American cuisine,” Eater Minneapolis reported.

In the meantime, Navajo tacos can already be found all over northern New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma. They are near-ubiquitous at festivals, fairs, and powwows, any place indigenous communities and fondness for Mexican food overlap. They are sold from trucks and stands, at fundraisers and sit-down restaurants, usually for $5-8 a heaping plate.

If you’re in the Phoenix metro area, you can keep tabs on taco sales near you, and might be lucky enough to find someone selling mutton or stemmed corn stew on the side. In Denver, Tocabe serves up frybread tacos alongside a bounty of Native American dishes from various regions, including bison ribs and Osage hominy.

Loved this lady and her food 😻 #LuckyMe #TaosPueblo #FryBread #frybreadtaco #landofenchantment #taos #NewMexico #christmastaco

A video posted by mjina_ (@mjina_) on

Frybread now is a symbol of intertribal and intergenerational unity, but it’s also a reminder of a painful past. The food’s history is inextricable from the suffering of Native American people at the hands of the U.S. government and the high rates of diabetes and obesity in Native communities today. According to Smithsonian:

“Navajo frybread originated 144 years ago, when the United States forced Indians living in Arizona to make the 300-mile journey known as the "Long Walk" and relocate to New Mexico, onto land that couldn't easily support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans. To prevent the indigenous populations from starving, the government gave them canned goods as well as white flour, processed sugar and lard—the makings of frybread.”

The National Indian Taco Championship is held the first Saturday in October in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Ramona Horsechief, who is Pawnee and Cherokee, took first prize again this year—her fifth crown in eight years. Asked what makes her tacos special, she cites her homemade roasted chipotle sauce, and the buffalo in her signature chili. “No canned chili, no jarred salsa here,” she says. Horsechief has 18 years of culinary experience and travels all over Oklahoma on the weekends, selling at festivals and powwows. She estimates she can make 110 or 115 frybread an hour.

Horsechief’s grandmother, Effie Little Eagle Osborne, taught her the process as a girl, and taught her to prepare the frybread with love, blessing it so that “people take it into their bodies and it sustains them through the day.” Horsechief prays over the dough as she prepares it in the early hours of the morning. “I don’t take my cooking lightly, because of what my aukot (grandmother) taught me,” Horsechief says. “It’s a ministry. It’s not just throwing some food out there and going on.”

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