MAY IT PLEASE THE PALATE: National Indian Taco Championship

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Mark your calendars for October 5, 2019, and make your travel plans for Pawhuska, Oklahoma. That is the day of the National Indian Taco Championship and for a mere $5 fee, you can even sign up to be a judge for preliminary rounds.

What is an Indian Taco, you say?

Let's start with the base, which is Navajo fry bread. This buttery, flaky pillow of deliciousness is not much different than the base of most carnival fry bread, such as elephant ears, but it has a history deeply rooted in Navajo tradition. In 1864, when the United States government forced the Navajo, who were living in Arizona, to make the 300-mile journey known as the "Long Walk" and relocate to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, it deprived them of their reliance on traditional staples such as vegetables and beans. The U.S. government instead supplied the Navajo with basic provisions such as flour, sugar, salt and lard. From this, fry bread was created.

Navajo have taken this painful past and transformed it into a point of pride. According to Smithsonian.com, fry bread links generation to generation and connects the present with the past. It also symbolizes perseverance. "Fry bread is the story of our survival," said Navajo filmmaker Sherman Alexie.

In my travels through Navajo Nation, which is chiefly in northeast Arizona, this staple was served with complements both sweet and savory. Once with butter and honey, another time with a spicy and aromatic pork chile verde. One of the most popular ways to serve it is as a type of sandwich base which brings me back to the Indian Taco.

Though not traditional you won't find shredded cheddar, iceberg lettuce, or sour cream on a 19th century Navajo dinner menu the Indian Taco has become a staple not only of Navajo festivals and pow-wows, but those of other tribes. So much so that there is a national championship, that will either settle the question once and for all, or simply inflame the debate until the next contest.

Indian Taco

whatscookingAmerica.net

First make the fry bread:

1 cup unbleached flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon powdered milk

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup water

Vegetable oil for frying

Extra flour to flour your hands

1. Sift together the flour, salt, powdered milk, and baking powder into a large bowl. Pour the water over the flour mixture all at once and stir the dough with a fork until it starts to form one big clump.

2. Flour your hands well. Using your hands, begin to mix the dough, trying to get all the flour into the mixture to form a ball. Mix well but do not knead - kneading it will make it too heavy when cooked. The inside of the dough ball should still be sticky after it is formed, while the outside will be well floured.

3. Cut the dough into four (4) pieces. Using your floured hands, shape, stretch, pat, and form a disk of about 5 to 7 inches in diameter.

4. In a deep heavy pot, heat the vegetable oil to about 350 degrees F. You can check if you oil is hot enough by either dropping a small piece of dough in the hot oil and seeing if it begins to fry, or by dipping the end of a wooden spoon in and seeing if that bubbles. Your oil should be about 1-inch deep in a large cast-iron skillet or other large heavy pot.

5. Take the formed dough and gently place it into the oil, being careful not to splatter the hot oil. Press down on the dough as it fries so the top is submersed into the hot oil. Fry until brown, and then flip to fry the other side. Each side will take approximately 3 to 4 minutes to cook. Place the cooked fry bread on a paper towel to absorb excess oil. The finished bread can be kept warm in a 200 degree F. oven for up to 1 hour. They refrigerate well and can be reheated in a 350 degree F. oven for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

To make Indian Tacos, brown ground meat (beef, lamb, venison) with diced onion and taco seasoning mix or your own spices, add diced tomatoes and green chiles, and simmer until warm. Top the fry bread with this mixture, adding chopped lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream, salsa, etc., as desired, just as you would tacos in a tortilla. No plates or silverware are needed, roll it up and eat.

Travel reminds me that one does not eat a dish in isolation from its culture or geographic place. I enjoyed not only eating these treats, but learning about the Navajo.

See you in Pawhuska next October!

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Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht & Roumel PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He is on Sabbatical to retrace a journey he took forty years ago. Follow his adventures at FortyYearsAcrossAmerica.blogspot.com or on Twitter @nickroumel.

Published: Wed, Nov 28, 2018