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Throughout the Southwest, the Indian taco - a fast-food version of traditional ingredients - is proving a hit

NATIVE American cuisine was a hit with starving English immigrants in the 17th century. You know the stories - how Indian people took pity on those early Puritan settlers and showed them how to plant corn in the rocky New England soil. Eventually, the converging European settlers obtained more than maize (corn) from the Indians, many of whom cultivated a rich variety of beans, squash, potatoes, and other vegetables. Fast-food Native-American style is a relatively new concept. But throughout the Southwest at Indian fairs, Indian Market, and powwows of all kinds, the Indian taco has found its public. It's a hit, too.

Denver caterer Jan Jacobs, former schoolteacher and present coordinator for the American Indian Education Advisory Council for Denver Public Schools, is a member of the Osage Nation. She has studied the history of Indian cuisine and based her fast-food restaurant, The Grayhorse, on the premise that Indian food had something special to offer.

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Indian cuisine can evolve

The integrity of Indian culture is important to her, but the evolution of Indian cuisine has its place, too. The Grayhorse offers contemporary Native American food, including the all-important Indian taco.

The Indian taco (also called Navajo taco) is a round piece of fry bread topped with ground meat, pinto beans, lettuce, cheese, tomato, and a special salsa. Sometimes the beef is replaced with ground buffalo, ground chicken, or chorizo (Mexican sausage), which is very popular among Pueblo societies in the Southwest. Indian fry bread (see recipe) is very popular, although it is not normally eaten with every meal. It is a deep-fried bread, impossibly tasty all by itself. It can be served as a dessert toppe d like the Mexican sopapilla with sugar or honey or more elaborately with hot, sweetened fruit.

Mrs. Jacobs and her husband recently sold the Grayhorse and plan to open a sit-down restaurant in Denver. As a caterer, she must adapt Indian foods to the imperative bite-size. "We take food Indian people eat and combine them sometimes," says Jacobs. But "the meat, the bread, and the vegetables are all true to what Indian people normally eat."

The Indian taco most likely was invented by three Indian women experimenting at the Denver Indian Center in 1970 or '71. They were trying to come up with a food to serve at major Indian events.

A tasty combination

Margaret Tyon, director of the seniors program at the center and an Oglala Sioux, stuffed fry-bread dough with cooked meat, green peppers, and potatoes, then deep-fried the "Indian Hamburger." Whether the Indian taco was invented simultaneously in other places, no one seems to know. But looking at the long lines for Indian tacos at the big powwows, the combination seems inevitable.

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There are some 300 tribes in North America and they all have their different recipes. But the traditional fare of all of them came from what was available in the environment surrounding each group.

"I think Indian people a long time ago did not mix things like they do today," says Jacobs. "They didn't have casseroles. They had a meat soup, bread, and maybe dried fruit and nuts - because you can keep those things.

"In summer, they had all kinds of berries and wild fruit and nuts. The berries and fruit could be dried for winter. And so could the meat, which was cut into thin strips, hung on sticks, and dried in the sun."

In some tribes, especially in wetter climates, the meat we now call jerky (from the Indian word charqui) was smoked rather than sun- and wind-dried. The smoke enhanced the flavor and coincidentally kept away insect pests. In many tribes of the Northwest coast, fish also was (and still is) smoked in order to preserve it.

Dried berries and various grasses were used to season some meat soups as was wild onion, wild garlic, and chilies - although the latter were found almost exclusively in the Southwest and Southwest Coast.

Nuts and seeds used

"Some of the Pueblos use seeds to enhance the flavor of the soup," Jacobs points out. "Pumpkin seeds, pi 150>on nuts, sunflower seeds, and other nuts and seeds are often used. Berries could be used to sweeten squash. Berries can also be used to flavor other dishes, including meat dishes, and to color food.

"Indian people also harvested maple sugar," Jacobs continues. "Honey was used nearly everywhere as a sweetener. A lot of people don't think of chocolate as American Indian, but it is."

Breads of all kinds came after the introduction of wheat from Spanish explorers. The Hopi make pika bread. "They take a flat stone and heat it until it's very hot and then they take a paste - I don't know exactly what's in it - spread it on the stone, and then roll it off. It has a really distinct taste. I like it. It's very traditional," Jacobs says.

Each tribe has its special foods which may have ceremonial as well as daily uses. Among Margaret Tyon's people, the chokecherry is very special indeed.

"Indians don't have recipes," jokes Mrs. Tyon when asked how to prepare wojapi (sometimes spelled wo shape). "You pick the chokecherries in the summer when they are ripe. A long time ago, we would dry the berries.... Sometimes I still do that. But most people just can the chokecherries or freeze them.

"Anyway, they are boiled down, sweetened with honey - the traditional way - or with sugar and thickened with a little cornstarch. It is very, very good. I still do this the traditional way because the sun-dried chokecherries have more flavor.... But any berry can be used: blackberries, buffalo berries are wild, tart, and just delicious. In the winter, your grandmother would make a big pot of wojapi when the storyteller came over. You would have stories, then eat fry bread dipped in wojapi and then have more stories. I remember that. I miss it."

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