Of all the foods most commonly associated with Native American culture, frybread has long been at the center of the table. From one end of the continent to the other, from region to region and tribe to tribe, there are literally hundreds of recipe variations on the tempting and tasty treat. And, as is true with most things scrumptious, there is a history-steeped tale behind this culinary curiosity.
During the trying and tumultuous years—to use the gentlest of terms—that followed the United States’ campaign of forced Indian removal in the American Southwest under the dispatch of General Kit Carson, the Apache and Navajo who survived The Long Walk that cold September in 1863 were held for several years in disparaging conditions at Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner. There they subsisted on meager government rations of flour, lard, sugar, salt, baking powder, yeast, and powdered milk, in essence the template for the commodities program of today.
From this lean and limited larder of cold and rather bleak victuals something warm and bright was born. Frybread was a testament of sorts to the perseverance of spirit and cultural identity: a symbol of survival against uncalculatable odds.
Today, the legacy of frybread lives on in virtually every dough-bowl in Native America; every endless line that winds down the edges of state fair midways; every bite of deep-fried perfection. And whether prepared as an unembellished accompaniment, the base ingredient for a more substantial main course (the Indian Taco), or as a sweet indulgence when drizzled with honey or sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar, the basic recipe for this more-than-palatable pastry of the people is simple and fun to make.
So, go ahead, roll with your senses and indulge a little. Take a bite out of history.
Traditional (Old Fashioned) Indian Frybread
Makes 16 frybreads
4 cups all-purpose white flour
2 tablespoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups warm water
About 2-½ cups vegetable oil or shortening for frying
In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually stir in the water until dough becomes soft and workable without sticking to the bowl. Knead dough on a lightly floured surface 5 minutes. Return dough to bowl, cover with a clean towel, and let rest 30 minutes to allow it to rise.
Shape dough into 16 evenly-shaped balls. Place a piece of the dough between your hands and pat it from hand to hand as you would pizza dough, or roll out to ½-inch thickness on a lightly floured board. (For crispier bread, roll dough to ¼-inch thickness.) Pat or roll the dough until it stretches to about 10-12 inches in diameter. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
Cut or poke a small hole in the center of each piece to prevent breads from bursting during frying.
Pour about 1-½ inches of oil into a large frying pan and heat over medium heat until the oil shimmers—hot but not smoking.
Carefully place a dough round into the hot oil, taking care not to let the hot oil splash. Cook until dough turns golden brown and puffs, about 1 to 2 minutes. Turn over with a fork and cook until both sides are golden brown.
Remove and drain on paper towels or a brown paper bag until excess oil is absorbed. Repeat the process with each piece of dough. Keep warm between two clean kitchen towels in the oven set on low or warm.
Notes on preparation:
A cast iron skillet works best, but an electric skillet or deep-fryer works well, too.
For a more heart-healthy version, use oil with a high-temperature frying index, such as grapeseed or avocado. Gluten-free, brown rice, or whole-wheat flour may be substituted for or mixed with an equal amount of all-purpose white flour.