Frybread has no doubt been a staple since our ancestors first taught themselves, in ancient times, how to grind grains into meal. From that point, it's no great leap to realizing that you could mix the meal with water to form a paste, and fry it in animal fats. It would have been hot and filling, both necessary (although clearly not sufficient) for the ancient indigenous diet.
Today's frybread, though, is very different from those early versions of fried dough. Some activists criticize it as supremely unhealthy - but, it turns out, not really any more unhealthy for our peoples than anything else with modern processed flour, and less so than garbage with high-fructose corn syrup in it, or even dairy products. Those, though, are future diaries. And if you approach it the way we do - which is to have it as an occasional treat, maybe a half-dozen times per year - well, how many people do you know who limit themselves to, say a half-dozen candy bars per year, or a half-dozen beers?
Still, there's a long history here, and as always, a fraught one. Early frybread was probably mostly made with ground cornmeal. It probably wasn't until the latter stages of the colonial invasion that wheat flour became readily available to Indians - and even then, it was in a back-handed way. On the Long Walk, the Trail of Tears, and other forced marches to "reservations" and death camps, the U.S. Army found itself responsible for the care and feeding of thousands of Indian prisoners of war, ranging in age from infancy to elder status. There was probably little variety in the provisions available for the soldiers themselves; still less would have found its way to captive Indians. But a couple of things were often in fairly good supply: wheat flour and lard. And with those two provisions, the modern frybread (sometimes all our captive ancestors had to live on) was born.
Now, it's become a staple of American Indian cuisine. It's one part comfort food; one part cheap and [relatively] easy; and one part nod to the obstacles our ancestors overcame.
What follows is my recipe, with some additional annotations about variations and other uses.
3 cups unbleached wheat flour
1 to 1-1/2 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 to 1 teaspoon sea salt
1-1/8 cups warm water
1-2 cups lard for frying
Mix dry ingredients thoroughly. Slowly add warm water until the mix reaches a consistency similar to pie crust. Mix thoroughly, using your hands, if necessary, but do not overwork it. Leave dough in bowl; cover and allow it to "rise" for 30 minutes.
After dough has risen, add the lard to a cast-iron skillet and heat it to just sizzling. While the lard is heating, turn the dough out, separating it into 6-8 balls. Each should be larger than a golf ball, but smaller than a tennis ball. Take the first ball and flatten it slightly on floured surface.
Once your dough is flattened and in the desired shape, gently poke a small hole in the center with your thumb. This will help with allowing the frybread to "puff" properly. Holding the dough by one edge, gently slide it into the heated oil. Once it's covered by the oil, use a spatula or other utensil to spoon the oil repeatedly over the top of the fryread; this will also help it to "puff." Once puffed and beginning to turn golden at the edges, gently use your spatula and another utensil to turn it over; then continue spooning the oil over that side. After a minute or two, turn back over; if golden brown, use utensils to lift it out of the skillet and drain the oil, then place, puffed side up, on a paper towel to drain.
Repeat with next ball of dough, until all pieces are fried. Makes 6-8 pieces of frybread.
Serve hot, with butter and honey.
Notes and caveats:
Ingredients: First, of course you can use regular wheat flour, but we try to stay away from refined flour and sugar as much as possible for health reasons. Stone-ground wheat flour, however, doesn't produce the proper texture. Since we eat it relatively rarely, unbleached wheat flour makes for a good compromise, but doesn't affect the texture or taste.
Second, you'll notice a range for how much baking powder and salt to use. Most recipes call for the upper end of each. With ground sea salt, I use about a teaspoon. With baking powder, it depends on the brand: more with Calumet or Clabber Girl; less with Bob's Red Mill, which has a saltier, more acidic flavor.
Third, around here, a lot of people commonly "cheat" by using yeast. Yes, it'll rise a bit more, but not appreciably so; the baking powder will suffice, provided that you let it rest for half an hour. More to the point, if you're a purist like me, it's not really "traditional." For our parents' and grandparents' generations, yeast was expensive and hard to get - especially so for Indians. To me, adding yeast is cheating, and honestly, much as I dearly love yeast bread, it doesn't taste right in frybread.
Finally, you'll note that I use lard, NOT shortening or vegetable oil. Some people do use the latter two now, but ask any Indian: What it produces is NOT Indian frybread, but merely fried dough. It's the animal fats in the lard that gives frybread its traditional flavor. That said, if you're vegetarian/vegan, or do not eat pork, you can make a facsimile of it with shortening or vegetable oil.
Forming the dough: Traditionally, fryread pieces are formed by taken the flattened disc of dough and slapping it together rapidly between one's hands - back and forth, flattening it with each pass. If you're like me now, my hands can no longer take it. It's perfectly acceptable to flatten and shape it on the countertop with your hands, or to roll it out with a rolling pin. Traditionally, they are round-ish in shape, but they can be formed into other shapes, if you prefer (Wings's mother used to make them square, so I sometimes do that for him, too). Additionally, don't worry of they are not perfectly round - frybread, when done, is puffy and bumpy and full of texture, so it doesn't need to be a perfect circle. Done properly, it all tastes the same.
Cast-iron v. other materials: Traditionally, you would use a cast-iron cauldron or pot, but I don't have one, and it wouldn't fit on this tiny stove-top anyway. But cast-iron is key; it works far, far better than any other material I've ever used. You can, of course, use more modern cookware, but the texture never comes out right, in my experience.
Variations: You can make yellow corn or blue corn frybread by substituting yellow or blue corn flour for a portion of the wheat flour. If you simply want a hint of color and flavor, use a half-cup of corn flour to 2.5 cups of wheat flour. If you want more corn flavor and texture, you can 50% corn flour and 50% wheat flour. And if you want what's known here as pah'wen, which is much like a thick, chewy corn tortilla, you can use two cups of corn flour to one of wheat flour (which is what I made yesterday).
You can also use the frybread as a base for an entrée instead of a snack or dessert. The Indian Taco is actually no taco at all, but a combination of meat, vegetables, chile, and cheese atop a piece of frybread. Variations of the Indian Taco are another diary altogether.
Finally, leftovers: You can reheat frybread in the microwave on high for 10-20 seconds to make it soft and warm again.
Future diaries in this series: My own food traditions come from the Anishinaabeg of the Upper Midwest; Wings's are from Taos Pueblo (and much of what people think of as "Mexican food" is actually indigenous, so we'll cover some of that, too. Some will include modern variations; some will be very traditional. If you have requests for foods you'd like me to cover in future diaries, just let me know.