Fry bread has inspired songs, films, T-shirts and taste buds for over 150 years. It became a staple of the Native American diet after they were forced to migrate on the “Long Walk,” a 300-mile journey from Arizona to New Mexico. When the Navajo arrived in New Mexico, they found their food and hunting sources severely lacking. The U.S. government tried to help with this by giving them flour, sugar, salt and lard. The gesture may have been too little too late, but it birthed the fry bread that forms the base of a Navajo taco. Cooked in a cast-iron skillet, the dough is fried in corn oil. It quickly puffs into a soft and delicious pancake-cloud hybrid. Once the fry bread is complete, the Navajo taco is as simple as adding toppings.
The tacos can be made sweet or savory with many variations. Sweet fry bread is topped with honey, cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar. Savory tacos can be topped with just about anything. Local restaurant Navajo Hogan tops theirs with “beans, beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and salsa,” according to their menu. What they don’t tell you in that brief description is their beans are made from scratch with a secret family recipe. They offer blue corn fry bread as a flour alternative and all of their ingredients are fresh. The restaurant has been around since 1989 and they have won quite a few awards and honorable mentions, so if you are looking to try out an authentic Navajo taco for yourself, this is the place to go.
The tacos are the size of a plate and the fry bread is amazing. It’s super soft and a little soggy from the meat and beans’ sauce. It melts in your mouth and the shortening just takes it to a whole other level. The beans and meat are good and made fresh, but it’s just hamburger meat, so nothing too exciting or life-altering. They have a host of salsas and peppers to top your tacos with. I am a wimp when it comes to spicy foods, so I didn’t try them, but good luck.
Definitely get the sweet bread. Homemade honey butter and cinnamon sugar on a doughy cloud — it’s actual heaven. They are warm and soft and sweet and part of me wants to steal the honey butter and run. Also the size of a plate, it’s enough to share, but you won’t want to.
If you aren’t convinced to go to Navajo Hogan and want to make your own tacos instead, here is a fun and relatively easy recipe.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. rapid rise or active dry yeast
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup warm milk (110 degrees)
1 Tbsp. shortening, melted (for best results use a butter-shortening)
Vegetable oil, for frying (or corn oil if you’re a stickler for tradition)
- Whisk together dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, yeast and salt).
- Separately mix melted shortening and warm milk.
- Pour milk mixture into dry ingredients and stir until mixture comes together.
- Cover dough with plastic wrap and allow to rest five to 10 minutes. (Just set it on the counter with a towel over the top. The towels should be fairly damp with warm water for best results.)
- Heat 1 inch of oil in a pot to 350-360 degrees. (Watch for splatter— you can get nasty burns from boiling oil.)
- Divide dough into eight equal pieces and roll each piece to about 6 inches.
- Cook one a time in oil until golden brown on each side.
- Remove from oil and drain. (Try to dump some of the oil off before you set them on your plate. You can even dab lightly with a paper towel.)
There is nothing healthy about these tacos except maybe the lettuce, but they taste great and are sure make a cold day warmer. Today, Navajo tacos are also claimed by many different tribes as a staple, and there is a bit of controversy over whether they are part of Native American culture. Many articles written by Native American writers claim the Navajo taco as a cherished childhood memory and family tradition regardless of their tribe. So get out and grab a taste of some culture as the weather cools off. You won’t regret it.