Get a Taste of North Carolina’s Indigenous Cuisine with These Five Dishes

Fry bread being cooked on an open fire (Image via Shutterstock.)

By jenniferbringle

November 16, 2021

From fry bread to Lumbee chicken and pastry, these indigenous foods celebrate native culture. 

North Carolina boasts the largest Native American population east of the Mississippi, with eight state-recognized tribes—the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, Coharie, Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi, Sappony, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of Saponi Nation and Waccamaw-Siouan.

Today’s Indigenous cultures across the state honor many of the long-standing food traditions of their ancestors while adding their own modern twist on traditional fare. Here are a few of those dishes and tips on where to find them or make them yourself.

Lumbee Chicken and Pastry

While chicken and white flour aren’t traditionally indigenous foods, members of the Lumbee tribe in the southeastern part of what we now know as North Carolina often traded with white settlers to get the ingredients for dishes like chicken and pastry, according to an account about Native foods published by the University of North Carolina-Penbroke. Not to be confused with the Southern staple chicken and dumplings, chicken and pastry is made with homemade noodles rolled very thin, mixed with pulled chicken in a thick, savory broth. And while any chicken works, an older hen gives the dish the rich flavor and yellow hue—from the chicken’s rendered fat—traditionally preferred by the Lumbees. Lumbee chicken and pastry shows up on menus at restaurants such as Finn Oliver’s and Jay’s Country Kitchen, both in Lumberton.

Cherokee Bean Bread

Cherokee bean bread is a traditional dish that’s denser and more doughy in texture than typical bread. Also known as Broadswords because of its flattened shape, iCherokee bean bread is made with dried corn cooked with wood ash to remove the hulls, then ground into a dough mixed with beans and the hot liquid the beans were cooked in. The dough is formed into patties, wrapped in corn husks and then boiled. Salt is left out as it would absorb too much liquid and cause the dough to crumble while cooking. Bean bread makes a hearty accompaniment to vegetable stews—ideal for dipping into the soup broth. Want to try it? Mark your calendar for the Cherokee County Fair, nextuly 20-24, where it’s served each year, or try this recipe to make it at home.

Fry Bread

Fry bread shows up in many indigenous food traditions, and in North Carolina, the versatile dish is a major part of several meals. Fry bread dough is made with flour, water, salt and baking powder, then cut into sections and rolled flat. The dough gets deep-fried to an airy light texture, and then can be topped with savory or sweet toppings—everything from salsa and cheese to fresh fruit—or simply eaten plain. Eateries like Paul’s Family Restaurant in Cherokee even use fry bread as the basis for pizzas and as an alternative to buns on burgers.

Cherokee Brunswick Stew

Brunswick stew has long been a favorite in the South, and the Cherokee have their own spin on the hearty dish. Cherokee Brunswick stew includes the usual vegetables—onions, potatoes, beans, corn and tomatoes. While chicken can be used for the meat, more traditional versions use rabbit or deer. Want to make your own? Here’s a recipe using rabbit.

Collard Sandwich

The collard sandwich has roots that stretch far back into Lumbee history. Combining two essential and traditional foods—corn and collard greens—the sandwich captures the tribe’s culinary legacy as well as the history of a people often forced to make do with what they had. But make no mistake, this sandwich is more than just a way to extend the life of leftovers or make a hearty meal on the fly. The flavor and texture juxtaposition of the sweet, slightly crispy fried cornbread with the salty, lightly bitter collards makes the sandwich worth the mess it makes while eating. Find it at events like the Robeson County Fair and the Lumbee Homecoming, or make your own with this recipe featured in Garden & Gun magazine.


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