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When you hear about Californian cuisine, you might conjure up images of Cobb salads, the French dip, Shirley Temple, and tuna tartare. All the above were invented in California, but they’re a far cry from the original native Californian cuisine. That's "native" as in "derived from plants indigenous to California," and "original" as in eaten by the first occupants of this land — California's Native peoples.
“Our cultural identity has been derived by the land and whatever is growing on that landscape,” Tongva tribe member and cultural educator Craig Torres says. “We’ve lost so much throughout the generations. For many of us, it’s amazing that we even held onto our cultural identity. We were too busy trying to survive.”
From at least 8,000 years ago, the Tongva tribe have inhabited the Los Angeles basin and (until they were removed) the Southern Channel Islands. Unlike many other tribes across the States, the Tongva people don’t have their own reservation. So for Torres, finding places to forage native plants is rather difficult.
“The state parks are a lot more strict with foraging rules,” he says. “But I live near a local park in Santa Ana where they just have acorns growing. No one uses them so I’ll pick them up and bring them home.”
Unlike the trend-based cuisine of today’s mainstream culture, for California’s Native peoples, food was (and is) based on a relationship with the land and what grew there.
“We don’t see nature as natural resources. We see them as relatives. When you see something as a natural resource it just means that you are taking and taking it back,” Torres says. “Whenever we’re taking something, for nature to survive, we have to give back. You have to have a reciprocal relationship with nature.”
Unfortunately, with the exception of people like Torres who are actively studying indigenous plants and landscapes, the average Californian does not have a reciprocal relationship with nature.
It wasn’t always like that. At the time of the first Spanish settlement in 1769, California was one of the most densely populated regions in Native America, with as many as 100 distinct cultures. The tribes here were some of the most omnivorous on the continent and the food could be distinguished by various regional elements. Salmon was abundant in the northwest, pine nuts were a staple in the Great Basin, the southwest had desert and domesticated plants, and central Californians ate a diet rich in acorns and seeds.
“The plants really shape who we are,” Torres says. “If you’re living on this land and you’re calling this place home, then there’s a responsibility to protect it. We all have different mothers but we all share one mother earth and we share that responsibility.”
While very few California Natives still rely entirely on hunting and gathering for survival, there is a contemporary movement to cultivate some of these native plants and incorporate them into everyday diet.
Here are some of these plant-based foods that people are bringing back in California:
Acorns (Quercus, various species)
By and far, the acorn provided the most significant source of food for the majority of Californian indigenous groups. Of the 50 species of oak that exist, about 15 come from the state of California. Mostly, the acorn was boiled in baskets by hot stones and made into a thick jelly-like mush or porridge. The closest thing to this in markets, Torres says, is the acorn jelly in Korean supermarkets. Acorn can be grounded into flour and fashioned into breads. Of course, depending on region, different types of acorns are prioritized and they are still gathered today by many tribes. Black oak is a favorite in middle elevations in the interior of the State and tanbark oak is more prominent in the humid belt.
Manzanita berries (Arctostaphylos, various species)
The berries of this evergreen shrub can be dried, and pounded into a coarse flour. The Wintu people (based in Northwestern and Central California) made this flour into a sweet soup, and steeped the seeds to make a cider. The Cahuilla of the southern deserts made a sauce out of the fresh fruits for use as a condiment. Manzanitas can be found almost everywhere in California, and peoples throughout the region used these berries for food and medicine.
Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis)
Pine nuts were once the most important food source for the Owens Valley Paiute. Harvest was an important occasion. They would build a wagoni - a seasonal home that harvests and processes the nuts. They were generally roasted and then eaten. In northern Baja California, tribal people would gather pine nuts for days. The youth were sent up into the trees to pick pine cones and throw them down into baskets. Other uses for the pine: the sap can also be mixed with black tar to make an adhesive and the resin is especially good for puncture wounds.
Chia seeds (Salvia columbariae)
Chia seeds have become a mainstream "superfood" in recent years, and although the species that you get at your local health food store is different from our native species, the concept is by and large the same. The seeds are used as a protein boost. “They don’t have a lot of flavor by themselves and you can add them to almost anything,” Torres says. He puts them in baked goods and smoothies.
Prickly pear (Opuntia, various species)
Prickly pear cacti can be found in many desert areas and can be transformed into juice or uses to treat various ailments. Some tribes made chewing gum from the fruit or boiled it down to a thick syrup. Excess fruit was dried and stored for winter. The green part of the cactus — nopal — is also used, eaten as a vegetable after boiling to remove some of the gelatinous juice.
Mesquite (Prosopis, various species)
Mesquite beans are made into flour and can be cooked into breads, cakes, and pancakes. It’s a wonderful gluten-free alternative that’s high in protein and fiber. Mesquite trees are so important to the Cahuilla people that they named their seasons for corresponding stages in the development of the bean. “I’ll put a tablespoon of mesquite in my smoothie,” says Deborah Small, writer and teacher at California State University San Marcos. “It really helps with blood sugar.”
Wild cherry (Prunus illicifolia)
Typically used as a side dish for meat, this fruit is typically made into mush or it can be dehydrated. The evergreen shrub that produces the fruit is drought tolerant and perfect for semiarid California landscapes. Note that there are cyanide-forming compounds in these cherries’ pits and leaching is required before they're eaten.
Taboose (Cyperus esculentus)
Also known as yellow nutsedge, taboose was picked by the Paiute tribe in the Owens Valley for their tubers. They have a nutty, slightly sweet flavor and must be soaked in water before eaten. The tubers are about the size of hazelnuts, and can be roasted. This plant used to be grown in the ancient irrigation ditches dug out by the Owens Valley Paiutes.
Nahavita (Dichelostemma capitatum)
Distinguished by its purple flowers, Nahavita is a staple for the Paiutes and many other peoples that’s eaten for its edible corm. Like the taboose, it was sometimes called an “Indian potato” and was traditionally harvested with a digging stick.
Coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium)
Found mostly on coastal bluffs from Santa Barbara County northwards, this buckwheat plant was made into a tea. Seeds were ground and mixed into porridges and cakes or made into a flour. Buckwheat is also used as a medicinal plant to help with stomach pains and headaches.
White sage (Salvia apiana)
White sage can be found in abundance throughout the region, especially in Southern California. It is considered an everyday plant by the Chumash Indians and can be steeped into a tea for calming effects. It’s also used for sore throats and is thought to help with stomach aches.
For more information on native edible plants, check out the Ethnobotany Project, a wonderful book on contemporary uses of Native plants by Southern California and Northern Baja Indians.