One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

KaiApril 6, 2024

Fry bread’s global history, from Native America to Aotearoa

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Parāoa parai is kai Māori, but it also connects us to our indigenous whānau overseas. Vanessa Ellingham explains.

I’m in the garden at Parihaka, Taranaki’s pacifist pā between the maunga and the moana. I’m meant to be helping harvest potatoes, but I’m asking around about fry bread. Tuhi-Ao says to talk to Jasmine, but Jasmine thinks I should ask Maata: “She’s the fry bread lady around here.”

There’s probably more than one fry bread lady at the pā, but conveniently, Parihaka kaitiaki Maata Wharehoka (Ngāti Tahinga, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Apakura, Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Kuia) is my whanaunga. Wharehoka is both a fry bread lady and a pūkenga, or knowledge keeper, of our kai history. She’s also, crucially, a fry bread connoisseur. 

Made with the flour, yeast and salt that arrived with Europeans, fry bread is a more recent Māori staple that feels like it’s been around for ever. It’s served at hui, tangi and festivals, and what makes it so irresistible is that it’s deep fried. Warm and salty, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside, fry bread is the same golden colour and shape as a chicken nugget, but the size of your fist.

“That flavour you get on fry bread,” Wharehoka tells me, “is that fatty, greasy flavour. That helps you desire the bread more. And then the butter is just another level. And then the golden syrup makes it extra special.”

Parāoa parai (Photo: Getty Images)

That’s right: long before salted caramel was flavour of the decade, Māori were spreading sweet golden syrup on salty fry bread. Appearing on tables across the motu, fry bread could just as well be dipped in boil up for dinner as slathered with golden syrup with a cuppa. Fry bread went with everything and it was practically impossible to eat just one.

“I’m inclined to eat two or three fry bread in a sitting,” says Wharehoka. “And my preference is to eat the fry bread and skip the veges. Because how often do you have fry bread? If it’s there, of course you’re going to eat it.”

My earliest memory of parāoa parai was right here at Parihaka, leaning over an industrial-sized pot out the back of the wharekai, waiting, barely, till an aunty (possibly Wharehoka herself) said it was OK to drop the dough into the bubbling oil.

For many Māori, fry bread with the old staples is the taste of home. But that hasn’t stopped it being reinterpreted by more experimental chefs. Before Hiakai became a restaurant, Monique Fiso served fry bread at some of their early pop-up events, while TV chef Peter Peeti’s 2008 book Kai Time includes a recipe for horopito fry bread with smoked eel pâté. I most recently ate fry bread at Waitangi on Waitangi Day last year. It was a bougie version, loaded with pulled pork, slaw and a slice of lime.

Fresh from the fryer (Photo: Leonie Hayden)

Wharehoka has cooked and served fry bread at countless events at Parihaka over the three decades she has lived there, from the Parihaka Peace Festival (2006-2010), to the hui held on the 18th and 19th of every month since the prophets Te Whiti and Tohu established the pā in the 1860s, keeping their kaupapa of peace alive.

So what are Wharehoka’s tips for mastering fry bread?

“Over the years, I’ve tended towards a combination of baking powder and yeast,” she says, “because it gives it that good yeasty flavour and it also rises really nicely.”

As for flours, Wharehoka’s tried them all. “I prefer the all-purpose flour. I’ve tried making it with the bread flour and it’s just a bit too fluffy.”

Wharehoka knows the ins and outs of making fry bread, but as a trained nurse who worked on early smoking cessation and cervical screening programmes, she also knows fry bread’s potential for harm.

For many people, fry bread and golden syrup go hand in hand. “But as soon as sugar became part of the Māori diet, it destroyed so many parts of our society and especially our health,” she says. Before colonisation, Māori didn’t eat refined sugar, and we didn’t have flour, either. Vegetables like kūmara and taro provided our people with carbohydrates.

“In my research, you never found an obese Māori back then,” says Maata. “In fact, what I have come to understand over the years is that we may have been into intermittent fasting. So we only had one meal a day.” The custom of three meals a day was standardised during the industrial revolution, which was then imported to Aotearoa with European arrival.

Wharehoka says she’s developed a strategy for balancing the pull of fatty deliciousness and the need to eat our greens: don’t serve bread with dinner. If someone is serving a hot meal during a hākari, “they might have three meats and six vegetables, and then we’re gonna put the bread on the table as well? To me that’s wrong, because you’re giving people the option of having bread instead of making sure they eat their vegetables.”

Filled fry bread at Waitangi Day celebrations this year (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Colonisation irrevocably changed the diets of indigenous peoples. Today, the world is filled with fried breads, not all of them with colonial roots.

In China, the long, thin youtiao is eaten for breakfast, as is the Spanish churro, dipped in coffee, or hot chocolate later in the day. The puffed-up bhatura is served with chickpea curry in Punjab, and the Hungarian street food lángos looks just like our fry bread but comes topped with ham and cheese. The sfenj, found across northwest Africa, is often soaked in honey, similar to what we do with golden syrup. I want to eat this entire list.

In Canada, fry bread is called bannock, a name derived from tha Gaelic “bannach” and a nod to the Scottish fur traders who introduced the bread to indigenous people there in the 1700s. And in the US, it’s called fry bread, just like ours. The history is similar, too.

I was alerted to our shared kai story while watching the Native American TV show Reservation Dogs, which features the unbelievably catchy track ‘Greasy Frybread’. Turns out fry bread is the most recognised Native American food in the US today.

Sean Sherman, AKA the Sioux Chef, at his Minneapolis restaurant Owamni (Photo: Nancy Bundt)

“Fry bread is very popular here and there’s a lot of pride that goes into fry bread recipes,” says Sean Sherman, James Beard-award-winning chef and member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. “If you go to any powwows, which are big gatherings for dance in the US and Canada, then you’ll typically find some kind of fry bread option.”

Sherman, who calls himself the Sioux Chef, runs Owamni, a restaurant, market and food lab in Minneapolis, Minnesota, dedicated to revitalising traditional Native American kai. But you won’t find any fry bread there.

“The history of fry bread doesn’t go back very far in indigenous communities,” says Sherman. “It’s something that was given to us by the government forces throughout the colonisation phase of America.”

In the mid to late 1800s, the United States government forced Native Americans off their lands in the south east of the country and on to reservations in what is now Oklahoma. “They had this vision of pushing all Indigenous peoples into one region,” Sherman explains. The route of more than 8,000km is now known as the Trail of Tears. Thousands of people died along the way.

Daisy Kady and her fry bread at Grandma’s Frybread Shack in New Mexico (Photos: Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“Fry bread became an oppression food,” says Sherman, “because as we were forced onto reservation systems, stripped from our land spaces, stripped from our Indigenous food systems and access to our own foods, they were replaced with a lot of government subsidies, things like lard, salt, flour, sugar and so forth.”

Without access to their traditional crops or hunting fields, Native Americans now living far from their whenua had to make do with government rations. Fry bread was one result.

Today the Sioux Chef and his team are championing Native American kai and showcasing the diversity seen across their vast country in his restaurant, cookbook and food lab. That means lots of wild game, birds and seafood, as well as corn, beans and squash. Their cuisine is gluten and dairy-free, with no added sugars. This wasn’t deliberate, says Sherman – “that just happens to be the true diet of North America”.

I was lucky enough to try a couple of Sherman’s recipes recently: corn cake appetisers, a slightly astringent squash soup with apple puree, and smoky roasted pumpkin with maple syrup for dessert. What struck me the most? The lack of salt, or rather, how much salt must be on all the other kai I eat.

Jessica Hutchings, right, speaking on a panel at the 2019 Food Hui alongside Te Rangikaheke Kiripatea and Manaia Cunningham (Photo: Supplied)

Revitalising Indigenous kai practices is a topic of conversation here in Aotearoa, too.

Jessica Hutchings (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Huirapa, Gujarati) is a kaupapa Māori researcher in environmental and Indigenous studies, focused on decolonising our food systems.

“Not only were our lands taken from us and our language, but our food systems and our seeds,” she explains. “And so our job now, as Indigenous food activists, is to start to reclaim our seeds and our soil and our food sovereignty practices.” 

For Hutchings, Māori food sovereignty is “being able to return to eating our cultural landscape. But it’s connected to seed and soil sovereignty as well”.

Any room for fry bread in there?

“Absolutely,” says Hutchings. “But while we might be enjoying fried bread, because it’s a food that we gather around, that we have at hākari, he kai Māori tērā [it’s Māori food], but it’s not food from Papatūānuku,” she says. “It’s actually being produced with refined white flour from the global commodities market, and this is the juxtaposition here for us, because it’s causing rapid biodiversity decline, the increase in monocultures in our food system and a shrinking variety in our diet. 

“So while we might love fried bread, and it might be a cultural food, we need to decolonise our analysis of these types of foods.” 

Fry bread served with butter and jam at Waitangi Day celebrations this year (Photo: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

At the same time, says Hutchings, the kai we eat is always evolving, just like the rest of our culture. “We’re no longer hunting kererū or weka, but we hunt pig and deer,” she says. “And these introduced species, like fried bread, actually become important objects in our food systems that express our mātauranga, our Māoritanga, and our manaakitanga.”

Fry bread helps tell us who we are: tangata whenua with a settler colonial history.

Bread is a vehicle for telling stories at Parihaka, too. Following years of nonviolent resistance from Taranaki Māori to the theft of our land, armed troops arrived at the pā on the morning of November 5, 1881 hell-bent on destruction. They were greeted by singing tamariki and offerings of bread.

With that bread, our tīpuna showed the soldiers manaakitanga, while making it very clear that they were the hosts and the soldiers were the guests.

On the same day I was in the garden at Parihaka, Israeli forces opened fire on Gazans waiting to collect food from aid trucks. One hundred and eighteen people were killed and more than 700 injured in what is now being called the Flour Massacre.

Palestinian flatbread, taboon, has a history spanning thousands of years. While not fried, it’s made using the same ingredients as our fry bread: flour, water, yeast, oil.

Kai – what’s available to eat, and who’s in charge of it – has always been part of the global indigenous struggle. There’s a lot to chew on when we bite into that greasy goodness.

Keep going!