Bringing Native Foods Home with Abe Sanchez
By Emily Underwood | Photography by Deborah Small
“Iwas a foodie before it was cool to be a foodie,” jokes Abe Sanchez, rattling off a long list of mouth-watering recipes for California’s native plants. Among them: Fried chicken breaded with flour from the beans of honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), a spiny, yellow-flowered shrub that shrouds oases and desert washes in Southern California, and a delicious cream soup made from fresh-picked spring nettles, sauteed with shallots and blended with coconut milk. Yum.
Sanchez is a founding member of the Chia Café Collective, an organization dedicated to the revitalization of California’s Indigenous food that published the 2010 cookbook, Cooking the Native Way. His interest in food started with a passion for Native basketry, which got him thinking about the edible native plants that people collect, store, and cook in baskets. Soon his interest had blossomed into a full-fledged obsession with gathering, cultivating, and cooking native plants.
Unlike industrial California crops like almonds, these foods grow without any assistance from irrigation, fertilizer, or the other tools of industrial-scale agriculture. Sanchez encourages people to grow their own native plants for food in their gardens, or even in pots on an apartment porch. “The way the world is going now, we have to start looking into sustainable food sources,” he says.
Sanchez wants the world to know that just because a food is healthy, or good for the environment, doesn’t mean it can’t also be delicious. He channels much of his considerable (likely superfood-fueled) energy into revitalizing native plant-based foods in Native communities. At the moment, for example, he and other members of the Chia Collective are consulting with North San Diego County Indian Health Services to help bring traditional foods back for health purposes, like combating diabetes.
Key to the enjoyment of native plants is a little knowledge of how to cook them, Sanchez says. Many spring greens like purslane, dock, and nettle have a slight bitterness to them, for example, but this can be boiled out to make them more palatable. “For greens, you want to get them when they’re nice and young and tender,” he says. “Dock comes up right now in the springtime, and that’s a really good tasty leaf. Lamb’s-quarters is a wild edible that is non-native, but can be made into a pickled food like a sauerkraut.” [Note: Always get permission before gathering native plants not on your property and never eat a plant you aren’t sure about.]
Despite its popularity on health food store shelves, many people don’t know how to prepare chia seeds, another important Indigenous food, Sanchez says. Although store-bought chia (Salvia hispanica) is cultivated and sourced from Mexico, Guatemala and South America, but the seeds of native chia (Salvia columbariae) are almost identical in flavor and nutrition. Like many seeds, chia tastes better when lightly roasted. He recommends toasting the seeds quickly in a dry skillet. “Watch it closely because the seeds will pop like popcorn,” he says. Once the seeds are slightly browned, Sanchez will sometimes grind them into flour. (It’s important to refrigerate and use roasted chia soon, because it goes rancid faster than when seeds are whole, he adds.)
Just because a food is healthy, or good for the environment, doesn’t mean it can’t also be delicious.
For people looking for flavorful native plants that can be easily grown in pots, Sanchez recommends purple-flowered California brodiaea (Brodiaea californica), for example, which has bulbs with a strong onion flavor, winter purslane (Claytonia perfoliata), amaranth (Amaranthus sp.), and dock (Rumex sp.). Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) is another easy-to-grow plant that can thrive in a pot, and yields fragrant leaves and flowers that can be used as a tea or herb. Cactus is another nutritional food source, if you’re willing to handle the spines.
Last year marked the 10-year anniversary of the publication of Cooking the Native Way, and the loss of two beloved original members of the Chia Café Collective, Tongva elder Barbara Drake and Daniel McCarthy. Sanchez is now thinking about the Collective’s future, which has continued to engage in robust educational outreach. “I have some young Native people in mind who I am going to reach out to, and start training,” he says. California still lags behind other regions in its embrace of Indigenous food compared to regions like the Southwest, he says. But the work of the Chia Café Collective and other groups is changing that. “This is just the beginning” of California’s Native food revitalization, Sanchez says.
Emily Underwood is the Publications Editor for CNPS.