Chef's Indigenous powwow fry bread a link to undiscovered family history
As she drops a disk of wheat-flour dough into the hot oil, Waterloo chef Sydney Keedwell says she gets a certain satisfaction whenever she makes fry bread.
"Making it just brings me joy," said Keedwell. "It's a staple, and I love it. It's just one of the things you look forward to when you go to a powwow."
Keedwell, 23, is a chef in the Fat Sparrow Group of restaurants and identifies as Indigenous.
It's not on the regular menu, but she's making a Mexican version of fry bread at Waterloo's Taco Farm for National Indigenous Peoples Day, June 21.
The day, as well as the month of June, is dedicated to commemorating and learning more about the rich and diverse cultures, experiences and histories of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples.
Her cooking duties aside, Keedwell, as a young adult, has been spending time searching for the basic facts and details of her family's heritage, a process that she says has proven difficult.
"A lot of my interest in cooking started with my father who is not Indigenous. But growing up, we didn't really talk about our Indigenous culture very much. My sister and I started to going to the Indigenous centre at University of Waterloo (the Waterloo Indigenous Student Centre at St. Paul's University College) and started learning more," said Keedwell.
What she does know is that her mother's family is from Espanola, Ontario, and were among the first residents a generation or two ago, but that's about all.
"We know a little bit as far back as a great-great-grandfather and only his non-Indigenous name. As for what tribe or clan we fall into, we are not sure," said Keedwell, adding that town hall records were destroyed.
"We can't trace back," Keedwell said. "My family had suppressed the fact that they were Indigenous to keep the children safe. I can't connect with my roots and learn a language. That makes me sad."
Making fry bread, however, is a way that Keedwell can connect with those roots.
The bread's origin, according to some sources such as the Smithsonian Institution, dates to the mid-1800s and the American southwest.
Keedwell's Mexican interpretation of fry bread – she's joined in the Taco Farm kitchen by Hilda Arroyo who is from Veracruz, Mexico – also acknowledges that country's varied Indigenous peoples: pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures such as Olmec, Aztec, Tarascan and Mayan civilizations.
"With this fry bread, we're trying to bring a new perspective to cuisine in Waterloo Region," Keedwell said of blending the two cultures through the satisfying fried snack.
Simple to prepare
As for the bread itself and the technique for its preparation, it is a simple foodstuff – and a delicious morsel hot out of the fryer with a dosing of salt – that is found in varied flatbreads from many other parts of the world.
"Fry bread came out of colonialism," according to Keedwell who notes its related bread, bannock, is a similar example that is also part of Indigenous North American cooking.
"Fry bread wasn't originally eaten in Canada," she said. "As Indigenous people were moved to reserves, they were given cheap basic ingredients like flour, sugar, salt and lard. There was a need for affordable food that was quick and easy."
The ingredients can be found in many other flatbreads. "Naan, tortillas and even biscuits are examples," said Keedwell.
As a quick bread, fry bread is formed into a disk about the size of a small Frisbee: with baking powder as a leavener, it doesn't need to proof and rise like a yeast bread.
Placing the basic dough into hot oil in a fryer, or as a shallow fry, causes it to puff up nicely, and with one flip it's ready in about five minutes.
From there, Keedwell salts it generously and it's ready to eat – or it accepts the addition of meats, cheese and guacamole and pico de gallo.
Making bread is an elemental human activity, but for Keedwell it's a moment to reflect on a past she continues to learn about and a process she finds soothing in this era of the residential school tragedy.
"I look forward to making fry bread. It's not something you can just buy," she says.
"Maybe once or twice a year, you will be in that powwow environment with the music and the dancing. You eat some fry bread with a big glass of strawberry juice, and it's the best."
Sydney Keedwell's fry bread recipe
- 1 medium sized mixing bowl
- 1 wooden spoon
- 1 large skillet or cast iron pot (approximately 4 inches or more in height)
- 1 pair of tongs
- 1 rolling pin
- 4 cups of all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon of salt
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- 1 ½ cups of warm water
- 1 tablespoon of baking powder
- Oil for frying, preferably a neutral oil like canola
Place measured salt, sugar, baking powder, flour into the bowl and mix until combined. Add half of the water and begin mixing. Add remaining water slowly until "shaggy" ball forms. Knead the dough with your hands until it's not sticky, but isn't dry.
Divide your dough into 12 pieces and cover with a slightly damp towel. As the dough is resting, heat the oil in the pot or skillet: you need about 2-3 inches of oil (it may need to be adjusted if you are frying more bread).
Take one piece of dough at a time and roll into into a 1/4 inch thin piece. Use a light dusting of flour to keep it from sticking to your counter or cutting board.
Once your oil is heated to about 350 F. (you can tell by if you hear a sizzle when you place the bread in), fry each piece until dark golden brown, then drain and dry on a paper towel. Be sure to not overlap your bread while cooking or they will not fry evenly!
If you are making fry bread "tacos," I recommend seasoning with a pinch of salt or even taco seasoning while still warm. Or, if for something sweet like fry bread and berries, you can add a pinch of sugar.