When it comes to Native American cuisine, chef Sean Sherman wants you to think beyond fry bread. As the culinary craftsman for Tatanka Truck, Minnesota’s first indigenous food truck, Sherman is taking Dakota, Lakota, and Ojibwe-influenced eats, with a fresh spin, to the streets.
Born and raised on Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, Sherman started cooking around age 13 in steakhouses and tourist restaurants in the Black Hills. After graduating from Black Hills State University, he moved to Minneapolis, became a chef, and immersed himself in the organic food scene. A member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, Sherman wanted to write a cookbook that featured the flavors and tastes from Lakota culture, but in a modern context. He spent three years researching, during which time his authorial endeavor morphed into an idea for a restaurant called The Sioux Chef. Sherman started catering under that brand name in 2014, which led to opportunities for education, outreach, and speaking engagements about the health benefits of a Native American diet.
At one of those talks, Sherman was approached by members of Little Earth, a housing community for Native Americans in Minneapolis. They had recently purchased a food truck and asked Sherman to work in partnership with them on the concept, design, and the menu for the truck. Sherman won’t be serving the “oppression food.”
Fry bread was born out of necessity when the government supplied little more than flour, sugar, salt, and lard as staples to the Navajo forced to relocate from Arizona to New Mexico in 1864. “It eventually became like a survival food when people were removed from their traditional food systems,” Sherman says. “It’s been absorbed by all the Native communities. I grew up with it, and it’s tasty, but it’s everything that’s unhealthy for you all wrapped into one.”
Instead of fry bread, Sherman makes indigenous tacos: a grilled corn and bean cake that’s seared, then topped with bison, smoked turkey, grilled walleye, or roasted squash with maple. Manoomin (wild rice) salad, grilled corn, and cedar tea are other items on the summer menu.
What you won’t find on the truck are any processed sugars, wheat flour, dairy, beef, pork, or chicken; Sherman’s sticking to a “pre-contact” palate, or what Native people were eating before Europeans settled in the Upper Midwest in the late-1800s.
Relying heavily on corn, rice, beans, and squash, as well as flavors like cedar and maple, and herbs such as balsam fir and rose hips, Sherman sources organic ingredients as often as possible from local ranchers, farmers, and reservations. He says he wants to keep the food clean and traditional, but fun and interesting as well. Simplicity is also paramount, given the quick and mobile nature of a food truck, which quietly opened at the end of July.
Sherman hopes that Tatanka Truck will not only satisfy appetites but also highlight the benefits and the beauty of indigenous diets. “We’re using this food truck as a job creation tool,” says Sherman, “so we can hire people from the community and inspire more people to do more traditional Native American foods.”