News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by
Arts & Entertainment

The Navajo taco adapted as the people did

A Navajo taco.
A Navajo taco.
Laurel Morales
A Navajo taco.
Navajo fry bread dough is kneaded before being fried in a large pan of grease.
Anne Hoffman

Listen to story

Download this story 1MB

On the Navajo Nation, tacos lose the tortilla and take on fry bread. This summer, a group of teenagers visited a Navajo farm to learn the art of this speciality. As part of the Fronteras series on how the venerable taco, Anne Hoffman brings us this story from Window Rock, Arizona.

Visiting teenagers Morgan Miller and James Cobb stand in a kitchen with plywood paneling and photographs of a Navajo family. They’re pulling dough from a plastic bowl to make fry bread.

“Fry bread leaves flour all over your hands,” Miller said.

“It’s not pleasant,” Cobb said.

“I feel it’s very pleasant,” Miller said. "It makes you feel more involved in the process.”

Fry bread was invented about 150 years ago when the Navajo were forced to migrate from Arizona to eastern New Mexico. Their food consisted of government rations like flour, sugar and lard. The tribe used these ingredients to make bread quickly. And so fry bread was born.

Irene Notah is a Navajo culture teacher who invited these campers over to her farm. She moved the dough outside and heated a large pan of grease over a flame. A tarp protected her from the elements.

“Our grease should be really, really hot. Maybe 400 [degrees] I don’t know,” Notah said.

As Notah put the prepared dough into the hot grease, summer monsoon winds picked up.

“Oh my, oh my, is that lightning? Hold this down, hold this down you guys!” Notah instructed the teens.

The kids helped her and pulled the tarp back down over the stove. In spite of the fierce weather, Notah continued with the lesson.

“We call this fry bread,” she said. “We call it dah díníilghaazh. In Apache it's called ban kahe. Ban kahe.”

The atmosphere was festive. Three dogs walked around, curious about all the new people in their backyard.

Friends and relatives of the Notahs stopped by, and it turned out to be a lot like a family barbecue.

The fry bread was topped with ground beef, cheese, mild salsa and lettuce to make a Navajo taco.

While the bread fried, the campers waited anxiously for their first bite.

When it was finally time to eat, the kids cleaned their plates. Some said they’re a little disappointed that these tacos aren’t as spicy as the ones they’re used to back home. But almost all went back for second helpings of fry bread — this time, with honey on top.