Blog January 27, 2023

Fry Bread: Is So Delicious! Try Some!

Fry Bread: Is So Delicious! Try Some! 

I would like to start this blog by saying, I love and adore Fry Bread.  My go to at Pow Wows and to make at home even. So easy and worth a try! A vessel for savory or sweet toppings! 

Before we get into “complexities” of Indian fry bread history (also spelled frybread), let’s address some basics. This article is about the Indian fry bread that has evolved from the 1864 Navajo ‘Long Walk’ as explained below. Indian fry bread is usually made with a few simple ingredients – wheat (white) flour, salt, fat (lard), and water. Once the ingredients are mixed, it is formed into a flat dough bread that is fried or deep-fried in oil, shortening, or lard. Fry bread can be eaten just as it’s taken from the oil, or with one or more of several popular toppings. By itself it is a great bread accompaniment with a bowl of stew or when paired as a side to any beef-based meal or stew. When topped with honey it is often compared with sopapillas. Other sweet treat or dessert versions are sprinkled with sugar or topped with jam. Topping with beef or brisket is a popular pairing, making it a meal itself.

The ultimate fry bread-based meal, however, has evolved in its use as the base for an unlimited variety of tacos (replacing the “shells”). While the origin of fry bread is linked to the Navajo “Long Walk” of 1864, it is often found at powwows and tribal events (and homes) from coast to coast. On an even broader scale, its popularity has spread well beyond native events so that today it can be found at all types and sizes of fairs or festivals throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Fry Bread was not originally a traditional Native food.

Ask most folks in American about fry bread and you will find that they consider it a traditional Native food. While this may be true given its origins, it is not an accurate description of the ‘roots’ of Indian fry bread history. Fry bread was created by the Navajo in 1864 when the U.S. government created the reservation system and the distribution of food commodities to the peoples and tribes ‘moved’ there whose way of life (and feeding themselves) had been disrupted. 

At the time this was happening to the Navajo, relocating them from northern Arizona to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico (which would not support their traditional staples of vegetables and beans), this same process resulted in many tribes being removed from their ancestral homelands to reservations in other parts of the West. Thus, the history of fry bread is directly linked to this trauma of relocation and the Native fight for survival.

Original Indian Fry Bread Recipe Defined by Minimal Government Rations

The tragic elements of Indian fry bread history start hundreds of miles away from the traditional and familiar lands of the Navajo where they could forage, hunt, and grow familiar crops. Here, in this new and desolate place, the Navajo starved. They were issued government rations of white wheat flour, salt, and lard, from which they created the recipe for fry bread. This ‘new’ bread recipe (see Mexican Fry Bread Connection section below) and cooking method (deep frying) helped them survive their time on the reservation until an 1868 treaty allowed them to return home to Arizona.

The story was a familiar one among other Native American communities who experienced similar relocations and internments across the United States. Native Americans received unfamiliar foods in the relocation camps where low-income communities continue to receive federal disbursements today. This means that for many Native Americans, fry bread history links generation with generation, connecting the present to the painful narrative of Native American history and relocation. 

Fry bread’s significance and relationship to Native Americans is described by some as complicated. Although frybread is often associated with “traditional” Native American cuisine, some Native American chefs reject it as a symbol of colonialism. Still others have described it as a symbol of “perseverance and pain, ingenuity and resilience”; a symbol of resilience as it developed from necessity using government-provided flour, sugar, and lard. Because the government had moved the people onto land that could not support growing traditional staples like corn and beans.

A Mexican Fry Bread Connection to Indian Fry Bread History?

While finishing research on this article, there were certain issues we were trying to cover, including the similarity of the tortilla and frybread, wheat flour vs. corn meal, etc.  Every article about the history of Indian frybread describes how it originated in 1864 as a result of the “Long Walk” and the minimal rations issued for survival, yet we found no references, except the two gentlemen quoted below, who asked if that wasn’t just half the story. Judge for yourself. It makes sense that after hundreds of years of contact with the Spanish (and subsequently Mexicans) that the Navajo would have been familiar with the flour tortilla. White flour had been introduced into the northern Mexican by the Europeans in around 1650, and corn tortillas had been replaced by white flour in that area for decades before 1864.  So the tortilla of these bordering northern Mexican states already included white flower. Then, instead of cooking in a fry pan or griddle without grease (or just a coating), you deep fry it in the lard provided by the government agents for a fluffier, dense, filling result. If you are given a handful of ingredients to make some type of nourishment on which to survive, it would be logical (and smart) to ask yourself, “what do I know to make that I could use or substitute some of these available rations with?” If I’m familiar with tortillas and can think of a way to basically just change the way I cook it to produce a much more filling piece of bread (and tastier if you don’t have the usual tortilla fillings), I’d vote for fry bread!

The Ultimate Variation: Indian Tacos!

Indian Fry bread is most often used as the foundation of the famous Indian Taco. At their most basic, Indian tacos are simply traditional taco fillings wrapped in fry bread, instead of being put into a taco shell. Originally (and often still) known as Navajo Tacos, they have been adopted by other tribal peoples nationwide. The Navajo Taco became popular very fast, being voted the State Dish of Arizona (where it was created) in a 1995 poll conducted by the Arizona Republic newspaper.

Besides being the universal modern Powwow food, Indian Tacos are also popular attractions at many fairs, festivals, and outdoor summer shows held all over the U.S. People line up in long lines to wait their turn to buy them freshly made. No plates or silverware are needed, just roll up the fry bread with your desired fillings and eat. For most appetites, a single Indian taco will make a complete meal.

Some people prefer to mix refried beans into the hamburger and seasoning mixture, both as an extender for the hamburger, and to help hold the taco meat mixture together. Place your hamburger mixture (or shredded beef or shredded pork.) in the middle of a warm piece of fry bread and add other toppings, such as taco sauce, chopped tomatoes, chopped scallions, sour cream, and shredded cheese.

If you love Indian fry bread and Indian tacos, and are in the Pawhuksa, Oklahoma on the first Saturday of October, be sure to drop in for The National Indian Taco Championship. Come hungry and be prepared to taste the best traditional tacos around. In addition to the tacos, you will also enjoy local bands, Native American dance demonstrations and craft vendor booths. There is always something for the kids from inflatables to children’s games, so bring the whole family and enjoy a beautiful day in Pawhuska.

Fry Bread Transition from Other Mexican Tortilla-Type Breads

José R. Ralat, Taco Editor for Texas Monthly and author of “American Tacos: A History and Guide” (University of Texas Press), tells an interviewer from “” in May 2020 that he is starting to believe that with the Navajo, fry bread was something that transitioned from other tortilla-type breads that were learned from farther south. Then, when they were moved to a reservation in 1864 and their normal diet was replaced with government provided with a handful of less-healthy ingredients, flour was substituted for the traditional corn masa out of necessity and survival mode.

When you note that flour tortillas are typical of the U.S.-Mexican border region and the northern states of Mexico, including Sonora and Sinaloa, this theory appears very reasonable. They’re a consequence of Spanish conquest replacing corn with European white wheat flour introduced during the colonial period of New Spain. This would mean that Native American tribes, such as the Navajo, in the area would have been aware of flour as an ingredient in cooking long before 1864 and their removal to Basque Redondo.

But even if fry bread wasn’t simply a product of the Long Walk and subsequent internment, this perspective doesn’t detract from the significance of the back story of Navajo fry bread, and later, the fry bread taco. The elements of bread-making were already established when the Navajo were torn from their land. They simply used the government provided staples of lard, salt, and flour in a familiar way. As Jeffrey Pilcher, an expert in the subject of tacos and Mexican food and a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, explains, “People start innovating with ingredients when they have a lot of it around. In this case, government commodity programs may be part of the story.” They did what they could with what they had and, in turn, created something so powerful it nourished their bodies and their identities.

The First Navajo Taco ~ a new ‘wrinkle’ in Indian Fry Bread History leads to mass acceptance on a continent-wide level!

100 Years After Basque Redondo

The first Navajo taco was created by Lou Shepard, who worked for the Navajo tribe in the 1960s as manager of the Navajo Lodge, a tribally owned motel and restaurant. The story of how the Navajo taco was created was told to Dick Hardwick, managing editor of the Navajo Times by Allen Yazzie in 1970. Yazzie said he visited the restaurant at the Navajo Lodge on a cold wintery night in 1964. Due to the weather, he was the only customer. He told Shepherd that he was really hungry, having spent most of the day walking and hitchhiking from Forest Lake, Arizona. What a coincidence that this occurred 100 years after the forced removal that precipitated their creation!

When he asked Yazzie what he wanted to eat, he said he wanted to be surprised. The two were old friends, and Sheppard knew that Yazzie liked to blend different kinds of foods together, so when he went back into the kitchen to see what he had on hand the first thing he saw was some Navajo fry bread. He took one of them, placed it on his table and looked around to see what he could place on top of it.

The next thing he saw was some beans. He then added some red chili for a little zing. Shepherd later said he was making it up as I went along, deciding it needed more so he went took some tossed salad from the refrigerator and placed that on the beans and chili.

After Yazzie was called into the kitchen and saw what Shepherd had done, he was impressed and told Shepherd to “give him the works”. Shepherd then threw green chili on top of what he had made and presented it to Yazzie who dug in, saying it was one of the best things he had ever tasted.

He enjoyed the new creation so much that he urged Shepherd to add it to the regular menu (which he did the next day). It was an immediate sensation with his customers, and it soon became the restaurant’s most popular item. Shepherd was soon making as many as 75 Navajo Tacos a day, with many of his customers ordering it three or four times a week. He first called it “Lou’s Special”. However, when a customer came in and asked for a “Navajo taco” the name stuck and the rest as they say, is history. In this case, Indian fry bread history!

Indian Fry Bread Variations

The way fry bread is served varies from region to region and different tribes have variations on the recipe. It can be found in its many ways at state fairs and pow-wows, but what is served to the paying public may be different from what is served in private homes and in the context of tribal family relations.

A typical frybread recipe consists of flour, water, salt, a small amount of oil, and baking powder. The ingredients are mixed and worked into a simple dough and covered with a cloth for 30 minutes to an hour, until the dough rises. It is then formed into small balls and are either rolled or pulled into flat discs prior to frying in hot oil. 

Other variations include:

Chef Kris Harris, a Tohono O’odham of the popular Fry Bread House in Phoenix, takes the same position of that restaurant’s owner, Sandra Miller, also a Tohono O’odham, saying that vegetable shortening makes the fry bread puffy and fluffy. 

Sandra Miller, owner of Fry Bread House notes that everyone makes fry bread differently, comparing fry bread in the Southwest to the way pizza varies from place to place in a city like New York. 

Soft or Crispy? Maria and Carlos of Maria’s Frybread & Mexican Food in Arcadia, AZ both prefer crispy. To achieve this, they fry their dough longer. Their approach diverges from The Stand’s as they use a longer rest period of two hours—and lard, resulting in a rich, crispy fry bread.

Dough ‘rising / resting’ tip time for softer frybread: Set your dough inside of a microwave– a draft-free area, along with a small bowl of boiling water. This will cut the rising time in half to about 30 minutes. 

Fry bread in South Dakota (where fry bread is the official state food) is traditionally made with yeast instead of baking soda like the traditional Navajo recipe. This is because tribes on South Dakota reservations were rationed yeast instead of baking soda. 

Use pumpkin or squash with the fry bread recipe for Pumpkin Fry Bread (popular Seminole variation).

Substituting mayonnaise for oil in the dough (which produces a crisp, crunchy texture that resists getting soggy – ideal for Navajo tacos). 

Leavening the dough with a small container of yogurt or soured milk instead of using baking powder or yeast (produces a rich, sourdough flavor but requires several hours to fully leaven after the dough is prepared). 

Most frybread recipes do not use yeast at all because it was not typically available to Native peoples when this foodstuff was developed (it was/is used in the Dakotas where it was part of the rations). 

The traditional Utah and Southern Idaho scone is almost indistinguishable from frybread, due to the similar situation of limited resources faced by the Mormon pioneers of the 1800s. 

Fry Bread Trivia

Frybread was named the official state bread of South Dakota in 2005.

The Navajo taco was voted the State Dish of Arizona in a 1995 poll conducted by the Arizona Republic newspaper. 

The traditional Utah and Southern Idaho scone is almost indistinguishable from frybread, due to the similar situation of limited resources faced by the Mormon pioneers of the 1800s. 

Taco Tip: If using fry bread to wrap taco fillings, keep them soft by blotting quickly on paper towels and slipping them immediately into plastic freezer bags. If your fry bread has stiffened after cooling, you can soften it by microwaving for a few seconds.

Although fry bread is best served hot and out of the fryer, it can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

Closing Thoughts on Indian Fry Bread History

Although a food that is not originally indigenous to Native American cuisine, fry bread has been considered for many years a Pan-Indian food nearly universal across the 574 federally recognized tribes. How ironic it is that fry bread, a food born from the desperation created by forced relocations of Native Americans from their traditional lands to often far away reservations, and the starvation that accompanied it, would become a touchstone of American Indian cuisine and culture. Bon Appetit!

Cooking Comparisons: Indian Fry Bread vs. Tortillas vs. Biscuits 

COMPARE: Except for the olive oil (not available at Fort Sumner in 1864) used in tortillas and biscuits, and the cooking method, all three recipes are identical!


3 cups All Purpose Flour

1-1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt (Optional)

1-1/2 Cup Warm Water

Fry Bread Cooking Instructions: Heat a shallow pan on medium heat. Add in oil so that it fills the pan half way. You know oil is ready when test a small piece of the dough and it turn golden.


3 cups All Purpose Flour

1-1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt (Optional)

1-1/2 Cup Warm Water

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil or Vegetable Oil (Tortilla and Biscuits Only)

Tortilla Cooking Instructions: If you are making tortillas then at this point you can warm up a skillet and form dough into round flat circles that are 1/4 inch thick and cook for at least 1 minute on each side.


3 cups All Purpose Flour

1-1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder

1/2 Teaspoon of Salt (Optional)

1-1/2 Cup Warm Water

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil or Vegetable Oil (Tortilla and Biscuits Only)

Biscuit Cooking Instructions: Preheat the oven to 420 degrees. Form biscuits into flat shaped disks. Arrange onto a baking pan and let cook for 15 -20 minutes or until the tops of the biscuits are golden brown.

The recipe I use and love is called Grandma’s Fry Bread


4 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons powdered milk

1 1⁄2 cups warm water

1 cup shortening or lard 

Extra flour


Put flour in bowl, add baking powder, salt and powdered milk. Mix.

Mix in warm water to form dough.

Cover hands in flour.

Knead dough by hand until soft but not sticky. Cover with a cloth and let stand for 15 minutes.

Shape dough into balls about 2 inches across then flatten by patting and stretching the dough.

Melt shortening about an inch deep in frying pan. When hot put dough in pan. Fry one side till golden brown, then turn and fry the other.  Add toppings for savory or make it sweet for desert (your choice of toppings) Delicious!!!!