A Cookbook for Your Journey

On Chími Nu’am by Sara Calvosa Olson

Review by Cheryl Angelina Koehler


“This is a very inconvenient cookbook, admittedly. But I am hoping that it will meet you wherever you’re at in your journey,” writes Sara Calvosa Olson in the “How to Use this Book” introduction to her just-published cookbook: Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen.

And with that, the reader gets to ask, “Where am I at in my journey?”

For this book reviewer (a non-Native), there are two journeys. The first is a yearslong amble into wildcrafting, an endeavor that is happily rewarded with Calvosa Olson’s richly detailed recipes and instructions for gathering and preparing Native foods.

If her book is heavy on recipes that use acorn flour, it’s for good reason, as acorns are an essential source of nourishment for tribes up and down the state. Will you take up the challenge to gather and process them? If so, you’ll have plenty of recipes to try, from acorn crepes, dumplings, quick breads, and piecrusts to surprises like acorn miso and hummus. You’ll gain deep appreciation for the many native protein sources the land provides—think elk, rabbit, quail eggs—and find inspiration in recipes for pine tree tip sugar, syrup, and oil to make in the spring when the trees begin their new growth cycle. This is a cookbook that brings the reader into the kind of intimate relationship with nature that strengthens the instinct to protect it.

If my first journey is well rewarded with Calvosa Olson’s collection of recipes, my second, that of learning to see the Indigenous experience that colonizers worked to erase, is amply so with her commentary. I appreciate her generosity in sharing the miles she traveled along her own path toward reconnecting with her Karuk roots and the larger foodways of Native California. She accomplishes a split screen, giving both the “NDN” perspective—an internet shorthand used by many Indigenous Americans to refer to themselves—and that of the ardent seeker. Calvosa Olson is frank in her discussions of how we might decolonize our diets and our relationship to the land after a long era marked by exploitation and entitlement.

It’s with much enthusiasm that I share the following recipe from Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen. In each of her recipe headnotes, the author moves the story forward, and in this one, perhaps more than in any other in the book, she asks the reader to recognize the too-often invisible hands that bring food to our tables. It’s significant to acknowledge that, so often, those hands belong to people with deep Indigenous roots in this land of plenty.


Red Chile Rabbit Tamales

A Red Chile Rabbit Tamale (Photo by Sara Calvosa Olson)

Excerpted from Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen by Sara Calvosa Olson. Reprinted with permission from Heyday, © 2023.

What is winter in California without tamales? They are festive, they are spicy, and they come to us via the Southern Indigenous peoples. Many migrant workers in California are Indigenous to this continent, doing essential food work in fields, vineyards, and orchards up and down the state. We often hold these foodways close to us in our identity as Californians without acknowledging the way in which they come to be here. We cannot separate the people from the cultural foodways. We should all be fighting hard for elevating the rights and lives of migrant workers in California, otherwise we should put down everything we’re eating because there is no California cuisine without them.

It is a labor-intensive process to make tamales, so this recipe can be doubled, tripled, quadrupled, to use however many rabbits you’re willing to cook up. You can also substitute with another protein; the flavor of the sauce will still shine. This is a family-wide operation, and my large sons are enlisted members of the tamale assembly line. You can freeze tamales and tamale ingredients at any point in the process, so feel free to make enough to feed all of your neighbors.

Makes approximately 12 tamales


  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon large Mexican allspice berries
  • 1/2 teaspoon Mexican oregano
  • 1 whole clove
  • 1 white onion, quartered
  • 5 garlic cloves
  • 6 ancho chiles
  • 3 guajillo chiles
  • 2 cups tomatoes
  • 2 cups rabbit stock, plus more as needed
  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil
  • 1 tablespoon masa harina (see Note)
  • 1 small piloncillo cone
  • 1 2-inch cinnamon stick
  • 2 cups poached rabbit meat, shredded or chopped

Make the filling:

In a medium cast-iron skillet, toast the cumin, allspice berries, oregano, and clove on medium-low heat for a few minutes until very fragrant. Then grind in a molcajete and set aside.

In the same pan you toasted the spices, char the outside of the onion and garlic and throw into the blender to wait for the rest of your ingredients.

Wearing gloves, remove and discard the stems, seeds, and ribs of your chiles and put them into the cast-iron to lightly toast for a bit, being careful not to burn them. If you burn them, toss them and start over; the bitterness in your sauce will be annoying otherwise. Once they’ve been lightly tossed and toasted, put them in a saucepan or pot and cover with just enough water to submerge them all. Bring to a boil and then remove the pot from the heat. Let the chiles rehydrate in the hot water for 15 minutes.


  •  1/2 cups melted lard, butter, or canola
  • 6 cups masa harina (see Note)
  • 2 tablespoons red chile sauce from rabbit filling
  • 5 to 6 cups warm rabbit or chicken stock, store-bought or homemade
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 20 corn husks, soaked in room temperature water for at least 30 minutes or, preferably, overnight

Using tongs, pick the chiles out of the water and add them and the tomatoes to the blender with the onions and garlic. Add 1 cup of stock and blend until smooth. Add more stock if your chiles are too thick and seize up. The final mixture should be a puree.

In a pan (you can reuse your cast-iron skillet or pour out the chile water and use that pan to avoid a monster pile of dishes), heat the avocado oil and masa harina over medium heat for a couple of minutes until fragrant. Add the chile puree, the reserved spice blend from your molcajete, the cinnamon stick, and the remaining 1 cup of stock. Reduce the heat to low, add the rabbit meat, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Add more stock if the mixture gets too thick.

Note: You can use your own freshly ground masa harina (nixtamalized corn flour) or you can use whatever masa harina is available in your grocery store. Masa is just wet, stoneground corn dough made with masa harina. You can also buy prepared masa that is already mixed with lard and salt, but then you have less control over the amount and type of fat that you use.

Make the masa: In a large bowl or stand mixer, add the melted lard to the masa harina. Using your hand, blend the lard into the flour until it resembles wet sand. Then stir in the red chile sauce, warm stock, and salt, mixing well until it resembles a thick paste. Using an electric mixer or your arm power, mix at a high speed until the dough is light and fluffy. If a pinch of dough floats when dropped into a cup of cold water, the masa is ready to use.

Remove a particularly large husk from the soaking water and pull or cut into long strips to make ties to go around your tamales.

Add water to the bottom of a large steamer pot with an insert that has holes in it. You don’t want the water to touch the bottom of the tamales, but you want enough water to give them a good steam bath. Keep a kettle of boiling water nearby to carefully refill the pot if the water level gets too low.

Working in an assembly line, take a husk and, with the wide side facing you, spoon the masa into the husk, leaving about ¼ inch of space from the top, and about 2 inches of space on the bottom. Spoon some chile rabbit mixture into the middle of the masa.

Fold over both sides, or roll from one side to the other. Fold the narrow bottom up and tie with corn husk strips.

Place the tamales in the steamer pot with the open side facing up. Steam on medium-high heat for 40 to 60 minutes, keeping an eye on the water level. Carefully remove a tamale at the 40-minute mark, allowing it to cool a bit before opening to check for doneness. It should come away from the husk intact; if it isn’t smooth and holding together, keep steaming and checking every 10 minutes.

Serve the tamales hot, or store them in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months.