Kristina Sepetys reviews Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen by Sara Calvosa Olson.
Sara Calvosa Olson grew up on the Trinity River, about 250 miles northwest of the Bay Area, raised by a Karuk mother. The Karuks are one of the largest Indigenous tribes in California, with ancestral territories along the Klamath River, extending through Siskiyou County into Southern Oregon.
“Chími Nu’am“ means “Let’s eat!” in the Karuk language, and in her cookbook, Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen, Calvosa Olson presents over 70 of her own recipes to help readers do just that as she incorporates ingredients that have long been staples in California Indigenous diets into contemporary dishes.
According to Calvosa Olson, the cookbook is not an exhaustive compilation of traditional foods. Nor is it a collection of Native recipes. It’s an assemblage of recipes incorporating some of the oldest foods in California developed by a self-described “passionate home cook” for people curious to explore a decolonized diet less reliant on the industrialized food system. Recipes are designed to be forgiving and accommodating, allowing cooks to customize the dishes to their own tastes and access to ingredients.
The book is divided by seasons, beginning with autumn, the beginning of the Karuk new year and a time to gather and feast. Acorns are gathered in fall, and the flour made from them—a golden powder packed with iron, potassium, calcium, and other nutrients—is key to many of the recipes. The nutty, earthy, occasionally sweet flour has long been a source of nourishment for tribes throughout California, and Calvosa Olson provides complete directions for making your own acorn flour. She also gives instructions for drying, smoking, canning, and preparing other ingredients, many of which can be labor-intensive exercises. Some of the recipes may take months to prepare from scratch if you’re gathering ingredients like mushrooms or berries that need to be dried. For less adventuresome or time-challenged cooks, many of these items can be sourced locally, ready-made for cooking.
The dishes are fairly simple and straightforward, probably familiar to home cooks but employing wild local ingredients so you can tiptoe into this way of sourcing. Calvosa Olson offers a focaccia that’s made chocolate-brown from acorn flour and studded with spring mushrooms, pine nuts, wildflowers, and other wild edibles. She makes a huckleberry gazpacho with smoked salmon, roasts winter squash with maple syrup and a handful of fragrant dried bay leaves, and spreads maple cream on whoopie pies made with acorn flour. Her rustic acorn bread is made with a 2:1 mix of bread flour and acorn flour, maple sugar, and a little fragrant fennel pollen (which can be gathered yourself in spring or purchased from Oaktown Spice, where they sell wild California fennel pollen). The loaf emerges with a crisp exterior, the soft interior sweet and smelling lightly of licorice.
I like the way the book introduces me to the history and possibility in familiar things I’ve seen out walking local trails—like acorns, fennel, nettles, bay laurel—and shows me all the ways they can be used to enhance simple dishes. For example, making syrups, sugars, and oils from spruce and ramps.
Recipes use proteins that are staples of Indigenous diets, so you could find your table laden with a wide array of protein-rich plant and local game dishes. Enticing examples include mini pumpkins stuffed with dried nettles, wild rice, ground venison, dried fruits, and herbs; a comforting stew made from poached quail with acorn dumplings; or venison brined with juniper and coffee. Other dishes are more complex and time-consuming. Calvosa Olson instructs us on how she inoculates acorn with koji to make acorn miso, which can be used in a soup with tanoak mushrooms mixed in with creamed kale.
Calvosa Olson wants cooks to build connections with the environment. In searching out wild foods, she urges non-Native people to consult with local tribal offices regarding sustainability, safety, and the best techniques for properly gathering foods in sensitive ecosystems. She also counsels readers to seek out Native teachers rather than paying foragers who don’t give back to Native communities.
Besides being a creative, accessible cookbook, Calvosa Olson’s work is a call for stewardship of the environment and an introduction to some local foods that have long been part of Native diets. It’s a terrific resource for foragers, teachers, libraries, classrooms, cooks, and anyone looking to learn more about the foodways of California’s Indigenous peoples.
You can find Sara Calvosa Olson’s recipe for rabbit tamales in this article in the Winter 2023–24 issue of Edible East Bay.