Thursday, February 7, 2013

Native American Cooking: Acorns

The indigenous people in San Diego (the Kumeyaay) and in much of California historically based their diets largely on wild game and acorns. I'm taking a class on Kumeyaay traditional foods. Naturally, our first two classes were devoted to acorns.

The Kumeyaay use four different kinds of acorns: Sinyaw Kumiulk, Sinyaw, Kupaally, and Sentai. Sinyaw Kumiulk is the only acorn that can be eaten directly. It is tiny and long. The others all must be leached before they are eaten.

Sinyaw is more common. It comes from a Coast Live Oak, and it is a yellowish color. In the mountains, you will find Kupaally, with a creamy/pink color. This comes from a black oak, and I hear that it tastes sweeter than Sinyaw. Last is Sentai, which is the biggest acorn.

Typically, sinyaw and kupaally are used to make the Kumeyaay staple food, Shawii. Additionally, sinyaw can be used to make "acorn coffee." We used sinyaw to make both shawii and acorn coffee.

In the mountains, acorns are harvested in September. In lower altitudes, they are harvested in November. Some tribes will beat or shake the trees to make acorns fall so they can collect them. Others just gather them from the ground. I've read that acorns infested with bugs fall first, so one might want to skip the first acorns that drop and wait for ones that drop later.

Traditionally, Indians would burn the area under the oaks after gathering acorns each year. This would encourage grasses and wildflowers to grow, but it would also break the pest cycle that leads to wormy acorns. The worms pupate in the leaves below the oaks and the mature adults then lay eggs in the next year's acorns. This is one example of how the native Americans of California blur the lines between farming and hunting and gathering.

The short, fat one is from a Black Oak. The long thin one is from a Coast Live Oak.

Here's how to make Shawii:

Step 1: Gather acorns from an oak tree. Let them dry. If you shell the acorns immediately, then this takes 2-3 weeks. It takes much longer if you leave them in the shells (til February, assuming you gathered the acorns in October/November).

Any acorn with a hole in it has a bug. Acorns without holes might have bugs too, unfortunately. But our teacher, Martha, did a darn good job in bringing us mostly bug-free acorns.

Sinyaw: Acorns from the Coast Live Oak

Step 2: Get a rock with acorn-sized holes from the beach. Place an acorn in the hole and smack it with a rock. Hard. Then remove the shell. Repeat for each acorn.

Breaking the acorn shell

An acorn after being smacked hard with a rock

Step 3: Winnow the acorns to remove the dark, papery layer around each of them. We mostly did this manually but it should be done by putting the acorns in a basket and taking them outside. Grab a handful of acorns and let them drop into the basket. The wind will blow off the papery layer as they drop.

The Kumeyaay are skilled basket makers, so baskets used in many aspects of their culture. For example, acorn granary baskets are made from willow bark, because willow repels the pests.

Handmade Kumeyaay basket

A basket like the one above would be made from Juncas textilis:

Juncas textilis

Step 4: Grind the acorns. Modern Indians use a coffee grinder. We did it the old-fashioned way. If you don't grind it fine enough, your shawii will be bitter.

Step 5: Once the acorns are finely ground you must leach the tannins from them. This takes a long time. Traditionally, it might be done in a bed of sand or in a basket. We used an old flour sack suspended over an empty trash can. If I did it at home, I'd use a colander lined with a cloth in my sink.

Our leaching setup

We added the acorns, and then poured water through them and let it drip through the cloth for HOURS.

At a certain point, a Kumeyaay woman in our class decided to take charge. She grew up speaking Kumeyaay and making and eating shawii, so she was not as eager as the rest of us were to grind acorns for hours on end. But when she saw us slowly pouring water through our acorns, she grabbed a spatula and started stirring to speed the process along. Stirring will speed up the leaching. Of course, if you're doing this at home, you can just fill up the water in your colander every so often and let it leach for 8 hours until it's done. We've only got 3 hours in class so we were in a hurry.

Stirring to speed up the leaching of the tannins

Here's what the water looked like after it went through the acorns:

Step 6: Cook! Wring out all the water from your acorns, and put them in a saucepan. Add water. Stir constantly as it cooks.

Leached acorns

Our instructor added the water and began stirring as it cooked. She looked at it and remarked that we had not leached out all of the tannins.

Water added, shawii cooking.

Finished shawii

Step 7: Cool and eat. The consistency becomes jello-like once it cools, and you're supposed to let it cool before you eat it. But I didn't.


To make coffee, you remove the shells and winnow your acorns, but you don't immediately grind them. Instead you heat them in a pan until they are entirely black. If you break an acorn in half, it should be black throughout the whole thing.

Step 1: Roast the acorns.

Acorns in the pan

Getting darker

Once the acorns are roasted, you grind them.

With your roasted, ground acorns ready to go, it's time to make coffee. I don't think we used a very traditional method:

Once it's done, it looks like real coffee!

Acorn coffee

It was pretty good, and might have been better with milk and/or sugar. It doesn't taste identical to coffee, but it's similar. And it's non-caffeinated.

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