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Native American Cooking: Acorns

by: Jill Richardson

Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 21:49:14 PM PST

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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. See pictures and instructions below.
Jill Richardson :: Native American Cooking: 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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fascinating (4.00 / 3)
Did Native American tribes in the Midwest use acorns in the same way? I've never heard of that staple food, or of acorn coffee.

I'm not sure, actually. (4.00 / 1)
The climate here is just so different than anywhere else in the nation, you know. And you guys had that critical resource that we lack: water!

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Hey, you may want to check out this e-book (4.00 / 4)
It's free. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California from 1902. There's several plants up here that also grow down south where you are, such as the Toyon. This volume says they used to cook the berries and that made the astringency go away.

There's a lot of Pomo Indians here, but they never had enough land in their reservations to keep the old ways. Now, most of them are all prosperous because of their casinos. They have houses and are set for life, financially. I hope it's not too late for enough of them to be interested enough to re-learn the old ways.

cool! (4.00 / 3)
Check this out - it's a national database of native american ethnobotany:

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Prosperous Indians with houses (4.00 / 2)
Y'know, that isn't such a bad idea. Most Native Americans are desperately poor. Prosperous Indians is a nice thought.
Most of us immigrants have lost the knowledge that our great-grandparents lived by. We don't need it any more. Some of us immigrants take the time to rediscover plowing with mules, or spinning. That is a choice.

Maybe some of the children of the prosperous Indians will decide to rediscover their grandparent's knowledge, and it would be nice if they did, but, again, that is their choice.  

[ Parent ]
So Cool! (4.00 / 2)
I had no idea there were classes anywhere about this.  I do archaeology along the East Coast, and one of my specialties is paleoethnobotany (I looked at charred seeds from arch sites), and acorns were an incredibly important resource for groups across the Eastern Woodlands prehistorically.  I analyzed samples from a pretty unique site in South Carolina last year that looks like a specialized processing site, mainly for acorns but also hickory.  We used some books about California acorn processing for ethnographic comparison, because there wasn't much written about the process by explorers and colonists over here.  Hope you enjoy your class!

wow, what a cool specialty! (4.00 / 1)
I'd love to learn more from you about that. Which oak species were relied on out there? Which cultures do you study?

Right now we're in a bit of a crisis because of an invasive pest called the gold spotted oak borer, which likes to kill old oak trees. Since they take so long to get old and big and produce a lot, losing the mature ones is a big deal. But there's still plenty of acorn consumption over here. Some tribes in CA would cook the acorns (after leaching them) in baskets by heating rocks in a fire, placing them in a water-tight basket of ground acorns and water, and stirring. It takes 8-10 rocks to get the acorns up to a rolling boil, I've read. However, the Kumeyaay have clay so they used pottery for cooking. I hope to take pottery, tools, and basketry classes in the near future.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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