Ashela: A Choctaw Dish for the Woods or the Kitchen
The last couple of weeks have brought absolutely beautiful weather to our part of the world. The temperature has been pleasantly cool for June. Other than during the rain showers, the humidity has been low, and swarms of dragon flies have put a real dent in the mosquito population at the Nan Awaya Farmstead. During this period, we got to spend a couple of unforgettable days out on the land with a very special group of young people from our community. In respect for their privacy, this post won't go into the details of their visit, but we would like to share one of the traditional Choctaw dishes that we prepared together on one of these beautiful evenings.
The dish is called ashela in the Choctaw language. Ashela is a really adaptable stew that combines wild fowl or poultry with corn. It can be prepared as easily out on the land as in a modern kitchen. Last week, our group focused on the former, using the Indigenous, hand-made cooking implements that our ancestors had used to prepare the dish.
First, we put dry hominy corn on to soak in cool water the evening before we prepared the meal. Soaking the hominy overnight cuts the cooking time in half. Tanchi Hlimishko is the traditional Choctaw hominy corn. Currently, the few surviving seeds of this variety are being saved and planted to try to revitalize it. Until there are enough kernels of this variety to cook, Goya Brand Dry Golden Hominy is a good substitute. The group cooked the dish in a newly fired traditional clay pot, made to hold about three gallons. The pot was made from clay that was dug near Coalgate, OK, mixed with burned mussel shell. Before use, a traditional cooking pot like this one needs to be seasoned, much like cast iron. Otherwise, the first meal cooked in it will taste like dirt. We seasoned the pot by setting it on the ground near the fire, turning the mouth towards the hot coals, and then rubbing olive oil onto its heated interior.
After seasoning, we filled the pot 2/3 with the hominy and water and then nestled its rounded base down into a prepared bed of glowing hardwood coals. In 15 minutes, the hominy came to a frothy boil (image above). Over the two-and-a-half hours that the hominy was cooking, our group worked on other dishes and prepared additional ingredients to add to the ashela. An hour into cooking, we added a couple of pounds of turkey meat to the hominy, letting the meat boil until it fell apart. The group also pulverized dry, unsalted sunflower seeds into powder using a wooden mortar and pestle, and added the powder to the stew. Next, we ground up flour corn in the mortar and pestle. The traditional variety of Choctaw flour corn is Tanchi Tohbi. Like the hominy corn, its seeds are being saved and planted. Goya Brand Giant White Corn is a good substitute. We took turns pounding the corn with a little bit of water in the mortar and pestle, until the kernels were broken up finely. Then, we removed the corn and put it in a sifter basket, made from river cane. The smaller fragments of corn kernel fell through the openings of the sifter basket and into a flat basket that someone held underneath it. The larger pieces of corn that stayed behind in the sifter basket were retuned to the mortar and pounded again. The fine cornmeal was stirred in as a thickener about 15 minutes before the ashela was served.
The ashela that the group prepared was really good. The hominy provided the bulk, while the turkey added flavor, and the sunflower seeds made it filling. Add a touch of smoke from the fire, and even without salt, you've got something pretty special. To complete the meal, the group made nipi vlhbvpni (meat roasted over the open fire on sassafras skewers), walakshi (blackberry and cornmeal dumplings cooked in another clay pot on the coals), and kvfi (sassafras tea from roots that the group had dug on a plants walk earlier that morning). Prepared by the youth and served in traditional clay eating bowls, it was a truly flavorful, Indigenous Choctaw meal. I'm sure that it was being served at no other location on the face of the earth that evening. The food was enjoyed amid conversations lead by two very special elders who came to share some of their their insights and experiences. For us, the evening was unforgettable.
Ashela really is an adaptable dish. The version in the picture to the right was made entirely with cornmeal, rather than the hominy, and it has beans added. Versions of ashela are quick and easy to make in the modern kitchen. The following is a recipe that we often make:
Traditionally, the wild fowl was hung up over the coals to slowly roast before being added to the dish. From a modern perspective, ashela is a great use for leftover Thanksgiving turkey. Simply pick the meat off of the bones and add it to a pot of boiling water. In a pinch, ground turkey can be used. Add in a few handfuls of dry, unsalted sunflower seeds that have been pulverized in a coffee grinder. Although they weren't grown by our Choctaw ancestors, this dish is especially good if you add in some cubed yellow squash at this point. After about 30 minutes, when broth has been produced, begin stirring in cornmeal a little bit at a time, until the dish is nearly as thick as you want it to be. Let it boil for an additional 5 minutes, being careful to stir to prevent burning. After the cornmeal has fully cooked and the pot has been removed from the heat, add a can of kidney beans that have been washed and strained. Usually, we flavor this dish with sage and a little bit of salt, but next time, we'll try dropping in a couple of sassafras leaves. Enjoy!