Best Indian Food 2013: Coushatta Slow-Cooked Corn Soup

Jackleen de la Harpe
5/23/13

This is part three in a series on Best Indian Food 2013. Also read: Smothered Muskrat, Tail Off, Teeth Showing; and Salmon Roasted Over an Alder Fire Pit.

If there is an opposite to fast food, it might be the drinkable corn soup, chawahka, made by Jonas John, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, who lives on reservation land in southwestern Louisiana.

From the time the dried corn is purchased to the time when this plain soup is ladled into a cup—this traditional food takes about two weeks to cook. It is so loved by tribal members, says John—from kids to elders—that he cooks it all year for smaller gatherings of 100 people to the tribe’s biggest celebration in December, which draws about 1,000 people. During their tribe’s pow wow in the second week in August, he sets up a vendor’s booth and sells it to tribal members and visitors. “It is bland, but after you’ve had a couple of cups of it, people really like it. Everyone likes it out here,” says John.

"If it's too strong," Jonas John said, "the juice will burn your throat." (Dakota John)The soup has been made by his family for many generations, and it is about as simple as it gets—just three ingredients—water, corn, wood ash. The trick, like any recipe handed down from one cook to the next, is the method, the feel of it, making it without to without scorching it or adding too much “juice” that can burn your throat. John began cooking this soup, a dish that had nearly disappeared from the reservation, in 1997. Now it has made a comeback.

John, 34, is fluent in the Coushatta language, as is his extended family. His work for the Coushatta Heritage Center focuses on reinforcing tribal cultural—from integrating the Coushatta language into their schools to helping revive the craft of river cane and pine-needle basket weaving. He is head of the stickball program.

The long process of cooking chawahka in the traditional way means cooking the hard way. If he’s building a soup for 300 people, he’ll begin with about 30 pounds of dried yellow corn, not sweet, and pound it by hand with a pounding stick in a hollowed-out “bowl” that has been burned into a tree stump, a giant mortar and a pestle made of wood rather than stone. “We pound it, take the shells off the corn, shift it, we still do that by hand,” he says. That takes the good part of one week. After that, he makes the lye juice by burning either ash or hickory wood and boiling the ash in water, which gives the soup its flavor, a process that takes another week. “If it’s too strong,” he says, “the juice will burn their throat. It’s a long process itself.”

He preps one of his 15-, 20- or 40-gallon cooking pots and builds an open fire using white oak. The cooking part is easiest, he says: about eight hours of stirring, adding just the right amount of lye juice, keeping the fire stoked. For a meal that begins at noon, for example, he will get his outdoor kitchen under way by one a.m. so the soup will be ready for lunch. People come out in the dark to watch the fire and keep him company while he does his work: stirring, adding more juice for the soup’s particular wood flavor, and keeping the consistency drinkable, not too thin, not too thick—and especially not burned on the bottom.

“Everyone likes it out here,” he says, “Like in Louisiana, you gotta have rice. Here, we serve chawahka at every holiday event. A lot of tribal members, they wait for it. A lot of elders like it plain, like it with nothing—they like the wood taste of it. It is a tribal tradition, almost lost, but we’re reviving it out here. For me, it’s an honor to serve everyone.”

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