Blue Corn Mush Is The Navajo Dish That Welcomes Sweet And Savory Flavors

Whether it appears as the oatmeal of Scotland, the polenta of Italy, or the grits of the American South, a porridge-like grain dish can be found in almost every culinary culture. For the Indigenous people of the Southwest, this bill is met by blue corn mush known as tanaashgiizh in Navajo.  

A classic dish made from staple Indigenous ingredients, blue corn mush shares a kinship with other creamy grain dishes in texture and taste. But, this gray-blue mixture packs two additions that set it apart: finely ground blue corn and juniper ash. Blue corn itself is a signature crop of the Hopi tribe, and juniper ash has been used as a calcium health supplement by the Navajo for hundreds of years. Since Native Americans weren't introduced to dairy until the Spanish conquest, many are naturally lactose intolerant and so get their calcium from dairy-free sources like juniper ash. Beyond the calcium, both the blue-born flour and the juniper ash also pack a wallop of vitamins such as niacin and vitamin B. 

Given that blue corn mush is a full creamy yet nutritious meal, the Navajo often enjoy it as a special treat all on its own. The best part about this moody blue mix? It can easily swing sweet or savory, depending on your cravings. So, how do you go about finding these ingredients and making your own version of blue corn mush at home?

A classic Indigenous dish

Try to look for roasted, nixtamalized blue corn flour, as corn meal may be too roughly ground and can make your blue corn mush too gritty. You can find this in specialty grocery stores and online. Juniper ash, which is made by slow-burning a bunch of juniper branches, is best found online if you don't live in the American Southwest, where one could track it down at a trading post or burn foraged branches at home. 

A basic recipe for blue corn mush features just three ingredients: blue corn flour, juniper ash, and water. Try using 1 cup of blue corn flour for every 3 cups of water. Add a teaspoon of juniper ash to the blue corn flour mix, then add the dry ingredients into cold water in a pot on the stove. Bring everything to a boil and stir until thickened and soft. A couple tablespoons of sugar, honey, or syrup would easily transform the base into something sweet with toppings like roasted berries, toasted nuts, or some coconut flakes to drive it home. For a savory take, you can treat your blue corn mush like you would a bowl of grits or polenta, adding salt, soy sauce, or a dash of hot sauce and topping it off with braised short ribs, smokey bacon, or a sauteed bitter green. Whether you try it sweet or savory, you'll soon understand why this dish has endured for generations within the Navajo community.