Chumuth - Gastro Obscura

Prepared Foods


Tohono O’odham cooks finish these hand-stretched, buttery tortillas over a hot stone disc.

The Fry Bread House is an award-winning eatery in downtown Phoenix that’s owned by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Here, cooks use large buttery tortillas known as chumuth as crispy bases for melted cheese, as accompaniments to chile stew, and as wraps (burros) housing beans, beef, or chorizo. Unlike the restaurant’s namesake fry bread, chumuth isn’t fried: Cooks hand-pull it and cook it on a stone disc called a comal. The dough also uses less water and more lard (to give it stretchiness).

Charlie Ballard, a journalist who attended Native American boarding school, remembers Tohono O’odham classmates singing the praises of chumuth. These coarse tortillas are considered a core traditional food of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The O’odham people inhabited a stretch of land known as Papagueria for thousands of years. This territory ran north-south from Sonora, Mexico, to just north of what is now Phoenix, Arizona. The Gulf of California and San Pedro River marked its western and eastern boundaries. Mexico took over the region in the 18th century, and the Gadsden Purchase split the land with the United States in 1853. This stratified O’odham society, creating five politically, geographically distinct bands that speak dialects of O’odham language. The Tohono O’odham Nation, the Gila River Indian Community, the Ak-Chin Indian Community, and the Salt River (Pima Maricopa) Indian community are federally-recognized, while the Hia-C’ed O’odham, who reside throughout southwestern Arizona, are not.

Due to the Tohono O’odham Nation’s geographic positioning along the U.S.-Mexico border, the region was heavily trafficked by Anglo cowboys and Mexican vaqueros, and many members became cattle ranchers themselves. At their cattle roundup campsites, the O’odham made small, thick rounds of wheat flatbread called wakial cecemait, or “cowboy tortillas.” Over time, white flour became the preferred base. Today, this flatbread has come to be known as chumuth, or, sometimes, cemait.

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