Cooking the Three Sisters: Maize, Beans and Squash

Maize, beans and squash form the famous polyculture known as the Three Sisters. Grown from Mexico to Chile, from ancient Incans to modern natural farmers, the trio cooperates symbiotically in the field. It also does so in the kitchen: three simple yet delicious dishes combine as a wholesome meal. Taught by Juan, a natural farmer in the mountains above Cali, Colombia, who learned it from an old campesino, who said these are ancient, prehispanic recipes. From staple crops to table tops—here’s how to cook the three sisters.

Juan grinding maize

1. Arepas de maize (Corn pancakes) – First and most importantly, the workhorse of the New World diet, maize. Harvest dry and dry for longer. Soak kernels for one day, drain, then leave for one day. After these two days the maize has germinated, granting greater nutrition. Next, for your daily workout, grind the germinated maize into the rich golden ore that may forge many dishes. Soup, bolitas, fritados, and the traditional fermented beverage, chicha, are all options. But Juan’s dish of choice is arepas.

Germinated maize

We’ve made arepas with sorghum, milo and all four European grains, but the winner for both taste and texture is maize. Simply mix the ground maize with water and optionals like salt and flaxseed. Then fry like a pancake with light oil on your condensed donkey-poop plate. Listo.

Frying maize

2. Sopa de frijoles (Bean soup) – In the Three Sisters beans provide the soil with nitrogen; as a food they provide us with protein. First, soak them for one day to soften. Then, boil them in a stew with veggies of choice. We added cilantro, simaron and potatoes, but potential to customize is limitless. In fact, as beans we used guandul (cajanus cajan), a legume shrub Juan grows as a companion plant and soil builder throughout his farm. (See Trees of the Andes)

Harvesting beans (guandul)

3. Crema de zapallo (Pumpkin puree) – The trio’s ground cover, living mulch and moisture retainer is squash (or pumpkin). As a pumpkin puree, it’s a creamy, delicious dip for the maize arepas. First, simmer chunks of pumpkin in a pot, then add water to level with chunks. Boil until soft and then puree in your ancient Incan blender.

Pureeing pumpkin

As these dishes, the Three Sisters are helping Juan near his goal of self-sufficiency for his mountainside community, Un Pasito a la Vez. The crops are also helping cultivate and regenerate the land, compacted and eroded after decades of overgrazing. Learn more of Juan’s permaculture tactics using the Vida del Bosque.

Juan loading solar cooker

About Sean Dixon-Sullivan

Sean is a writer and plant-whisperer from New Jersey, who travels to work in fields such as regenerative agriculture and restoration ecology, to learn from the pioneers repairing our planet. You can connect with him on;

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Feature Photo: TresHermanas1


  1. While I applaud your work (and photography!) your history is off. The Three Sisters was raised in what is today the state of Maine and into Alberta, Canada. Here, near the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, we had achira, as well, an Andean native. Sweet potatoes and some peanuts. Annual crops were planted in fields where perennials were already abundant, such as lilies, and self-sewing amaranths, lambs quarters, pig weed, and so on. There were some 26 domesticated plants in our fields. Maize was so highly regarded the river’s name means Maize Moon River. Ama Susos Kanona.
    Best to to you!

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