Did you know that many of the foods we now consider quintessentially American have their origins in other parts of the world? Some were brought over by Europeans and have developed their own Americanized version, whereas others are direct copies of dishes from other countries. Let’s explore some food history and discover 22 ‘American’ foods that were initially foreign imports!
While we may think of a deep pan, stuffed crust pizza as American, the first pizzas were made in Naples, Italy, by baker Raffaele Esposito. He used olive-oil-infused dough to make a thin-crust pizza topped simply with tomato, mozzarella, and basil. In America today, you can only find this type of pizza in authentic Italian pizzerias, not Dominos!
Hot Dogs (Germany)
According to The History Channel, the hot dogs are ‘frankfurters,’ named after the German city of Frankfurt, where they were first made in 1484. German immigrants brought this now beloved sausage to the United States in the 1800s, where they were eventually served in long buns with ketchup, mustard, and onions.
French Fries (Belgium)
Confusingly, french fries originated in Belgium, a small country to the northeast of France. Tasting Table says fries were invented in Belgium in the winter of 1680 when a local fisherman, unable to catch fish in the frozen river, decided to fry some diced potatoes instead! They were brought to the US during WW1 by American soldiers returning from Europe.
Just like Frankfurters, hamburgers are named after a German town- Hamburg, from which the meat to make the seasoned ground patties was apparently sourced. The Washington Post states that hamburger-type dishes are present in 18th-century German cookbooks and were served on bread as early as 1869.
Now enjoyed everywhere in the US, tacos were invented by indigenous Mexican cultures who used tortillas as a staple food long before Europeans arrived on the continent. Originally, they were filled with fish and cooked organs from livestock but have (thankfully) now evolved into more palatable modern versions.
Spaghetti and Meatballs (Italy)
Today, this dish is particularly popular in areas of the US where Italian immigrants settled in high numbers, such as Brooklyn, New York. In the 17th century, these newcomers adapted their traditional Italian recipes to incorporate the ingredients available in their new home- and viola! Spaghetti and meatballs were born!
The History Cooperative says that Eastern European Jewish immigrants from Poland or Germany introduced bagels to America. Their name comes from the Polish name “bajgiel,” which sounds like the Yiddish word for bracelet or ring. Bagels have since become a beloved breakfast all over the US and are often used as a base for sandwiches.
Sushi is a delicate combination of slightly vinegared rice traditionally mixed with fish and vegetables and rolled into bitesize mouthfuls. Imported by Japanese immigrants, it has since gained immense popularity in the US and is one of the few lower-calorie dining options available in restaurants here.
Chocolate has an ancient history dating back to Aztec and Mayan civilizations living in what is now South America and Mexico. The Smithsonian Magazine states that cacao was highly valued in such times but tasted strong and bitter- it wasn’t until milk and sugar were added later that chocolate was born.
Apple Pie (Europe)
European settlers from the UK and the Netherlands were the first to make shortcrust pastry and fill it with fruit or meat. Despite this, apple pie is often seen as a traditional American dessert because it was one of the very first desserts to be made in the US and quickly gained popularity here.
Corned Beef (Ireland)
If you’re a fan of Reuben sandwiches, you’ll be familiar with corned beef- ground, salted beefsteak that was first made in Ireland and named by the English for the corn-like salt crystals used to produce it. Irish immigrants brought corned beef to the US and served it with cabbage, creating the traditional St. Patrick’s Day dish.
The now ubiquitous fast-food condiment originated in Chinese fish-based sauces called “keh-jup,” which were more like soy sauce than modern ketchup. These dipping sauces eventually morphed into the sweet, tomato-based versions that are now commonly eaten with ‘french’ fries, hamburgers, and hotdogs in the US.
Clam Chowder (France)
Eater writes, “The New England style of chowder was introduced to the region by French, Nova Scotian, or British settlers and became a common dish in the area by the 1700s.” The creamy soup is prepared using traditional French culinary techniques and has since become a beloved comfort food, particularly on cold days!
Chili (Indigenous America)
While not a true product of the US, Chilli did originate on the American continent. Long before Europeans arrived here and learned how to make this spicy mix of ground meat and chillis, Native Americans had been preparing it for centuries. Over time, extra ingredients like rice, sour cream, and cheese have been added- yum!
Gumbo (West Africa)
The BBC reports that this hearty stew, popular in states such as Louisiana in the American South, originates in Western Africa. When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, they brought this stew with them, calling it gumbo after their word for okra (pronounced “gombo”), traditionally used to thicken it.
Ice Cream (China)
The earliest ice cream was thought to have been made in China, although its origins remain debated. It’s thought that, as early as the 2nd century BC, the Chinese were taking ice from the mountains and flavoring it with juices and spices. Nowadays, ice cream is the ultimate summer dessert, beloved the world over (including in the US).
Although many consider burritos a hybrid “Tex-Mex” cuisine founded in Arizona and New Mexico, they were originally eaten by native Mexicans engaged in silver mining for Spanish settlers. Corn tortillas with various meat, vegetable, and dairy fillings are now available almost everywhere in America.
Meatloaf (The Netherlands)
Dutch Settlers in Pennsylvania were the first people in the US to make what we now consider to be all-American meatloaf (Atlantic). However, the idea of grinding meat and mixing it with other herbs and spices to form a ‘loaf’ has been reported in several cultures as far back as the 4th century.
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