The surprising origin of some of your favorite ‘international’ foods

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When you think “American food,” your mind goes straight to burgers and fries, hot dogs, fried chicken, and whatnots. On the other hand, when you think Mexican food, you think Fajitas; Italian —spaghetti and meatballs; Chinese—General Tso’s chicken.  Well, hold on to your “Uncle Sam” hat because all of these seemingly international foods were actually invented in the United States.

Over the years, America— the great melting pot—has borrowed parts of many traditional cuisines and adapted them to the American palates.

We rounded up some popular “international foods” that are actually as American as apple pie.

Cuban sandwich
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Cuban sandwich

Cuban sandwiches are not so Cuban after all—they were created in Florida by an Italian baker. In the late 1800s, when Cuban immigrants arrived in Florida, they brought their love for roast pork with them. “Mixto,” or mixed meat sandwich, was a common worker’s meal in Cuba during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The “mixto” brought by the Cubans got elevated in Tampa, Florida, where a large part of the population is Italian. A man named Francisco Ferlita baked a rectangular bread scored with palmetto leaves on top and named it Cuban bread. Then the mixto and Cuban bread got amped up with Swiss cheese and pickles on mustard-slathered, giving birth to the delicious sandwich.

 

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General Tso's chicken
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General Tso’s chicken

Who is General Tso, and why is this chicken dish named after him? – While there are some speculations that this Hunan-style preparation of fried chicken was named after Zuo Zongtang (or Tso Tsung-t’ang), a 19th-century Chinese military hero, there is no evidence he whipped up the sweet ‘n’ spicy dish. In fact, there is no way that he could have even tried the dish, as he died long before it first appeared.

One theory suggests that General Tso’s chicken is not even a traditional Hunanese dish, but it was invented by a Hunan-born Taiwanese chef named Peng Chang-Kuei, who served General Tso’s chicken at his restaurant in China in the 1990s, later importing it to his Peng’s Restaurant in Manhattan.

Another story claims that the dish was actually invented in the kitchen of New York City’s Shun Lee Palace in 1972, where the Chineseimmigrant T. T. Wangbattered and deep-fried the chicken and then added sugar to offset the spicy element called it General Tso. Why General Tso? Nobody knows!

Chimichanga
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Chimichanga

The “Mexican” deep-fried burrito with a fun name has a much-debated origin story. However, there is no debate about one thing: the dish was not invented in Mexico.

According to most food historians, it originated in Tucson, Arizona. One story that holds the most weight says Monica Flin—the owner of El Charro Café, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tuscon—invented and named the dish due to an accident. Supposedly, Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into hot oil when she was making and muttered a nonsense profanity—Chimichanga— to protect her nieces’ ears.

Spaghetti and meatballs
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Spaghetti and meatballs

Almost every Italian restaurant in the states has Spagethi meatballs on their menu. So, why can you not find this “obviously” Italian dish in Italy? – Because it’s not Italian. You can find meatballs in Italy— served as appetizers or “primo piatto.” You can find spaghetti with marinara sauce— called Pasta al Pomodoro.

In the late 19th or early 20th century, Italian immigrants brought the concept of meatballs to New York City, and combined them with cooked pasta and tomato sauce to meet their budgets. The first recipe for spaghetti and meatballs was published in the 1920s by the National Pasta Association, founded in 1904.

Fortune cookies
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Fortune cookies

What many consider a Chinese restaurant cliché has very surprising origins. It turns out fortune cookies may have been invented by Japanese restaurateurs in California.

According to the National Museum of American History, Japanese American baker Suyeichi Okamura was the main supplier of fortune cookies to the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park until all Japanese American businesses were closed during World War II and Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. Chinese bakers quickly took over the industry, tweaking the recipe as they went. In 1973, a Chinese-American graduate of the University of California named Shuck Yee invented a machine to fold fortune cookies automatically.

English muffin
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English muffin

The “English” muffin that we all know was actually developed by an English immigrant to the U.S., Samuel Bath Thomas, in the 1880s. Thomas opened a bakery in New York City in 1894, where he tweaked a common English pastry known as a crumpet. Thomas called his invention “toaster crumpets” as he designed them specifically for toasting. They eventually became known as English muffins to distinguish them from cake-like regular muffins.

Chile con queso
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Chile con queso

While chile con queso or just queso sounds like a typical Mexican dish, it actually originated in Texas in the early 1900s. Although there is indeed a Mexican dish called “queso fundido” (melted cheese) or “queso flameado” (flamed cheese), made with melting cheeses, it’s more similar to fondue than to American queso, which is made with processed cheese.

German chocolate cake
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German chocolate cake

The confusion with German chocolate cake is its name, which evokes images of Bavarian pastry. In contrast, the sweet dessert was not named after the country but after its inventor, an English confectioner named Samuel German. German developed sweet baking chocolate in 1852 for his employer, the Boston-based Baker’s Chocolate Company. A Dallas housewife, Mrs. George Clay, used the chocolate in a 1957 Dallas Morning News recipe she called “German’s Chocolate Cake.”

Spicy tuna roll
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Spicy tuna roll

Spicy tuna rolls can be found in any sushi bar or restaurant throughout the U.S.A. Where you won’t find them is in Japan. Spicy foods are almost nonexistent in Japanese cuisine, making this spicy sushi roll an American creation. In the 1980s, chef Jean Nakayama of Manekia restaurant in L.A. mixed tuna scraps with chili sauce and rolled them into sushi with sheets of nori (seaweed) and sushi rice. Today, it’s one of the most popular sushi rolls in the U.S.

Beef Fajitas with bell peppers
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Fajitas

Mexican ranch workers in Texas in the 1940s were usually given the cheapest cuts of butchered animals. Chuckwagon chefs on cattle drives would prepare the stringy skirt steak by frying it with bell peppers and onions and serving it with flour tortillas. “Faja” is Spanish for strip, and Fajitas means little skirt.

Chop suey
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Chop suey

This American Chinese restaurant staple is a variation of a traditional Cantonese dish called “tsap seui,” or “shap suì,” usually made with minced organ meat. The American version, made with chicken, bean sprouts, and various vegetables, was developed by 19th-century Chinese cooks in America as a cheap way of feeding railroad workers and miners. Chop suey is Cantonese for “assorted mix.”

 

French dressing
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French dressing

During the 19th century, French dressing was synonymous with vinaigrette, which is still the term used by American chefs today. At the turn of the 20th century, American recipes began adding other flavors to the vinaigrette, like onion juice, Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, sugar, and Tabasco sauce, but they kept the name. In the 1920s, bottled French dressing was sold as “Milani’s 1890 French Dressing.”

Chinese stir fry
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Chinese chicken salad

Traditional Chinese cuisine uses shredded cold chicken for many dishes, but Chinese chicken salad as we know it first appeared in California in the 1960s.

Sylvia Cheng Wu, a legendary Chinese American chef, invented the salad at Madame Wu in Santa Monica. Wu’s original creation was popularized by many popular chefs, including Wolfgang Puck, who reinterpreted the dish.

Pasta primavera
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Pasta Primavera

Pasta Primavera was actually invented abroad, but it was an American chef who developed the recipe. New York chef Sirio Maccioni was on a trip with friends in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. As a result of their culinary experiments, pasta primavera was created. Upon returning to New York, Maccioni began serving the dish at his restaurant, Le Cirque, where it became a hit.

Chili con carne
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Chili con carne

Mexican dishes commonly include chiles and meat, which is what “chili con carne” means. But the chili we know comes from the southern part of Texas— invented by trail cooks on cattle drives. According to another theory, it was developed in prison kitchens as a cheap, filling meal for prisoners. A San Antonio Chili Stand set up at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 brought chili to national attention.

Broccoli chicken Alfredo
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Alfredo sauce

Alfredo sauce is the one recipe that annoys Italians the most, as there is no such thing in Italian cuisine. There is, however, a recipe called fettuccine all’ Alfredo with only three ingredients: fettuccine, butter, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. No cream, no parsley, no chicken.

The recipe was created by Italian chef Alfredo Di Lelio, who was running a restaurant in Rome, Italy, under his first name. His wife Ines, who had given birth to their son, had no appetite, so Alfredo came up with simple white pasta. His wife’s appetite came roaring back after one bite, and Alfredo knew he’d hit on something. The dish gained international popularity when Hollywood’s stars of the time Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, dined at Alfredo’s and were delighted by the dish. Fettuccine Alfredo traveled to the United States, but because American chefs didn’t have the right ingredients, they started making the sauce with heavy cream, and the rest is history.

Garlic bread
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Garlic Bread

Garlic bread can be found in many Italian restaurants in the U.S., but the closest thing to it in Italy is “bruschetta.” After WWII, soldiers returning from Italy were hankering about the delicious bread they enjoyed abroad. With this new demand, American restaurants created their own version: toasted white bread with garlic and margarine.

Keto Cashew Chicken
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Cashew Chicken

The origin of this Chinese restaurant staple can be traced back to the least Chinese of places: Springfield, Missouri. Upon emigrating from China to Missouri in 1940, chef David Leong struggled to introduce Missourians to traditional Chinese cuisine. Then he observed how much Missourians loved fried chicken and deep-fried chunks of chicken, tossed some cashews on top and oyster sauce, and had a winner.

Taco Salad
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Taco salad

Mexico is indeed the birthplace of taco but taco salad originated in the most unlikely of places: Disneyland. Taco salad started as  tiny Ta-Cup, created by Elmer Doolin, the inventor of the Frito brand in the mid-20th century. With time, the Ta-Cup made its way to Doolin’s Casa de Frito restaurant in Disneyland, where it grew in size.

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