There are some dishes that you just know are all-American. Burgers, lobster rolls, cheesesteaks, barbecue and more may as well come branded with a big ol’ USA on them. And while there are few things more American than fried chicken or a deep-dish pizza, there are some dishes that seem like they may be from another country or may have exotic roots, but they’re as homegrown as anything. These are 11 dishes you didn’t know were invented in America.
Sushi is a traditional Japanese dish, but not all sushi rolls come from Japan. The history of the California roll is uncertain — chefs from Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia, both claim to have invented the dish. LA-based chef Ken Seusa claims ownership of the California roll, and he has the first documented version of this dish from an Associated Press article published in 1979. That roll, made of avocado, cucumber and imitation crab features the seaweed on the inside of the sushi, which is not particularly traditional. Traditional sushi features to nori on the outside. U.S.-invented sushi rolls tend to have bolder flavors and more ingredients than Japanese sushi. Other all-American sushi rolls include the spicy tuna roll, Philadelphia roll and the rainbow roll.
Though this dish may look and taste like something from Mexico, the chimichanga was actually reportedly invented at El Charro in Tucson, Arizona. The tale the eatery tells is that the restaurant’s founder Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito in a deep fryer. She exclaimed a Spanish curse word but then stopped herself, shouting “Chimichanga!” instead. Macayo’s Mexican Table in Phoenix also claims its founder Woody Johnson invented this dish with a very similar story. Regardless, this dish is definitely Arizonian and one of the most iconic foods in America.
Just because something is named after a foreign country doesn’t mean it’s foreign. Remember that lesson. The Cuban sandwich, also known as a Cubano, has a fuzzy backstory. Native inhabitants of Cuba likely made a type of fish sandwich using cassava bread, but the Spanish brought the key ingredients for this sandwich, namely cheese, bread made with wheat flour and the all-important pork. In the 1800s as the tobacco industry flourished, travel between Cuba and southern Florida was common, and cigar factory workers needed a quick, easy and delicious lunch. As cultures and ingredients continued to collide, the Cubano as we know it today — with crispy Cuban bread, yellow mustard, roasted pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles — was born in the Sunshine State.
English muffins were invented by an Englishman who immigrated to America. In 1880, Samuel Bath Thomas opened a bakery in New York City and started serving a twist on traditional English crumpets called “toaster crumpets.” This porous, spongy muffin was cut in half so it could be more easily toasted, resulting in a crispy base that quickly became a popular alternative to toast. The dish was dubbed “English muffin” so it wouldn’t be confused with, you know, regular muffins. Today, English muffins are the base for breakfast sandwiches, eggs Benedict and some of the best brunch recipes of all time.
Derived from the Spanish word faja (which means “strip”), fajitas are strips of skirt steak cooked over high heat with bell peppers and onions, served in freshly made tortillas. As it turns out, this Mexican restaurant staple is not actually from within the borders of modern Mexico; it’s of the many iconic dishes from Texas. This dish was originally eaten as trail food by Tejano cattle ranchers. After the beef was butchered, so-called throwaway cuts of meat, such as the skirt steak, were given to the vaqueros.
You won’t find the French using French dressing. In France, it’s all about the vinaigrette for salads. In America, French dressing is a tangy, ketchup-based dressing that also includes vinegar, sugar, Worcestershire sauce and spices such as paprika, garlic powder and celery seed. Milani’s 1890 French Dressing, which appeared around 1938, is the first reported French dressing that hit American grocery store shelves; it’s unknown why it is called French dressing, but it isn’t the only seemingly foreign-named condiment that is American in origin. Russian dressing is also an American invention.
Whether you go to the best Chinese restaurant in your state or you go to the local takeout joint, chances are you’re going to end your meal with a crispy, subtly sweet fortune cookie. And while this dessert is a staple of Chinese food today, it may actually have been invented by Japanese chefs. There are dueling claims as to who invented the fortune cookie. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park claims to have started selling the dessert at the turn of the 20th century. But the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles also lays claim to the dessert. Japanese internment during World War II led to Chinese-Americans taking over production of fortune cookies, and this treat has been a staple of Americanized versions of both cuisines ever since. As it turns out, there are a lot of things you don’t know about fortune cookies.
One secret your local Chinese takeout joint doesn’t want you to know: A lot of the dishes aren’t actually Chinese. General Tso’s chicken may be named after Chinese military leader Tso Tsung-t'ang, but it has no connection to traditional Chinese cuisine. The dish as we know it today was inspired by a Hunan dish invented by Peng Chang-kuei and tweaked by New York chef Tsung Ting Wang. The General Tso’s chicken you’ll find at all-you-can-eat buffets is sweeter and crispier than the original, perfect for the American palate.
German chocolate cake isn’t named after the country; it’s named after the American chocolatier Samuel German who invented the dark baking chocolate used for this rich, decadent cake. This chocolate came onto the market in 1852, and in 1857, a Texas housewife created this cake, complete with its coconut, pecan and maraschino cherry toppings. This is just another misnomer and a true Southern recipe everyone needs to try.
Spaghetti and meatballs is a staple of all the best Italian restaurants in America, but we’re here to tell you: This dish isn’t authentically Italian. In Italy, meatballs are served as an appetizer, while spaghetti and other pastas are served with more traditional sauces with simple ingredients, such as Bolognese or pesto. The fusion of appetizer and entree is said to have been invented by Italian-American immigrants in the early 20th century. The earliest known recipe for this dish was published by the National Pasta Association, a trade association, in 1920.
Another dish named for a foreign country that it has nothing to do with, the “Swiss” in Swiss steak doesn’t refer to Switzerland but to swissing, the act of rolling or pounding out meat to tenderize it. A budget-friendly dinner, Swiss steak is a pounded-out piece of round steak cooked in a slow cooker or Dutch oven at a low temperature and then smothered in gravy. Pounding out meat, cooking it at low temperatures and covering it in sauce are some of the best ways to make cheap cuts of steak tender and delicious. If this dish sounds old-fashioned, that’s because it just so happens to be one of those retro American recipes no one makes anymore — but should.
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