Foods Americans Think Are Ethnic But Were Actually Invented In The States

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Vote up your favorite ethnic foods with US origins.

Every state has a food it is known for, and we often take pride in claiming that our home makes some of the best barbecue, seafood, or pies in the nation. Still, when Ranker asked readers which food they could eat for the rest of their lives, Chinese food, spaghetti, burritos, and sushi were some of the dishes that ranked at the very top of the list. Part of what makes these foods so appealing is that they seem special, helping us feel like we are experiencing ethnic foods without having to leave home. Are we really, though? 

It turns out that some of our very favorite “ethnic” foods actually originated right here in our own country. While a few resemble dishes from their supposed countries, others were conceptualized entirely in the United States. This list exposes the fascinating, real, and very American origins of some of our very favorite “ethnic” dishes.

Photo: inazakira / Flickr / CC-BY-SA 2.0

  • With a country of origin placed in the dessert's name, it seems as though the recipe for this coconut and pecan-filled chocolate cake obviously came from Germany. Right? Wrong. German chocolate cake isn't actually named after Germany at all. 

    Sam German invented a bar of sweet baking chocolate for Baker's chocolate company in 1852. Though the company named the chocolate after its inventor, the name didn't reach legendary status until a Texas home baker sent her chocolate cake recipe to a Dallas newspaper in 1957. 

    The recipe apparently created a pretty delicious cake because Baker's “German's chocolate” sales skyrocketed the same year. Newspapers around the United States republished the recipe for their local readers, but the cake's name somehow lost the apostrophe “s" in the republication process. 

    Germany now gets all the credit for this distinctly American treat, all because a man who had a country's name as a surname invented a bar of baking chocolate. 

    2,161 votes
  • No matter how many restaurants in the United States insist on serving “authentic” corned beef and cabbage every St. Paddy's Day, you'll never get an original Irish meal by ordering it. Why? Because the Irish traditionally stayed away from beef altogether. The British made corned beef popular, and the American Jewish population created the salting and cooking process we use today. 

    Before the British colonization of Ireland, cows were considered sacred animals, and they preferred to eat pork and used the cows for fieldwork and dairy products. When the British took over the country, they brought their beef-eating practices with them. Cows became a commercial commodity, and Great Britain exported thousands of cows every year to England for consumption. 

    However, when the Cattle Acts of 1663 and 1667 were passed, exporting live cows to England became illegal. This technicality didn't halt the industry; it only changed it. Salt was another vast resource in Ireland, and the market became flooded with what the British called “corned beef,” meat cured with large hunks of salt (the size of corn kernels, to be exact). This version of corned beef became massively popular on the transatlantic trade routes, supplying troops of the British and French colonists with food. 

    Despite the dish's massive popularity, the Irish couldn't afford to eat corned beef themselves. Strict laws against the native Irish Catholic population led to their reliance on potatoes instead of meat for sustenance. Their fortunes changed when they migrated to the United States and they could finally afford meat for the first time. Ironically, it wasn't pork that they could afford but the corned beef that fueled the economy of their ancestors. Still, it wasn't the original, heavily salted version they purchased. Instead, it was the Jewish-American version of the dish, served with cabbage and potatoes.

    1,745 votes
  • The Alfredo sauce we all love to order at Italian restaurants in America is actually pretty rare in Italy, and it's made in a completely different style. According to legend, Roman restauranteur Alfredo di Lelio created a dish involving egg noodles, butter, and grated Romano cheese for his wife, who had lost her appetite after childbirth. She enjoyed the pasta so much that she insisted that Alfredo add it to their menu. 

    The dish remained a local rarity until Hollywood stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks happened to visit the restaurant on their honeymoon. They fell in love with the meal, starting a Roman food-pilgrimage craze among celebrities who wanted to experience Alfredo for themselves. 

    There are only two restaurants in Rome that claim to have the authentic fettuccini Alfredo, and the recipe is far cry from what Americans know and recognize back home. The authentic version doesn't have garlic or cream, and Italians would be shocked to see that we add chicken to any pasta dish. 

    Visitors to Italy will only find Alfredo similar to the version served in the United States at the low-quality touristy spots around town. 

    1,761 votes
  • Spaghetti and meatballs seems like the most classic dish that a person could order at an Italian restaurant. But if you take a trip to Italy, you'll only find it in the restaurants made to appeal to American tourists. 

    Though spaghetti and a version of the meatball both exist, they're never served together as a whopping pile of food covered in marinara. The “traditional” spaghetti and meatball dishes that we order as comfort food at restaurants and serve up at home in the United States actually evolved with Italian immigration.

    Southern Italians regularly made polpettes at home in the late 1800s, small balls of various meats (no larger than the size of golf balls) that stood alone as the main dish or were added to soups. Because political and economic circumstances left this area highly impoverished, families made the polpettes out of whatever meat they could find, with ingredients ranging from turkey to fish. 

    When 4 million of these families migrated to America between the 1880s and 1920s, ingredients were much cheaper in the United States than they had been at home. As a sign of their newly found wealth and success, the small polpettes made from whatever meat was on hand evolved into large beef meatballs the size of baseballs. 

    The traditional marinara sauce became excessively popular in the United States because canned tomatoes were easy to find, and Italian restaurant owners began adding noodles to their dishes because Americans were accustomed to having starch (usually potatoes) with their meals. From there, the distinctively American “Italian” dish quickly became a hit. 

  • Despite being called an “English” muffin, this breakfast staple was invented in America. What's more? It's possible the British public didn't even know it existed until Thomas' English muffins were exported to the other side of the pond in the 1990s. 

    British ex-pat Samuel Bath Thomas invented a “toaster crumpet” to sell in his New York City bakery in 1880. While they resembled crumpets, they were a little flatter and less cake-like in consistency than the distinctly British version of the bread. The crumpet-like bread became incredibly popular among upscale hotels and restaurants in the area, and by 1894, people were referring to the more sophisticated version of toast as an “English muffin.” 

    Some experts argue that the “toaster crumpet” was popular in England before Thomas brought the breakfast bread to America. Before every household had an oven, bakers would sell their creations door-to-door throughout England. Even though they called them “crumpets,” they were missing ingredients (mainly baking soda) that gave the bread the consistency that a crumpet was supposed to have. While the bread wasn't explicitly designated as a completely separate breakfast food category, door-to-door bakers were essentially selling the product that Thomas “invented” in America around the same time. 

    Whether dreamed up in an American bakery or brought over from an English home-based tradition, the traditional English muffin that we all know and love in America has never been distinguished as “English” in England. There, the crumpet-like breakfast bread and the cupcake-like sweet American treat are both referred to as “muffins.”

  • Though you can find the dish on the menu at Mexican food restaurants everywhere, fajitas are a distinctly American dish. In the 1930s and '40s, Mexican immigrants working on Texas ranches were often paid for their work with low-quality meat instead of cash. The ranchers quickly learned to marinate the pieces of skirt steak and other scrap meats before grilling and serving them on tortillas. 

    The dish remained a well-kept secret among vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) until 1969, when meat market manager Sonny Falcon set up the first fajita stand at a festival in Kyle, TX. Though restaurant owner Otilia Garza put the dish on the menu at Round-Up Restaurant in Pharr, TX, that same year, the fajita craze didn't really take off among the general public until a few years later. 

    In 1973, Pharr native Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo opened a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston featuring fajitas on the menu. With the launch of Ninfa's, restaurants in three different areas were introducing the plate of sizzling meat, fresh condiments, and fresh tortillas to the Texas population. 

    Soon, the low-quality skirt steak was replaced by other meats, including shrimp, chicken, and better cuts of beef. Even so, the growing price of skirt steak in the 1980s proves that people still enjoyed the authentic original version. 

    1,251 votes