Weird History
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Essential 'National' Food Dishes Whose Origins We Were Totally Wrong About

Updated May 8, 2020 9.3k votes 1.6k voters 128.6k views11 items

List RulesVote up the dishes whose real origins surprise you the most.

Food is an essential part of culture. As communities, states, and nations form their identities, food becomes part of how they see themselves and shapes the perceptions of others. Dining at an Italian restaurant, for example, means pasta, pizza, and the like, while the names of some foods even attest to national origins.

But what if someone told you a food as prolific as french fries are Belgian? That tempura is Portuguese? Would the origins of these dishes, so commonly - and incorrectly - associated with one part of the world, change anything? 

The origins of some so-called "national" dishes may surprise you more than others. If nothing else, you may never view a restaurant menu the same way again. 

  • The Dish: Tempura

    Where People Think It Comes From: Japan

    Where It Actually Originated: Tempura, battered and fried seafood or vegetables, is considered a Japanese food, but it was actually introduced to Japan by Portuguese Jesuits - traveling on a Chinese ship - during the mid-16th century. 

    Once the Portuguese had their footing in Japan, they remained for nearly a century, exchanging goods, ideas, and recipes. The traditional Portuguese dish, "peixinhos da horta," left an indelible mark on Japan.

    Translated to "little fish of the garden," peixinhos da horta was made by battering and frying green beans. The Japanese renamed it tempura, derived for the Latin word "tempora," indicative of Lenten prohibitions on meat

    Surprising origin story?
  • 'Red' Spaghetti Sauce First Appeared In A French Cookbook In 1797
    Photo: wEnDaLicious / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    'Red' Spaghetti Sauce First Appeared In A French Cookbook In 1797

    The Dish: Pasta and red sauce

    Where People Think It Comes From: Italy

    Pasta dishes have long been associated with Italy and, in truth, many of the sauces found atop a pile of noodles trace back to ancient Rome. The Roman culinary book known as Apicius includes numerous creamy, white, and wine sauces.

    Where It Actually Originated: The tomato wasn't even introduced to Italy from South America until the 16th century. The first cooked tomato recipe didn't appear in an Italian cookbook until the early 19th century. 

    It's been a relatively recent development, however, that diners could enjoy the traditional red sauce that dominates restaurants and grocery store shelves today. The first red-sauced pasta recipe was written in a French cookbook from 1797, establishing a foundation for derivatives like Bolognese, marinara, and others. 

    Surprising origin story?
  • The Dish: Sauerkraut

    Where People Think It Comes From: Germany

    Where It Actually Originates: Often served alongside traditional German sausages, sauerkraut is thought to have been brought to Europe during the 13th century. Pickled cabbage made its way into Germany thanks to Genghis Khan and the Mongols, having been eaten in China for centuries.

    Sauerkraut, which literally means "sour cabbage," was not the first fermented vegetable present in Europe, however. Greek physician Hippocrates mentioned fermented vegetables in his work, praising them as healthy. Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote, "The cabbage helps to provide plenty of milk for breastfeeding mothers, it helps for cloudy eyes, positively affects headaches and is supposed to work as a cure after alcohol consumption." 

    It's unclear if fermented foods from the Greek and Roman eras made it to Germanic territories. If they did, that shifts the origins of sauerkraut back even further.

    Surprising origin story?
  • The Dish: Croissants

    Where People Think It Comes From: France

    Where It Actually Originated: The first record of croissants in France didn't appear until the mid-19th century. Austrian baker August Zang opened a shop in Paris in 1838, introducing Viennese crescents to the city. While Zang only stayed in France briefly, French bakers soon began making Austrian kipfel with puff pastry, heaping innovation upon a long-established bread-baking tradition. 

    Bite down into a crescent-shaped Austrian kipfel - a pastry made from butter, sugar, and flour - and it might remind you of a French croissant. While a modern kipfel resembles a half-moon-shaped cookie, the origins of the croissant -  one of France's most identifiable foods - do, in fact, reside in this Austrian treat. 

    Pastry-like breads are thought to have been made by pagans in antiquity as well as by Germanic groups throughout Europe. Documentation from the 13th century indicates that Viennese bakers presented Duke Leopold with kipfel in 1227. During subsequent centuries, historical records include numerous references to kipfel, offering insights into recipe variations over time. 

    Surprising origin story?