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The Not-So-Foreign Origins of Foreign Foods

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Americans like to pride themselves on their eclectic palettes and ability to appreciate an array of foods from various foreign backgrounds.

But before you go dipping that naan into your chicken tikka masala or cracking open that fortune cookie, consider the real source of the food.

It’s no surprise that American culture has been bastardizing ethnic cuisine for years, tweaking or creating dishes with ethnic names to pawn them off as foreign. The biggest culprits are food chains like Taco Bell and PF Chang’s, where items like the “enchirito” and “General Tsao’s Chicken” are sold.

The reality is that many foods are supposedly tied to foreign lands, but really root from elsewhere. These five favorite “foreign” foods aren’t where you think they’re from.

Fortune Cookies
Ah yes, the fortune cookie—those wise little crunchy cookies whose words of wisdom we love to cherish after a hearty fare of Chinese cuisine. They certainly feel authentically Asian. The truth is that the treat hails from about seven thousand miles from China. Turns out they’re an American concoction conceived in California. A article places thei origins in Los Angeles where baker David Jung first produced them out of his Hong Kong Noodle Company and to William T. Leong’s Key Fortune Cookie Company in New York in the early 1900s. In the late 1960s, Edward Louie, owner of the San Francisco–based Lotus Fortune Cookie Company, invented a fortune-cookie-making machine. Fortunes transitioned from biblical or Confucian adages to more frivolous offerings over time, including lottery numbers in the 1980s. Ironically, the cookies weren’t produced in China until 1993 by the Wonton Food Company.

This is one of those cases where just because it sounds ethnic doesn’t mean it is. The beloved chimichanga, a staple in Tex-Mex cuisine and a popular snack, actually hails from borders of Arizona. Though its actual Arizonian origin remains up for debate, the most common legend is that it stems from Tucson’s El Charro Café and dates back to the 1920s. As the story goes, owner Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into the deep-fat fryer, cursing in Spanish at her mistake, but quickly tweaking the word to form “chimichanga.” Cute story? Yes. Of Mexican origin? Not so much.

Chicken Tikka Masala
One of the most popular Indian dishes comes courtesy of … Scotland (Glasgow, to be exact). According to British publication The Sun, the dish stemmed from the United Kingdom back in the 1950s when diners wanted a sauce to go with their Indian dish of choice at the time, chicken tikka. By 2001, it had become so popular that British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said chicken tikka masala was “Britain’s true national dish.”

Chop Suey
More likely just phooey. This concoction of veggies and meats thrown together in a sauce was supposedly named “chop suey” after a Cantonese phrase that meant “odds and ends.” But where this dish comes from is as confusing as what people choose to put in it. Some say Chinese immigrants in California created it in the mid-1800s for railroad workers, while New Yorkers say a Chinese Ambassador’s chef concocted it back in the late 1890s. Then there is one theory that it actually did hail from the Canton region of China, but the version served here is nothing like what they were serving there. Weightier evidence suggests that chop suey’s origins remain rooted in America. Whether it’s an East Coast or West Coast creation remains debatable.

Navajo Frybread
The story went that nine thousand Navajos created their namesake dish of lard-fried dough—often served with honey or powdered sugar, or wrapped around ground beef and cheese—when imprisoned by the U.S. government at Fort Sumner, New Mexico, from 1860 to 1864. The truth, as uncovered by, is that the frybread likely stems from the Latin American sopaipilla, a fried dough sweetened with honey, or from the Scottish bannock, a thin oatcake similar to a scone. The French galette, a sweet or savory buckwheat crepe, may have been another inspiration, but the earliest of these started appearing among Native Americans in the early nineteenth century.

The reality is that America is the “melting pot” of the world, so it should come as no shock that we would find ways to embellish some of our favorite cuisines with our own twists. These days, chefs are churning out new versions and variations on classical Thai, French, and Spanish food, blending flavors and food cultures. If Americans can respect the heart of foreign fare, there’s no reason one can’t enjoy their enchirito right along with their tamale.

Updated September 27, 2010


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