5 Foreign Foods That Just Aren’t

5 Foreign Foods That Just Aren’t

To the great chagrin of guys with Punisher stickers on their cars, America is made up of a variety of immigrant cultures. One outcome of this that even staunch xenophobes can’t help but participate in is the massive number of world cuisines that are readily available around the country, doubly so in major cities. The fact that you can get sushi at a gas station, however inadvisable it may be, is evidence of just how much of the world has made its way here.

Sometimes, though, foods have to be made a little less authentic in order to cross the final frontier into the skittish, fearful Western palate. Whether it’s hiding the bits that would freak out the nation’s dads, adjusting recipes or inventing brand new foods that are more “based on” a cuisine than an actual part of it, there’s plenty of beloved but frankensteined foreign meals. Even some of the most immediately recognizable foreign foods, in reality, never crossed a single foreign border.

Here are five foreign foods that just aren’t…

General Tso’s Chicken


You think anyone was capable of fighting a battle with this in their stomach?

I think most people are probably aware that General Tso’s chicken is not a genuine Chinese staple passed down through generations. If little lumps of fried chicken covered in sweet and spicy sauce seems a bit too perfect for American consumption, that’s because it was specifically designed that way. It’s become so ubiquitous that some people might even question if there ever was a General Tso or if he’s basically Chinese Cap’n Crunch, an invented commander who’s more known in the kitchen than in combat. But General Tso, or Zuo Zongtang, was indeed, a real military figure in China; he was laid to rest, however, long before his legacy entered the poultry sphere. 

It wasn’t until the 1950s that a Chinese refugee and chef named Peng Chang-kuei living in Taiwan invented the dish and dedicated it posthumously to the good general. The astute among you may be aware that Taiwan is not in America, against the conceit of this article. Well, this was General Tso’s 1.0, and would be sent back by any American expecting the spicy globs they expected. The modern General Tso’s was inspired by Peng’s version, but almost entirely reinvented by a New York chef named Tsung Ting Wang. He decided to deep fry it, and make it sweet, possibly two of its most defining characteristics. 

This is the version that took off, so much so that even when the original creator came to America to open a restaurant, he had to serve the delicious rip-off instead of his original dish.


Ruth Hartnup

Writing this article is the hungriest Ive ever been.

If you thought that the origins of General Tso’s were cloudy, step up to the world’s most confusing sandwich counter. We’re attempting to discern the actual birthplace of the Cuban sandwich. The name doesn’t leave much wiggle room: Purportedly, you would be talking about a sandwich, from Cuba. So is it that simple? Well yes, and no. The modern Cuban sandwich is certainly not something that would be unrecognizable in Cuba (if we’re imagining a world in which the residents were able to actually access all ingredients). It’s basically a more refined and more clearly defined version of a mixto, a sandwich including mixed meats and cheese. 

Of course, this is such a broad definition that it barely separates itself from “sandwiches” wholesale. The modern Cuban sandwich, which is reliably made up of roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese, was laid out in Florida by Cuban immigrants. Strangely enough, Cuba isn’t even a main player in arguments over the Cubano’s origin. It’s mostly a slugfest between Tampa and Miami centered around salami’s inclusion.

Spaghetti and Meatballs


You got your spaghetti in my meatballs!

Spaghetti and the meatball (specifically polpette), two Italian creations that are forever linked in popular culinary culture. The long, thin strings of pasta are practically inextricable from the meatball, famously memorialized in song as being on top of said spaghetti, all covered with cheese, only lost when, unfortunately, somebody sneezed. Now, if you’re worried that you’re about to be sent spiraling, questioning everything in this world you know to be true, don’t worry: Both parts of this meal are, indeed, Italian.

It’s the combination of the two that, despite commanding top billing in any mental image or stock photography collection of Italian food, is an American invention. The omnipresent coupling came from a combination of convenience and American expectations. For immigrants, as far as the available ingredients in the new world, tomatoes, spaghetti, and obviously, meat were all readily and reliably obtainable, which combined with the American expectation of a square meal including both starch and protein, a la steak and potatoes. It was basically the most successful ever attempt at “will you eat it like this?”

(Some) Sushi


This is basically sushi for babies.

Of the items on this list, sushi’s probably the only one that still has modern detractors. In a world so aware of bacteria, raw fish is a road some chickens are reticent to cross. Knowing that, you can imagine that it was an even harder sell in the past. Concessions made by those early sushi chefs, in fact, led to the popular image of sushi in America, neat blocks of rounded, rice-surrounded fish bits. It all started, as you might be able to guess given the name, with the California roll. There’s some controversy about its originator, one that only grows more confusing when a main claimant is a Canadian chef who’d never been to California. 

Hidezaka Tojo knows the California roll by the name he gave it: the Tojo Maki. Tojo was a trained sushi chef, and a very good one. Unfortunately, no amount of skill was enough to convince most of his customers to toss back bites consisting heavily of raw fish and seaweed, ingredients that wrinkled North American noses. Tojo was confused why they were so scared of raw fish, until he walked the seafood aisle at a local Safeway versus his high-quality Japanese sources. He laid out his findings succinctly to Food52.com: “No decoration, very bad smell. Fish smell. In my training when you go to the market, seafood smells just like watermelon, fresh watermelon or cucumber smell. Big difference. Over there, Safeway? Ah! Stinky! Thats why.

He noticed that cooked seafood, especially crab, was beloved and carried none of raw fish’s bacterial boogeyman reputation. He also decided to try rolling the sushi inside-out, letting familiar rice hide the unfamiliar nori, or seaweed. Finally, he laid out a dab of mayonnaise like a welcome mat, and found his door knocked down by his twist’s success. For good reason too: It’s delicious. 

Still, if you ever find yourself in a fancy sushi spot, or in Japan itself, you’ll likely avoid a lot of side-eye by sticking to traditional maki rolls, simple nigiri or completely unaccessorized sashimi. That said, the best bet for an authentic sushi meal is also, strangely the easiest: omakase, which translates to “respectfully leaving another to decide what is best,” leaves your dinner (and your credit card) in the hands of the chef.

English Muffins

Andy Li

Youre telling me Dunkin Donuts sells crumpets?

The interesting part here isn’t really the origin at all: The only thing that America can really lay claim to as far as English muffins go is slicing them for toaster compatibility. What you might not know is what you’re actually eating: a crumpet. Yup, the go-to mocking foodstuff for British cuisine and stalwart inclusion in any mediocre U.K. accent attempt. You might imagine tea and crumpets as something straight out of Buckingham Palace, but swap tea for coffee and it’s probably a breakfast you’ve had dozens, if not hundreds of times.

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