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Ten “Foreign” Foods That Are Actually American
The United States is a melting pot for other cultures. Immigrants from across the world have long traveled to America for a new beginning. Many struck it rich, raised families, and contributed to American society. Along the way, they brought customs and traditions from their old homes. For millions, that meant sharing old recipes and culinary habits in the new land. And Americans have certainly embraced these foods. After all, we love to eat!
But here’s the funny thing: America isn’t just a melting pot for culinary sharing. It actually has its own long, unique food tradition! Sure, when we think of “American” food, most of us think of things like burgers, hot dogs, or chicken wings. But other famous dishes were created here too. Everything from the Cobb Salad to ranch dressing to chocolate chip cookies is American-made. But did you know there are actually a lot of “foreign” foods that have U.S. origins, too?
In this list, you’ll learn ten surprising stories of foods people consider “ethnic” that were actually invented in America. Let’s dig in!
10 Frozen Garlic Bread (Michigan)
You’ll find garlic bread at any Italian restaurant. But while it was inspired by Italian immigrants, it’s absolutely American-made—especially the frozen kind! In fact, the story behind its creation is a fascinating testament to American ingenuity! When Italians came to the U.S. en masse in the early 20th century, they brought their dining habits. Many of them settled in cities like New York and Philadelphia. There, Mediterranean-grown foods were hard to come by. Take olive oil, for example.
Olives were being grown thousands of miles west in sunny California. The Golden State offered farmers a climate similar to Italy. Olives, wine grapes, fruits, and vegetables were thriving out west. But New York didn’t have that climate. And transporting extra-virgin olive oil west (from the old country) or east (from California) was costly. So new immigrants had to get clever. And they had one thing in abundance: butter.
Italians had been eating bruschetta for centuries. But that old classic had olive oil on it. Italian Americans didn’t have that access. So they drizzled their new butter stocks on top. For good measure, they added some garlic for flavor. Suddenly, a tradition was born! Well, sort of. This unnamed “garlic” bread was common for decades in Italian-American families. But the rest of us had no idea.
That all changed in 1973 when a bakery in Muskegon, Michigan, made its move. Cole’s Bakery began mass-producing garlic bread that year. They froze the buttery loaves and shipped them all over the country. Americans immediately loved it. Today, Cole’s is thriving in Muskegon. Garlic bread is all over the US. And it’s very much American—and Italian adjacent!
9 Spaghetti And Meatballs (New York)
If you were surprised to learn garlic bread isn’t Italian, wait until you read through this one. Spaghetti and meatballs must be even more Italian than the buttery bread, right? Wrong! Just like garlic bread, this “Italian” mainstay was invented in America out of necessity. Traditional Italian dishes certainly incorporate pasta. And there’s even a meat dish back in Italy called “polpette.” But those hand-crafted meat lumps can be made of any animal flesh—be it goat, fish, beef, or chicken. And they are never served alongside pasta. Combining the two doesn’t happen. Until Italians immigrated to America, that is. Once here, the two ingredients came together with the help of a necessary third wheel: marinara sauce.
Back in the old country, World War I and poor economic conditions were brutal on many Italians. Many of them had little access to meat. But when they arrived in America, they found it in abundance! Plus, the lowest-quality meats were dirt cheap. So Italians pounced on this new diet staple. Along the way, they discovered that lesser meats could be minced and filled out with breadcrumbs. The meatballs produced by that combination were delicious.
Tomatoes and canned tomato sauces were plentiful in the new country too. It wasn’t long before Italian-American mothers started slapping the red paste on pasta. And the meatballs quickly followed for a full meal! Thus rounded out the perfect American-made dish: old country ingredients and new world creativity. Mamma mia!
8 Chimichangas (Arizona)
As the story goes, Monica Flin was working at El Charro Restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, one day in 1922. In the kitchen, she accidentally dropped a burrito into a vat of hot oil. Thinking she had made a mistake, she hurriedly pulled the burrito out of the frying liquid. Frustrated with herself, she started to swear. But for whatever reason, she stopped herself from using the intended Spanish-language curse word “chingada!” Instead, she rolled it into a nonsense sound that didn’t exist in the language: “chimichanga!” Then, as she pulled the burrito out of the fryer, she realized something: it didn’t look so bad!
Interested in what it might taste like, she let the fried dough cool. After a while, she took a bite. The taste matched the look. Suddenly, a new Mexican-American dish was born! Today, El Charro is still thriving in Tucson. And the family-owned establishment proudly continues to boast about Flin’s invention.
But that’s not the whole story. While the chimichanga definitely doesn’t appear to be Mexican-made, there’s a dispute over whether it came out of Tucson! Just up the road in Phoenix, Macayo’s Mexican Restaurant claims they were actually the ones who first came up with the plate. Macayo’s owner Woody Johnson reportedly started deep-frying unsold burritos at the establishment in the 1940s. He supposedly called them “toasted monkeys.” And since “changa” is the Spanish word for “monkey,” Macayo’s loyalists claim that’s how the name came about.
With two mythical backstories like this, it’s probable the real inventor will never be known for certain. It’s possible they both could have come to it independently! But one thing is for sure: The chimichanga was born in Arizona.
7 Chili Con Carne (Texas)
We started this list with two Italian dishes. So why not double down on Mexican-related fare? South of the border, chili has long been a staple. Americans won’t get away with claiming they invented the warm dish, no matter how much Cincinnati says it’s theirs! But there is one notable chili alteration that is distinctly American: chili con carne. In south Texas in the late 19th century, American families loved chili. But they put a wrinkle in the traditional Mexican version by adding meat to the dish. And they dropped one key ingredient, too: no more beans!
For a while, this new food was unique to the area around San Antonio. Then, tourists from the East Coast caught wind of the delicious dish. Word spread, and so too did the recipe. Quickly, all Americans loved the meaty dish. It was simple to make with ingredients on hand. Cities like Cincinnati developed their own twists to this already-twisted chili concoction. Plus, its warm delivery was perfect for the cold climates of eastern metro areas. The combination made chili con carne a sensation in the early 20th century.
For decades, chili con carne was one of many popular styles of American chili. Cincinnati’s skyline version took off in the mid-20th century. And New Yorkers boasted about their own chili style, which included beans like traditional Mexican versions. But on October 21, 1967, chili con carne took home the crown—literally! On that day, the small town of Terlingua, Texas, hosted the Great Chili Confrontation.
David Witts, the town’s mayor, was a judge tasked with tasting the chilis. He took one bite of the New York-style bowl with beans and spit it out. Sure, Witts may have been biased. But that moment went “viral” decades before the internet. San Antonio-born chili con carne was instantly deemed superior to all other varieties. Texans swear it’s been that way ever since.
6 Russian Dressing (New Hampshire)
The first time a recipe for Russian salad dressing appeared in print was a 1957 article in The New York Times. At the time, the tip list called for mayonnaise to be blended with either poached coral or a crushed lobster shell to tint it pink. On top, readers were instructed to season with salt and “fresh black caviar.” That last ingredient could have pushed the food toward its “Russian” namesake. After all, in the 1950s, caviar was already one of Russia’s most famous and common exports. But the dressing itself has no history in Russia. It isn’t eaten there today. And there’s simply no indication it ever came from the Eurasian country. So the mystery of its Russo-inspired name has remained for decades!
Recently, historians have looked into this a bit more. Sadly, the story is still cloudy. As far as we know, Russian dressing was invented in New Hampshire. In 1906, a butcher in the New England state named James Coburn published a recipe for the dressing. At the time, he coined the food as “Russian mayonnaise.” Nobody really knows why, and he didn’t explain his reasoning. Again, it could have been the caviar that inspired him to do so.
Other food historians wonder if he intended to use the topper on a Russian-inspired Salad Olivier. Those may both be good guesses. But Colburn had no known ties to Russia or anyone born there. So the naming convention is a head scratcher. Every indication is that the dressing was American made. Right from the start, its “Russian” tie was a misnomer. And it’s one we still use today.
5 Fortune Cookies (California)
Who doesn’t love a good fortune with their Chinese food? Well, the Chinese! It’s not that they wouldn’t enjoy the messages. It’s just that fortune cookies are absolutely not a Chinese tradition brought to the U.S. Nope! Shrewd American restaurateurs created it themselves. There are multiple backstories to the fortune cookie’s invention. Two notables stake their claim. And they have one thing in common: They worked in California in the early 20th century.
In one story, Japanese immigrant Suyeichi Okamura said he invented the fortune cookie in a San Francisco restaurant in 1906. Okamura argued the cookie came about as a variation of a historic Japanese treat with a prayer slip inside. As Okamura told it, he Americanized that idea and ran with it. In another claim, a Chinese immigrant named David Jung asserted he actually invented the cookie in his Los Angeles noodle store in 1918.
In yet another very American tradition, the courts got involved. In 1983, a judge presiding over San Francisco’s Court of Historical Review was asked to decide how the fortune cookie came about. He ruled in favor of Okamura and San Francisco. It’s not like there was a big business stake on the line or anything. By then, fortune cookies were everywhere. But pride in the judge’s ruling sealed the deal in the minds of San Franciscans. Even though Angelenos may dispute it to this day, the gavel has fallen. But whether you agree with the judge or not, at least one thing is certain: Fortune cookies are NOT authentically Chinese!
4 Cuban Sandwich (Florida)
The Cuban sandwich is a perfectly Floridian food. Not only is it delicious, but it was made in the Sunshine State. Many locals may believe it came over from Cuba, but that isn’t the case. In fact, an entirely different “Cuban Sandwich” was popular in Havana more than a century ago. That sandwich contained a Spanish-style sausage called salchichón. For those who stayed in Cuba, that was a common dish for ages.
But by the mid-19th century, Cubans were moving to America. Naturally, many settled in Florida. It kept them near home, in familiar weather, and around Cubans and other Spanish speakers. There was just one problem: These immigrants couldn’t find any salchichón. The Spanish-style sausage was nearly impossible to get in Florida.
By the 1880s, Cuban immigrants in Ybor City were doing a brisk business rolling cigars. Local restaurant owners got the idea to replace the specialty sausage in their sandwiches with Genoa salami. The cigar rollers needed to be satiated while working. And they were willing to spend money to do it. Since the Italian salami was far easier to find in southwest Florida, restaurants kept stocking it. Quickly, the local sandwich market boomed.
The new creation took on the name of the men who loved to eat it. Cooks messed around with the ingredients a little more too. In the end, yellow mustard, Swiss cheese, and even pickles popped in. Today, the salami base lives on, though roast pork and ham are also common inclusions. It ain’t Cuban, but it is delicious. And from Tampa to the world, it’s now known by millions. The rest, as they say, is history.
3 General Tso’s Chicken (New York)
Fortune cookies aren’t the only fake “Chinese” food made in America. In fact, the most common inclusion on Chinese restaurant menus is totally phony! General Tso’s chicken is a mainstay across the U.S. The dark-meat chicken is battered, fried, and covered in a sweet sauce. Then, it’s tossed on top of broccoli and rice. The dish has been around for decades, and it’s always been popular.
At least its title is legit: The chicken is actually named for a famous historical Chinese military general. Zou Zongtant was a statesman and warlord during the Qing dynasty prior to his death in 1885. However, the authentically Chinese inspiration ends there. In fact, the dish’s development was 100% American.
A chef named Peng Chang-kuei worked for China’s nationalist government in the 1940s. At one time, he was even a personal chef for Chiang Kai-shek. But in 1949, he fled to Taiwan amid the Chinese Civil War. Twenty years later, he emigrated to New York City. There, in 1973, he opened a Chinese restaurant. His first act of business was to come up with a new chicken recipe. He named it after Zou Zongtant. And he sweetened it a lot. The sugary-sweet chicken was a sensation in the Big Apple.
Almost immediately, Peng had a hit on his hands. But it didn’t work out in China. Years later, he opened a restaurant near his birthplace in the Hunan province. There, General Tso’s Chicken was a failure. Chinese people said it was too sweet for their palates. Quickly, the Hunan restaurant failed. Don’t feel too bad for Peng, though. His infamous chicken recipe brought him fame, riches, and a reputation for decades before his death in 2016. Now, the dish lives on nationwide.
2 German Chocolate Cake (Texas)
German chocolate cake isn’t named after the European country, but rather an American baker. Back in 1852, a confectioner named Sam German created a sweetened chocolate baking bar. His bosses at Baker’s Chocolate Company loved the recipe. It worked perfectly in a variety of chocolate baked goods.
They tipped off Kraft and General Foods about their confectioner’s find. For decades, the big business brands used German’s baking bars in their commercial goods. The name stuck too. Baker’s Chocolate Company honored Sam by making the bar his namesake. From there, the legacy stood for decades. But it might have faded into relative anonymity if not for a Texas homemaker.
More than a century later, in 1957, the recipe went national. That year, German’s original ingredient list was printed in the Dallas Morning Star. The recipe had been submitted to the newspaper by a woman in small-town Texas. Readers immediately loved the recipe. Soon, national newspapers picked up the piece. In a matter of months, Americans nationwide started buying up Baker’s chocolate.
The company loved the unexpected sales. So they started promoting the recipe. Sam German had died decades earlier, but suddenly his baking bar received new life. In the decades after, German chocolate cake became an American staple. People who have made it in the decades since may have done so thinking of Germany. But it’s American all the way!
1 English Muffins (New York)
Like most of the items on this list, the English muffin found inspiration in the country for which it was named. But early immigration to America altered its history. The stateside creation came about out of necessity and ingenuity. This story starts in 1894. That year, a New York resident named Samuel Bath Thomas created a unique style of crumpet. Thomas’s mother was British, and during her life, she made a wonderful tea cake.
As the story goes, the young man missed his momma’s cooking. Searching for a way to make it in America, he happened upon this crumpet-like creation. His goal was to create a more “elegant” version of boring old toast. And it worked—just not quite in the way he intended. Still, Thomas’s leavened bread was so similar to a British crumpet that he originally called it a “toaster crumpet.”
Almost immediately, Thomas’s toaster crumpet was a hit. Hotels and high-end dining hotspots in New York City started stocking the creation. Like the British-born man had hoped, these Big Apple businesses saw it as a higher-end version of twice-cooked bread. Soon, Thomas’s success kicked off the growth of the S.B. Thomas Bread Company.
In just a few short years, it was a leader among American bakeries. The success of the unique English muffin led the way. But interestingly, these muffins took decades to get to England. British people didn’t have domestic access to English muffins until the 1990s when Thomas’s company was bought out by a conglomerate. The international brand brought English muffins to, well, England. With it, a fake “foreign” food truly came full circle!