5 Beloved Ethnic Foods Invented for Americans

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Many of those beloved “ethnic foods” Americans crave so much—Mexican, Chinese, Italian—were actually invented or popularized in the good old USA.

1. General Tso’s Chicken

Photo courtesy jensteele's Flickr photostream

Who is General Tso and why is his chicken everywhere? No one seems to know. While there was a General Tso (or Zuo Zongtang) in 19th-century China, little about him suggested he was a whiz at whipping up deep-fried, sweet ‘n’ spicy chicken. Especially since, by the time it first appeared, he wouldn’t have been alive to taste it.

An influx of Chinese immigrants to the United States in the early half of the 20th century created a need for somewhere to grab some Chinese cuisine. Ordinary Americans, however, didn’t cotton to traditional Hunan cuisine, so one enterprising chef (one Peng Chang-kuei, according to the claims) battered and deep-fried the chicken, and then added sugar to offset the spicy element. Thus, General Tso’s Chicken was born.

2. Nachos

Photo courtesy jeffreyww's Flickr photostream

Sure, tortillas are a Mexican thing, but tortilla chips--and the practice of putting random toppings on them—that’s all-American, baby. Tortilla chips came out of the true mother of invention: needing to sell leftover scraps. The El Zarape Tortilla Factory took their misshapen and unsellable tortillas, cut them up, fried them and sold them for a dime a bag. One man’s trash is another man’s golden fried treasure.

The combination of tortilla chips and melted cheese, however, took place in a Mexican border town. As the story goes, Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya, maître d' of the Victory Club, was closing up the restaurant when a dozen wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan across the border in Eagle Pass, Texas, wandered in after a day of across-the-border shopping. Having little to offer, Anaya ran back to the kitchen and threw together chips, cheese and sliced jalapeno. When the delighted ladies asked the name of the dish, Anaya proclaimed, "Nacho's especiales." The dish became so popular that Anaya gave up the maître d' life to open his own Nacho restaurant. The invention of Nacho-flavored spray cheese is a story for another day.

3. Cashew Chicken

Photo courtesy Kominyetska's Flickr photostream

This Chinese restaurant staple can be traced back to the least Chinese of places: Springfield, Missouri. Chef David Leong, who emigrated from China to Missouri in 1940, struggled to turn his fellow Missourians onto traditional Chinese cuisine. Then he noticed how much the people of Missouri loved their fried chicken. Leong deep-fried chunks of chicken, tossed some oyster sauce and cashews on top and suddenly had a winner. Most places you go now offer the non deep-fried variation. Ask for “Springfield-style Cashew Chicken” and you’ll get the battered and deep-fried original.

4. Spaghetti with Meatballs and Garlic Bread

Photo courtesy Jessica Spengler

Sure, you will find spaghetti noodles in Italy. Red sauce and meatballs too—though not the comically oversized meatballs Americans are accustomed to. What you'll have a harder time finding in Italy is the combination of all three on one plate.

As for garlic bread, the closest thing Italians have to it is bruschetta. After WWII, returning soldiers came back with a hankering for the wondrous bread they enjoyed abroad. To meet the new demand, American restaurants whipped up their own version: toasted white bread with garlic and margarine.

5. Fortune Cookies

Photo courtesy Beth Kanter

The humble fortune cookie has a number of origin stories, none of them beginning in China. Some say it was invented in Los Angeles by baker David Jung back in 1918. He handed out the cookies to homeless people, each containing an uplifting biblical passage within.

Another tale claims the prophesizing pastries came from Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara. In 1907, Mayor of San Francisco James Phelan fired Hagiwara for the offense of being Japanese. A public outcry followed and when Hagiwara was reinstated, he supposedly created little cookies with “Thank You” messages tucked inside for all the people of San Francisco.

What is known for sure is the Lotus Fortune Cookie Company began spitting out the machine-made edible oracles by the late 1960s. China didn’t get a taste of the fortune cookie until it came to the country in 1993, sold as "genuine American fortune cookies,” and thus cementing the cookie’s place in fake Chinese lore.

June 8, 2012 - 7:53am
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