The Surprising Origins of 6 Popular Ethnic Dishes
As you chow down at your local Chinese restaurant, Indian eatery, or Mexican joint, are you eating dishes that are truly authentic to their countries of origin? From corned beef to chicken tikka masala to chimichangas, here are six national dishes that didn't originate in the region you'd expect.
1. CRAB RANGOON
Deep-fried anything tastes good, so when you deep-fry a dumpling stuffed with cream cheese and crab meat, prepare your taste buds for a heavenly experience. Crab Rangoon is often on the menu at Chinese and Thai restaurants in the U.S., but you probably won’t find it in Asia. Although wontons are popular in China, the idea to put cream cheese inside them probably emerged in the 1950s, thanks to a chef at Trader Vic's, a Polynesian restaurant chain in San Francisco. They claimed that the recipe was a traditional one from Burma (now Myanmar) and named it after the former capital Rangoon (now Yangon).
2. CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA
Along with tandoori chicken and saag paneer, chicken tikka masala has become synonymous with Indian food. But the dish of chicken in a spicy, savory tomato sauce was probably invented in the UK, not in India. Food historians debate the dish’s exact origin, but a Pakistani or Bangladeshi restaurateur chef in either London or Glasgow, Scotland probably invented it in the 1960s or '70s, possibly heavily inspired by butter chicken, which was a dish that was becoming popular in India a few years before. There's more at stake than mere bragging rights, though. The dish's invention became contentious in 2009 when a Scottish member of Parliament failed to convince the European Union to grant the dish a Protected Designation of Origin, which would have given Scotland the patent for chicken tikka masala's name.
3. GENERAL TSO'S CHICKEN
You can find General Tso’s chicken—pieces of fried chicken coated in a sweet, tangy sauce—in just about any Chinese restaurant in the U.S. Although the dish takes its name from a real Qing dynasty military commander, Zuo Zongtang (also spelled Tso Tsung-t'ang), General Tso's chicken as we know it was first created in America. Stories vary, but the dish is believe to have emerged in Taiwan during the 1950s, after chef Peng Chang-kuei fled China in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. But his original version wasn't fried and wasn't sweetened. Those changes would be made when the dish migrated to New York in the 1970s in order to suit the American palate. And it succeeded.
What’s better than a regular burrito? A deep-fried one, of course! Historians aren't sure who invented chimichangas, but they might have been created in the 1940s or '50s when a cook in Tucson, Arizona accidentally dropped a burrito into a nearby fryer. The nonsensical curse word she shouted when she realized her mistake? Chimichanga! Another theory is that a restaurant owner in Phoenix, Arizona deep-fried burritos to make them last longer. While burritos are an authentically Mexican food (albeit not the hyper-stuffed burritos popular in the States), it seems that chimichangas are solidly American.
5. CORNED BEEF AND CABBAGE
Touristy pubs and restaurants in Ireland probably have corned beef and cabbage on their menus, but the dish doesn’t exactly hail from Ireland. Historically, the Irish used cows for dairy rather than meat and celebrated St. Patrick’s Day by eating pork or lamb. To escape the Great Famine in the mid-19th century, many emigrants who left Ireland for the U.S. settled in New York City. When these Irish-Americans combined traditional vegetables from their homeland, such as cabbage and potatoes, with kosher brisket, a meat dish that was popular amongst Jewish immigrants in New York, they created a novel twist on salt-cured meat. Corned beef and cabbage caught on, and President Lincoln chose corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes for his first inauguration's luncheon menu in 1861.
6. CHOP SUEY
Unlike the other entrants on this list, food historians are increasingly coming around to the idea that chop suey is actually Chinese—which makes it doubly ironic because chop suey has long been sold as the definitive Chinese-American dish. According to the most popular legend, chop suey was invented when a group of American miners were in the the Golden City hoping to hit pay dirt during the Gold Rush. One evening, the miners were drunk and hungry, so they made a late-night stop at a local Chinese restaurant. The owner quickly plated a mixture of scraps that had already been cooked, and the miners loved the meal mash-up. Chop suey caught on, and it became incredibly popular across the rest of the U.S. But a few food scholars have traced it to a dish called tsap seui from the Toisan district of China. And as Joseph Conlin points out in Bacon, Beans, and Galantines, "It does seem hard to believe that a people wracked by poverty had not thought to put together 'miscellaneous stuff' before they arrived at the 'Golden Mountain.'"