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Melting Pot: Creating New Food Through Mixing Cultures

How newcomers brought delicious food varieties all around the world.

We’ve all heard the term “melting pot”, describing a broad mix of cultures coming together, particularly in America. But it can also make you think of cooking, which makes sense—history, food, and culture can be tightly intertwined in almost any meal. 

Getting to try new food is one of the best parts about traveling to a new place. But it’s the more permanent trips that countless immigrants have made in the past that shaped a lot of the modern food varieties you can find around the world today.   

America is one of the best examples of how immigration brought new flavors, spices, dishes, and dining styles into the culture, but it can be argued that generations of traveling and mixing cultures have made the world more tasty. 

Many ingredients used around the world were native to America first.

In search of spices

Looking into how food first started to travel around the world begins with the “Columbian Exchange.” Christopher Columbus set out to reach India in search of valuable spices, but failed miserably by reaching North America instead.

He returned home with new types of food that hadn’t been used in Europe—many of which have become staples in today’s European dishes: tomatoes, corn, hot peppers, beans, potatoes, and more.  

These Native American foods reached Europe in the 1400s and continued to spread from there, leading to many new meals being developed overseas. Some even made their way back to America through immigration years later. 

This “classic American food” isn’t so American!

Coming to America (and bringing recipes)

Unless you’re of Native American descent in the United States, your family came from somewhere else, and more than likely brought along their cultural cuisine. There’s a long list of newcomers who’ve brought what are now everyday American meals.

Immigrants hailing from Germany came to the Midwest in the 19th century, lured by the hope of owning farmland. And they brought along sauerkraut, which of course can be found on top of their most famous American food contribution: hot dogs! Or as they call them, “frankfurters.”

Chop Suey was actually a new dish developed by Chinese immigrants in the U.S.

Groups of Chinese people came to California in the 19th century, mostly to San Francisco. Many were poor farmers back home who hoped to make a better life in the U.S., and one of the ways they succeeded was through Chinese restaurants. Many American restaurants were previously known to be dirty and the service was lacking, so the Chinese culture of welcoming hospitality caught on quickly and changed the dining experience across the country for the better.  

New York City famously welcomed many immigrants through Ellis Island and their food made major impacts: Jews from all over Europe brought the well-loved bagel, as well as pastrami and seltzer (often found in diners, which were popularized by those arriving from Greece). When migrants from Italy arrived, they discovered they had much easier access to meat in America, and added classics like meatballs and chicken parmigiana to Italian-American cuisine.  

Gumbo is a fusion of African cooking, like much of creole cuisine.

Making the country even more delicious, African influences in cities like New Orleans had a major influence on creole cooking, giving us food like gumbo. 

And when people from Mexico found themselves residing in the United States after the land was acquired in 1848, their cultural influences took off and have been enjoyed ever since through the tacos of Los Angeles and fajitas of Texas.  

Combining Foods

America of course isn’t the only place newcomers and travelers have made a major impact on the food. In the British Isles, populations from India and Jamaica have brought delicious spicy dishes to what was historically considered a pretty bland cuisine.

Plenty of international favorite foods actually formed around ingredients that originated in North America—whether that’s potatoes in Ireland or spicy peppers in Indonesia. So, whether you’re eating abroad or in America, it’s likely that people from other places were an important part of the dish.