We struggle to define American food. Whenever we hear someone complaining that all Americans eat is McDonald’s we’re quick to point out our diets consist of much, much more than just burgers and fries. American cuisine is like America- a mosaic of different tastes, colors, textures and ingredients, but, what is quintessentially American? Traditional Thanksgiving dinner? Meatloaf? It all started somewhere else.
A few weeks ago I began researching foods around the world for an article. My elementary school Thanksgiving play memories came back to me and before I knew it I had rattled off a list of 10 foods native to the Americas. Working to balance the list a little more for the global audience I found 11 common place ingredients in a whole host of cuisines that are not native to those lands. So in honor of our global cuisine here’s my list:
Mamma Mia! Although popular in Italian cuisine, the tomato is actually from the Americas. Shocking I know. Brought to Europe and Asia in the 16th Century by Spanish explorers and conquistadors, the tomato was quickly popularized in Spanish and Asian cuisine and somewhere along the line spaghetti and meatballs was born.
A native to Sri Lanka, its source was a closely guarded secret for thousands of years. Highly prized, cinnamon was used by Moses in the Bible and Romans as gifts for the Gods. Initially traded to Europe by Arab traders in Venice, cinnamon held a key position in the spice trade. It’s value on the world market eventually started the exploration age, looking for other routes to import the spice. Think about that the next time you add a dash of cinnamon to your iced latte.
Perhaps no seasoning in the world is more widely used than salt. Originally harvested in China, salt changed the eating habits of humans, allowing for the first time long-term preservation of meat. In the middle-ages salt caravans sprung up across the Sahara and the Silk Road transporting salt around the world. Folk-lore tells that Roman soldiers were paid in salt, which probably would have really sucked for Roman soldiers sent to rainy Great Britain if it were true. (Only kidding my Londoners!)
Originally from the Lower Yangtze Valley in China, rice accounts for one-fifth of all calories consumed worldwide. Can you imagine? From sake to sushi, rice pudding to risotto, rice is a staple in nearly every cuisine around the world. Sources claim there are more than 40,000 varieties of rice around the world, from wild varietals found in America’s heartland to exotic red rice from Bhutan.
First gathered by nomads in Afghanistan and the Himalaya’s before the invention of ceramics, beans have been represented in rituals, folklore and tables for thousands of years. Beans, beans the more you eat… the more you… well maybe that’s why early continued to spread around the world. Having made their way to the New World before Christopher Columbus, beans remain a primary source of protein for hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Go to Central America, you’ll see what we mean.
Native to India, pepper is one of the most widely used spices today. Highly valued, peppercorns were traded as a form of money and collateral worldwide. In Ancient Egypt, King Ramesses II was mummified with peppercorns up his nostrils. If only the market vendors in Luxor knew this little tidbit, I bet we’d see “anicent pharoah” pepper being sold all over the place. Like cinnamon, black pepper helped change the course of history. Along with cinnamon, it’s preciousness prompted the exploration age.
We can thank the Native American’s for corn. First domesticated nearly 10,000 years ago, maize was brought to the New World by the first trans-Atlantic explorers and spread throughout Europe and Northern Africa by the Moors. Higher in nutritional value than popular grains such as millet and sorghram, maize transformed the diet of Africa and Europe, allowing population centers to grow and flourish. Don’t think corn on the cob is so boring now, do you?
It’s hard to imagine a world without chocolate, actually not hard, but sad. Cultivated for over 3,000 years in the Americas, the cacao bean was brought to the world by Spanish explorers in the 16th Century. Consumed for most of its history as a bitter beverage, cacao was used for rituals, every day life and even traded as a highly valued commodity. In fact, the Aztec’s collected their taxes in cacao. Perhaps next April the federal government will consider doing the same?
Originally from Mesoamerica, 97% of the vanilla traded today is from Madagascar. Thats serious globalization. Brought to Europe in the 1520s and later to Asia and Africa by Spanish and Portuguese traders, the vanilla bean was used not only as a food but also a medicine.
Indigenous to the Americas and domesticated by the Aztec’s, turkey was brought to Europe in the 16th Century by Spanish explorers and conquistadors where it immediately became popular among the aristocracy. So named because early European explorers thought they had found Asia, whose “exotic” animals were wildly popular at the time. Ironically, British immigrants to the United States brought turkey back to the continent in the 17th Century. Two centuries later we’ve turned this illustrious bird into a 101 proof bourbon whiskey.
First cultivated in Southern Peru nearly 10,000 years ago, the potato has conquered the globe. Nearly 5,000 varieties exist today, with nearly 3,000 varieties in the Andes alone. Like Bubba Gump’s shrimp there’s yellow potatoes, white potatoes, purple potatoes, fried potatoes, mashed potatoes….you get the picture. Interestingly enough the average annual consumption per person (globally) is nearly 73 lbs of potatoes. Think about that the next time you want a french fry.
Anything we missed? Let us know below! Interested in reading our original list or checking out more interesting travel lists? Check out www.glenfiddichexplorers.com.