French toast ain’t really from France, though it’s a bastardized American version of the French pain perdu, which has orange liqueur in the batter. Which other “ethnic” foods aren’t actually from their supposed cultures of origin? CHOW investigates.
What it is: Thick, round lard-fried dough, served with honey or powdered sugar, or wrapped around ground beef, taco seasoning, and shredded cheese (called an Indian Taco)
Faux origin: Navajo, traditional
Real origin: White U.S. influence, mid-19th century
Legend: Frybread was created when 9,000 Navajos were imprisoned by the U.S. government at Fort Sumner, New Mexico in 1860–64. Unaccustomed to the wheat flour and lard given to them as rations, the Navajo women created frybread.
Truth: Possible sources include the Latin American sopaipilla, a fried dough sweetened with honey; the Scottish bannock, a thin oatcake similar to a scone (via Canadian Native Americans); and the French galette, a sweet or savory buckwheat crepe (via Plains Indians influenced by French settlers). The earliest of these started appearing among Native Americans in the early 19th century.
What it is: Breaded chicken that is fried, covered in red sauce, and topped with melted mozzarella cheese
Faux origin: Italian
Real origin: Italian-American, 1930s
Truth: Chicken Parmesan is a hybrid of dishes and ingredients from different parts of Italy, brought together by the Neapolitan Italian communities in New York or New Jersey during the 1930s. The big question is why it’s called “Parmesan,” since the primary cheese used is mozzarella. The breaded meat and “Parmesan” name of the dish probably came from the authentic costelette Parmigiana, a crumb-coated and deep-fried veal cutlet that originated in Parma, Italy, and was served without sauce or cheese. The name, then, comes from the town of origin, and not from the use of Parmesan. Mozzarella is an addition from Campania, which is in southern Italy near Naples, far from Parma. In Naples, southern Italian cooking produced a layered tomato-and-eggplant casserole dish covered with melted buffalo mozzarella, now known as melanzane alla Parmigiana. Chicken Parmesan would be unrecognizable to Italians for several reasons: the combination of meat and red sauce, and the overload of mozzarella cheese.
The big question is why it’s called “Parmesan,” since the primary cheese used is mozzarella.
Fried Chow Mein
What it is: Fried preboiled egg noodles, often served with vegetables and meat
Faux origin: Chinese
Real origin: Chinese-American, mid-19th century
Truth: Chow mein is named after chao mien, an authentic Chinese dish that translates as “fried noodles.” It’s likely that the bastardized version of the dish appeared in America in the 1850s, when Chinese cooks began serving transcontinental railroad workers. In the Chinese version, the long, thin noodles are stir-fried in hot oil only until they are lightly crisped, which preserves the contrasting texture of crispness and softness. The American version uses noodles fried to oblivion as either a crunchy base or a crunchy topping to a gluey, cornstarch-thickened stir-fry. These fried egg noodles also show up as salad toppings.
Chicken Tikka Masala
What it is: Chicken pieces cooked in a tomato gravy, often containing cream
Faux origin: Indian
Real origin: British, 1950s–70s
Legend: A stubborn British diner asked for gravy on his chicken tikka (oven). The chef obliged by covering marinated chicken baked in a clay oven with a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, mixed with cream and some spices.
Truth: Many British restaurants claim to be the originators, but chicken tikka masala was most likely created by multiple enterprising Bangladeshi chefs to match British tastes. Some claim that the dish is similar to the Punjabi “butter chicken,” which is prepared with tomato gravy, but since the vast majority of “Indian” restaurants in the UK were run by Bangladeshis until recently, it’s unlikely that this was the sole origin. The term masala comes from the Indian name for the basic formula of spices often used in curry powder, garam masala.
What it is: Americans use hibachi to refer to two distinct things: a small aluminum charcoal grill, and the large multiperson hot-plate cooking technique used in certain Japanese-American restaurants.
Faux origin: Japanese
Real origin: Part Japanese, part 1960s American, with Japanese mistranslated origins
Truth: In Japan, hibachi, or “fire bowl,” refers to the traditional Japanese open-topped, charcoal-filled room heater, which dates back as early as AD 800 and may have Chinese origins. The American hibachi grill probably originates from the Japanese shichirin, a traditional charcoal grill made of volcanic clay found in oceans and lakes. The name switch may have happened because shichirin was harder to pronounce. The other “hibachi,” or the gas-heated hot-plate style of cooking popularized by the restaurant chain Benihana (founded in 1964), is known in Japan as teppanyaki cooking. Also, in Japan there aren’t nearly as many flipping shrimp.
Even Japanese multiperson teppanyaki, as it currently exists, was invented as recently as the mid-1940s, in Kyoto, although its early in-home version goes back some 200 years. Grilling is an important cooking method in Japan, but smokeless food is valued much more than charcoal flavored, hence the charcoal-less teppanyaki. For high-end charcoal grilling, the Japanese use a special near-smokeless charcoal known as bincho, made of oak, which burns at a much higher heat than American charcoal. Finally, there is a Japanese rustic grilling method known as robatayaki, in which pieces of meat are cooked quickly over an open flame. This is the closest relative to American grilling, in terms of flavor.
What it is: A flattened cutlet of veal sautéed in butter, lemon, and white wine, with capers.
Faux origin: Italian
Real origin: Italian-American, probably 1930s
Truth: The confusion seems to have stemmed from the Italian word piccata, which can be translated as the past tense of piccarsi, “to prick oneself.” The pricking in the original dish, however, didn’t come from the piquant combination of lemon and capers, but from the treatment that was given to the veal: larding. It was common until the end of the 19th century in Europe to “lard” lean meats—that is, use a larding needle, a cooking instrument that resembles a knitting needle, to thread slivers of pork fat in the meat to make it more tender and rich. In Milan, the term piccata is often used to describe a flattened, pan-fried piece of meat but is always accompanied by a term explaining the precise preparation, such as al prezzemolo (with parsley) or milanese (dipped in egg and breaded). Milan is a northern Italian city, and lemons and capers were much more likely to be used in Sicilian cooking, which was heavily influenced by the Mediterranean climate. Both northern and southern cuisines were probably pulled under the dominant umbrella of Neapolitan cooking in America, where veal piccata was born.
What it is: Spaghetti with assorted vegetables, often in a heavy cream sauce
Faux origin: Italian
Real origin: Created by Le Cirque owner and maitre d’ Sirio Maccioni in 1976
Legend: Pasta primavera was created by Sirio Maccioni in response to an eager Le Cirque patron’s request for a more healthful meal.
Truth: Depends on whom you ask. In David Kamp’s new book The United States of Arugula, Italian chef Ed Giobbi claims to be the creator.
Le Cirque’s original chef, Jean Vergnes, says that he and former sous-chef Jean Louis Todeschini came up with the dish. Vergnes’s version was a creamier rendition of pasta “alle erbe” and “dell’ortolano” (spring vegetable and gardener’s pasta, respectively), which has been cooked for centuries in Italy. These recipes are prepared with garlic, olive oil, assorted fresh vegetables, and occasionally tomatoes.
Also staking his claim on the dish, Maccioni claims that while on a hunting trip in Nova Scotia in 1976, he and his companions grew tired of eating heavy meals of pigeon and wild boar. Maccioni threw together a frozen-vegetable mix of broccoli and peas with spaghetti, dried porcini mushrooms, and an improvised Alfredo sauce (also not strictly Italian, but that’s another story). One of his dining companions was Craig Claiborne, a food editor for The New York Times. Claiborne returned to New York and pronounced the dish amazing, and though it was never put on the menu at Le Cirque, it was available on request. (A risotto primavera eventually did make it on the menu.) The dish appeared in many American cookbooks in the late 1970s, usually prepared with a heavy cream base.
What it is: Thin, lightly sugared dough folded around a slip of paper
Faux origin: Chinese
Real origin: U.S. West Coast, early- to mid-20th century
Legend: Depends on whom you ask. San Francisco locals say that fortune cookies were invented by Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara, who designed the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park and operated a teahouse in San Francisco. Hagiwara was fired from his job sometime around 1907 by Mayor James Phelan, who allegedly disliked the Japanese. The public rushed to Hagiwara’s defense, and a few years later he was reinstated to his former position, which inspired him to create a thank-you note in the form of the fortune cookie in 1914.
Los Angeles natives claim that fortune cookies were created by baker David Jung, who in 1918 handed out cookies containing biblical passages to homeless people in need of encouragement.
Truth: The first factory-produced cookies were made by Jung’s Hong Kong Noodle Company and William T. Leong’s Key Fortune Cookie Company in New York. In the late ‘60s, Edward Louie, owner of the San Francisco-based Lotus Fortune Cookie Company, invented a fortune-cookie-making machine. The original fortunes were biblical or Confucian adages, and usually addressed morality. In the ‘50s, the tone lightened considerably. In the ‘80s, factories began printing lucky numbers, supposedly in response to increased interest in lottos. Finally, the cookies were produced for the first time in China in 1993 by the Wonton Food Company, bringing ethnic confusion full circle.