Aside from ingredients and techniques native to indigenous North Americans, all cuisine in the United States originated somewhere else. Immigrants from all over the world settled here and flooded the country with foods, methods of preparation and recipes native to their home country. The culmination of all of these influences has made up the collective American cuisine. But most dishes that seem uniquely "American" have their roots in far-off lands. The fact that humans tend to settle and congregate with their own nationalities concentrated culinary influences to defined geographical areas. What we ended up with is a delicious mix of cuisines as varied as the immigrants who came to the states, recipes in tow. We'll look at five of these regional influences on the following pages.
If you aren't from Louisiana, you might mistakenly think that Creole and Cajun are the same thing. The Creole cuisine actually came from the rich French plantation owners who farmed in Louisiana before it was sold to the United States. Creole dishes typically contained more expensive ingredients than the Cajuns could afford. This led to a slightly more refined cuisine -- instead of an oyster stew, you got Oysters Rockefeller. The roots of Creole are in French ingredients and technique, combined with Spanish, African and Caribbean influences. Green peppers, onion and celery are the hallmarks of Creole "Holy Trinity," which is another obvious French influence. French cooking is known for using earthy, simple ingredients coupled with flawless technique and preparation.
The term Tex-Mex first appeared in print in the 1940s, but the cuisine was around before that. Tex-Mex is Mexican cuisine, which has its roots in Spanish cooking, whipped up Texas style. When Mexican cuisine met Texas, dishes like steak fajitas, chimichangas and nachos were born. The roots of the burrito are believed to be in Los Angeles, where they soon spread southwest to Texas. Cheese and beef are Texan additions to Mexican cuisine as well. Even Tex-Mex refried beans aren't quite like the well-fried beans native to Mexico. The influence of Mexico on Texas cuisine spawned a culinary revolution, with Tex-Mex being popular from California to France.
Hawaii has a cuisine that's as varied and rich as the many nationalities who settled in "paradise." The food of Hawaii is influenced by Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese and of course, Polynesian cuisine. The financially fruitful pineapple plantations made the spiny fruit a staple ingredient in Hawaiian cuisine. The laborers on pineapple and sugar cane plantations were from all of the aforementioned countries, and they all brought along the ingredients and recipes of their native lands. The Chinese brought fried rice, sweet and sour and dim sum. Open-fire Korean barbecue dishes found their way into the regional cuisine. Japanese sushi had a lot of influence, as did the Portuguese with their salted fish dishes. Spain contributed some spice, and the Philippines introduced fried foods, peas and beans. The culmination of all of these influences resulted in a delicious cuisine that's uniquely Hawaiian.
Sometimes referred to as soul food because of the great care that goes into making each dish, Southern food has been heavily influenced by the African slave trade that marks one of the dark periods of American history. The origin of the style of cooking lies in the fact that African slaves didn't have access to prime cuts of meat, quality ingredients or sometimes even working kitchens. This forced them to get creative by using alternative cuts of meat that were fattier or just plain undesirable to wealthy plantation owners. Intestines were cooked into chitlins, fat back and salt pork replaced lean bacon. Unwanted vegetables like okra and black-eyed peas were cooked alongside foods that were then known as weeds (cabbage and collard greens). The rich flavors and home-spun recipes of Southern soul food have been passed down through the years and are still enjoyed today in the Deep South.
The Northeastern region of the United States, New England, owes much of its culinary influence to the first English settlers who came to the New World. Also due in large part to the rich bounty available in the oceans of the Northeast, seafood became a staple food source. The Puritan settlers were more accustomed to baking than frying foods, so meat pies are commonly found on menus in New England. The English settlers were also experienced dairy farmers, so cheese, cream and butter-based dishes appeared in abundance. Couple that with seafood, and you have classics like New England clam chowder and fish stew. Native Americans also had some influence on the cuisine of New England with the likes of the corn-based Johnny-cakes and hasty pudding.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- "Cajun-Creole Recipes." chefrick.com, 2009. http://www.chefrick.com/cajun-recipes/
- "History of New England Clam Chowder." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Chowder/NewEnglandChowder.htm
- "Johnnycakes." whatscookingamerica.net, 2009. http://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Johnnycakes.htm
- "Louisiana's Creole & Cajun Cuisine." landrystuff.com, 2009. http://www.landrystuff.com/cuisine.html
- Robert, Castillo. "Hawaiian cuisine and its roots." amazines.com, December 14, 2009. http://www.amazines.com/Food_and_Beverages/article_detail.cfm?articleid=1269946
- "The Roots of Soul Food." Medscape.com, 2009. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/453335_2
- "What is Tex-Mex?" wisegeek.com, 2009. http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-tex-mex.htm