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Photo: sakanami

Ah, delicious takeout! But what to order? Time to find the stack of Chinese/Thai/Italian restaurant menus in your area, and choose from one of the many “flavors of the world.”

Don’t stamp your foodie passport so fast, however — many of the foods you so fondly think of as originating in a country other than your own are actually nothing like the meals you’d find if you traveled to those countries. So how can you tell the difference between “real deal” ethnic foods and those that are cultural variations? Here’s a start.

Greek food

Any Greek diner or restaurant outside of Greece is going to serve gyros, a pita pocket filled with shaved meat, veggies, and that famous tzatziki sauce. Ask any Greek person what part of Greece the gyro came from, and they’ll say “nowhere.” That’s because gyros are predominantly a Middle Eastern meal. While you’ll find almost identical dishes around the Mediterranean, Greeks emigrants are the ones who really got to capitalize on the gyro.

Chinese food

Did you honestly think something called the “Pu Pu Platter” was authentically Chinese? Chinese emigrants adapted their native cuisine to suit the taste buds of Western restaurant patrons. Chinese vegetables like bok choy, Asian broccoli, and spring onions were replaced with American broccoli, carrots, and larger varieties of onions that make China-Chinese food look almost unrecognizable at first.

You won’t find things like sesame chicken, General Tso’s beef, crab rangoon, or even *gasp* egg rolls on your next trip to Shanghai. And major bummer, but fortune cookies are a totally American enterprise.

Italian food

Pizza? That has a Greek origin. Spaghetti and meatballs? Totally popularized in the United States. Italian wedding soup has got to be Italian, right? Wrong. It actually hails from Spain, and the idea is not so much a soup to celebrate the union of two people, but that the combination of meat and green vegetables tastes good together.

That nice, healthy pasta primavera dish has distinctly North American origins (debuting at the famous Le Cirque restaurant). And don’t even get me started on chicken-parm heros.

Thai food

Thai restaurants have adapted their dishes to suit the needs of foreign markets. So the pad thai you know and love at a local restaurant (sweeter, with a ton of ground peanuts and barely any fish sauce) will probably taste entirely different if you were to eat it in Thailand (less greasy, more egg, dried shrimp and/or Thai “hot dogs,” and pickled veggies).

Thai food abroad is not as spicy and usually does not encompass all five taste-bud flavors, as is traditional for Thai cooking. But don’t sneer at a Chinese/Thai restaurant — many dishes you’re familiar with are influenced by the two continents. Drunken Noodles, for example, originated from Chinese immigrants living in Thailand.

Mexican food

Sorry Chipotle fans, but your favorite drunk food just got a little less ethnic. The idea of holding food within a tortilla dates back to pre-Columbian times, but the modern burrito is something Mexican immigrants developed throughout the United States. Nachos, chimichangas, fajitas, and more came to be as a result of cuisines mixing in parts of the Southwest and California.

Whereas you might enjoy a flour tortilla loaded with guacamole, sour cream, cheese, beans, and maybe three different kinds of meat, authentic Mexican food is much lighter, fresher, and has flavors derived from a variety of spices and peppers.

Indian food

The other day, I set my Facebook status to “What kind of Indian takeaway should I order tonight?” The response was overwhelmingly “Chicken Tikka Masala,” which is a kickass dish for sure but one that was actually invented in Scotland. That’s right — your CTM shares a culinary stage with haggis.

Aside from that, there are over 35 different types of regional Indian cuisine — outside of India, you’ve probably only tried one or two. Flavors are definitely pared down, and the explosive diarrhea you acquire afterward is most likely due to all the processed junk that goes into the meal, not because “that’s just Indian food.”

American food

Hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, and apple pie are symbols of American culture, but your favorite greasy junk food actually originates from other parts of the world. Hot dogs are French, hamburgers are German, French fries are actually Belgian/Dutch, and apple pie is derived from England, Austria, and even as far north as Sweden. Mmmm, what a delicious melting pot!

Food

 

About The Author

Katka Lapelosa

Katka is a Contributing Editor and the Social Media Manager for Matador Network. She is based in New York and has worked in the travel industry for the past five years. Other contributions include articles for Vittana, Thought Catalog, Travel Fashion Girl, Yelp!, Where’s Cool?, TripAha! and more. Read more about how awesome she is at katkatravels.com.

  • Stela Zlatkova

    7 ‘ethnic’ foods that aren’t ethnic at all.
    Read more at http://matadornetwork.com/life/7-ethnic-foods-that-arent-ethnic-at-all/#pXtIjFX8x3dZDtLy.99.

  • Stela Zlatkova

    7 ‘ethnic’ foods that aren’t ethnic at all.
    Read more at http://matadornetwork.com/life/7-ethnic-foods-that-arent-ethnic-at-all/#pXtIjFX8x3dZDtLy.99.

  • Alyssa Adina-Lori James

    This is brilliant! I do think that even though these foods aren’t like their originals, they have evolved into something unique and are therefore “ethnic” or “exotic” in and of themselves. Kind of a fusion cuisine sort of thing. On the other hand, I think we have a problem with cultural appropriation here.Taking something from one place and re-working or changing it to be marketable in another place hurts authenticity. This is even more harmful because, for some, eating these “ethnic” foods is as adventurous as they will get.

    Love your work, Katka!

  • Jason Sanqui

    The fortune cookie has become synonymous with Chinese take-out, but it has Japanese origins… http://www.fortunecookiechronicles.com/blog/2008/01/16/fortune-cookies-are-really-from-japan/

  • Jason Sanqui

    The fortune cookie has become synonymous with Chinese take-out, but it has Japanese origins… http://www.fortunecookiechronicles.com/blog/2008/01/16/fortune-cookies-are-really-from-japan/

  • Jason Sanqui

    The fortune cookie has become synonymous with Chinese take-out, but it has Japanese origins… http://www.fortunecookiechronicles.com/blog/2008/01/16/fortune-cookies-are-really-from-japan/

    • Katka Lapelosová

      oh cool! Didn’t know that!

    • Katka Lapelosová

      oh cool! Didn’t know that!

    • Katka Lapelosová

      oh cool! Didn’t know that!

    • Katka Lapelosová

      oh cool! Didn’t know that!

  • Jason Sanqui

    The fortune cookie has become synonymous with Chinese take-out, but it has Japanese origins… http://www.fortunecookiechronicles.com/blog/2008/01/16/fortune-cookies-are-really-from-japan/

  • Biresh Vrajlal

    Chicken Tikka Masala was created in Scotland!

    • Kennhyn Ang

      Roti canai?

    • Biresh Vrajlal

      That’s Malaysian I hope hahaha!

    • Marcus Desmond De Silva

      I had plenty of chicken tikka masala in Mumbai though. How come ah?

    • Gladys Rodgers

      I feel the only authentic “Malaysian” cuisine is Nyonya. Doesn’t “roti canai” originate from Chennai, India? :-)

    • Biresh Vrajlal

      Marcus – they had it there for the tourists

      Gladys – it started out as roti bom haha

    • Biresh Vrajlal

      Marcus – they had it there for the tourists

      Gladys – it started out as roti bom haha

    • Alyssa Adina-Lori James

      Chicken tikka simply means ‘pieces of chicken’ and masala means ‘spice mix’ which has no particular recipe. Traditionally the pieces are marinated in yogurt and spices and then cooked in a tandoor. But the ingredients themselves–yogurt/coconut milk/heavy cream, spices, tomato sauce on chicken–can be found in most cuisines with an Asian influence.

      Yours in Travel,

      Alyssa
      http://alyssawrites.com

  • Beth Kovars

    Does anyone consider a pu pu platter Chinese food? I’ve never had it, but I’ve always been under the impression that it’s a Hawaiian dish.

  • Beth Kovars

    Does anyone consider a pu pu platter Chinese food? I’ve never had it, but I’ve always been under the impression that it’s a Hawaiian dish.

    • Katka Lapelosová

      I think it’s like an East Coast, West Coast thing. We don’t have Hawaiian food in New York really, but all the top Chinese restaurants have pu pu platters. I’m sure if I went to Cali or somewhere with a higher density of Polynesian restaurants I’d see it more prominently there.

  • Khwaja Naveed

    How can one prove that Chicken Tikka Masala, which is a kickass dish for sure but one that was actually invented in Scotland?

    • Vilém Obrátil

      Well, it was indeed invented in Scotland, the name is supposed to sound Indian to make it look exotic, but as far as I remember from what I read about it, someone made it from scratch in their kitchen.

    • Emma Terry

      I get paid over $87 per hour working from home with 2 kids at home. I never thought I’d be able to do it but my best friend earns over 10k a month doing this and she convinced me to try. The potential with this is endless. Heres what I’ve been doing,.. http://www.Sea12.cℴm

    • Katka Lapelosová

      the meal itself is based off of butter chicken but the crafting of the modern day dish is something that evolved from Indian cultures in Scotland

  • Vilém Obrátil

    I don’t think that this article is fair to American food. I mean the USA is such a young country, mostly inhabited by immigrants from Europe. Who would expect them to make food without any resemblance to their European countries of origin?

    • Carlo Alcos

      I don’t think the point of the article is to poke fun at American food…but more to point out to westerners that what they’re eating isn’t actually being eaten by the cultures they think are eating it. For example, I think many North Americans would think Mexicans eat tacos in hard corn shells…

  • Dickes B Bear

    Haggis: came with the Romans…

    • Katka Lapelosová

      That totally makes sense! Thanks!

  • Geraldo Figueras

    Nice! But I believe hot dogs came from Germany. Hence their first popular names: frankfurter.

  • Maddie Gressel

    Chicken Tikka Masala, if indeed invented in Scotland, definitely enjoys a very very wide dissemination across India…It’s a dish you can find in almost any non-veg dhaba. also the name in Hindi would be murgh tikka masala, meaning simply “grilled, spicy chicken.”

  • Maddie Gressel

    Chicken Tikka Masala, if indeed invented in Scotland, definitely enjoys a very very wide dissemination across India…It’s a dish you can find in almost any non-veg dhaba. also the name in Hindi would be murgh tikka masala, meaning simply “grilled, spicy chicken.”

  • Abhishek Bagalkot

    For once I feel like commenting. This is a genuinely bad article. No proof offered what so ever. Pretty much non-sense..

    • Harita Vinnakota

      what a delicious melting pot! :)

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