Photo: Luna Vandoorne/Shutterstock

7 'Ethnic' Foods That Aren't Ethnic at All

by Katka Lapelosová May 30, 2013

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!

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