In the vast landscape of French cuisine, there is one dish that stands out as uniquely, quintessentially French in the minds of many. I am not referring to baguettes, or Beaujolais, or even brie cheese. I’m referring to frog legs. French people are notorious for their predilection for cuisses de grenouille (as frog legs are known in France). “Frogs” has even been wielded as a derogatory nickname for the French since at least the 18th century. In popular culture, France and eating frog legs are inseparable.
It’s not just a stereotype: This delicacy, often grilled or deep fried and seasoned with ginger, garlic, onion, and pepper, is still popular in France. According to The Local, the French eat around 80 million frogs every year. The dish is especially popular in the Dombes region, where the frog legs are fried in garlic and butter and topped with a spritz of lemon juice.
There are a couple of wrinkles in at least the Western association with France and amphibians: First of all, the frog legs consumed there haven’t even come from France for at least the past 40 years. In 1980, France banned commercial frog hunting in order to protect the depleted frog populations. Today, the majority of frog legs eaten in France are imported frozen from Indonesia. But there’s an even more important reason why France doesn’t deserve all the recognition when it comes to frog leg consumption: history.
Exactly where cooked frog legs originated is more complicated than you might imagine. In 2013, archeologists discovered 10,000-year-old amphibian bone fragments that had “obviously been cooked in some manner” in Wiltshire, England (near Stonehenge), according to National Geographic.
But Europe doesn’t have the monopoly when it comes to eating frog legs: People in China were probably eating frog legs as early as the first century AD. Frog legs are still ubiquitous in Chinese food today, particularly Cantonese cuisine, where the amphibians are sometimes stir-fried or added to congee. In fact, frog legs are popular all over Asia, especially in the southeastern countries of Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. For instance, in Indonesia, a popular soup called kodok oh involves cooking frog legs in fermented soybean sauce. In Vietnam, ech chien bo, frog legs fried in butter sauce, is a popular late-night drinking snack served at sidewalk cafes. Even the Aztecs ate frogs — often paired with maize or incorporated into tamales — before the French.
David Jacques, who led the excavation project in England that discovered amphibian bone fragments, told the publication that the first evidence of the French eating frog legs didn’t appear until the 12th century, “in the annals of Catholic Church.” According to legend, authorities within the church ordered French monks who they felt had become too fat to adopt a meatless diet. But the hungry monks were clever: They found a loophole which would allow amphibians like frogs to be counted as fish, and their feasting continued. Soon, the local peasants, who were poor but also wanted to follow religious protocol, followed the monks’ lead and added frogs to their regular diet. In a brief history of the dish for The Guardian, Jon Henley wrote that, by the 1600s, frog legs were one of the most fashionable meals in the country and served at restaurants all over Paris.
However, if frogs legs did originate in ancient Britain, no one in the modern UK eats them anymore. In fact, they’re reviled: The Larousse Gastronomique, often referred to as the “world’s greatest encyclopedia” of French food, stipulates that “they have usually filled the British with disgust.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, frog legs aren’t a widely consumed snack outside of the South, where a tradition called frog gigging still holds strong in states like Virginia and South Carolina: Hunters row out onto fresh water ponds in the dead of night and use a bright flashlight to stun the frogs, which they then spear with a long pole. The frogs are then marinated in buttermilk, dredged in flour or bread crumbs, and deep fried.
Jacques, the archaeologist who spoke with National Geographic, makes one important point amidst all this debate about where frog legs really come from: At the time that those early Britons were feasting on frog legs, the region was still connected to mainland Europe (the continent didn’t separate until around 5500-6000 BCE). In fact, the people who settled in the Britain of 10,000 years ago probably originally migrated there from the region now known as France.
So no, the French can’t fairly call themselves the first culture to notice that pond-dwelling amphibians might make a tasty addition to the dinner table. Since the very first emergence of civilization on planet Earth, people have been feasting on freshly caught frogs. However, there can be no doubt that it was the French who turned these croaking creatures into a certified delicacy. Only these masters of the culinary arts could transform a dish originally meant to feed monks into one of the most famous foods in the world.