Special Report

​20 “Foreign” Foods That Are Really American

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Chili con carne

Many Mexican dishes combine chiles with meat, which is literally what “chili con carne” means. Chili as we know it, though, comes from our side of the border, in southern Texas. It may have been concocted first by trail cooks on cattle drives. Another theory is that it was devised in the state’s prison kitchens as a cheap, filling way to feed prisoners. San Antonio became known as the chili capital thanks to the so-called “Chili Queens,” Mexican women who sold it and other dishes in the city’s plazas. Chili came to national attention in 1893, when Texas set up a San Antonio Chili Stand at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that year — and the rest is spicy history.

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This deep-fried burrito, particularly popular in the Southwest — and with the Marvel Comics character Deadpool — was most likely first made in Tucson, Arizona. The owners of El Charro Café, the city’s oldest Mexican restaurant, claim it was invented there in 1922, when founder Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito into a vat of bubbling fat. Another Arizona restaurateur, Woody Johnson, claims that he invented the chimichanga in Phoenix, but not till 1946.

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Chinese chicken salad

There are dishes made with shredded cold chicken in traditional Chinese cuisine,. But the Chinese chicken salad as we know it — chicken tossed with shredded cabbage or lettuce, fried wonton strips or rice vermicelli, and other ingredients, usually in a sesame or peanut dressing — first appeared in California in the 1960s. Credit is usually given to Sylvia Cheng Wu, who served the salad at her popular Madame Wu restaurant in Santa Monica.

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Chop suey

This expatriate Chinese restaurant staple is related to a regional Cantonese dish called tsap seui, or shap suì (“miscellaneous pieces” or “mixed bits”), which was usually made with minced organ meats. The version known in America, however — a stir-fried hash of meat or chicken with bean sprouts, celery, and other vegetables — was probably created as a cheap way of feeding miners or railroad workers by 19th-century Chinese-American cooks, possibly in San Francisco.

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Cuban sandwich

Mixed meat sandwiches, or mixtos, were common workers’ fare in 19th- and early 20th-century Cuba. The modern-day Cuban sandwich, though, was first formulated by immigrant cigar makers in Key West, Florida, in the late 19th century and later refined in Tampa. The recipe traditionally includes roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles on mustard-slathered lengths of Cuban bread — a baguette-like loaf with a thin, crisp crust. In Tampa, where a large part of the population is of Italian origin, salami is typically added to what has officially been dubbed “the signature sandwich of the city.”