Debunking the Origin Myths Behind Seven Favourite Foods

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Our recent trip to Sicily had me rethinking the origins of some of my favourite foods.  It all started when I went traipsing through Sicily in search of Sicilian pizza (as I know it) only to come up empty.  I realised that travelling abroad has shattered more than a few food myths that I knew from living in the United States.  It’s not just Sicilian pizza but other firm favourites that turned my food world upside down.  Here are some of the origin myths behind seven favourite foods from around the world that many of us love.

myths surrounding 7 favourite foods
Debunking myths surrounding seven popular foods

Here are seven popular foods that got adapted as they emigrated from one country to another.  Stop now, if you can’t handle the truth.

Yes, this YouTube clip from A Few Good Men is gratuitous but I love that movie, too.  This scene will never get old.

Italian Food

Sicilian pizza

I have an undying love pizza which I blame on my New York upbringing.  In New York, we have two types of pizza – the triangular slices known as Neapolitan pizza and the square slices known as Sicilian pizza.

In fact, I even took the kids on a pizza tour of Brooklyn with A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours so they too could appreciate good pizza (as the Italian-Americans intended it).  The highlight of the tour was comparing a Neapolitan pizza at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria located underneath the Brooklyn Bridge with what is supposed to be the best Sicilian pizza in Brooklyn at L&B Spumoni Gardens. My family was evenly split on which type of pizza they preferred.

A slice of Sicilian pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn
A slice of Sicilian pizza from L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn.

Imagine my surprise when I get to Sicily and I can’t find Sicilian pizza (as I know it) anywhere.  What??  My childhood and all I hold dear comes crashing down around me as I am offered one triangular slice of pizza after another. I would have cried if I wasn’t busy stuffing my face full of one delicious slice after another.

Sicilian pizza straight from the oven in Palermo
Sicilian pizza straight from the oven in Palermo, Sicily looks a lot like Neapolitan pizza.

I finally solved the mystery thanks to Mimmo, the chef at Osteria Bacchus in tiny Sant Ambrogio, where we took a cooking lesson.  Mimmo told us about sfincione which eventually became the Sicilian pizza that I know.  Sfincione is focaccia bread topped with onions and oregano and liberally drowned in tomato sauce.  It is served cut into square slices.  The anchovies and cheese topping are optional. Here is a recipe for sfincione the traditional way.

sfincione street seller in Palermo
A sfincione street seller in Palermo.

Sfincione is traditionally eaten the night before the Catholic festival of the Immaculate Conception and on Christmas Eve.  On the StrEAT Palermo tour, though, we found a Sfincione cart which sells it throughout the year.  I can see some similarities but in my opinion, the gooey melted cheese of New York Sicilian pizza is what makes it extraordinary.

Spaghetti Bolognese

On my trip to Bologna, I discovered that Spaghetti Bolognese is not actually an Italian dish.  I had been lying to my children all these years.  The people of Bologna like to put their ragu sauce with tagliatelle which is flatter and wider to hold onto the sauce better.  The ragu sauce itself is meaty but not as saucy as we know Bolognese.  Spaghetti is a popular pasta from Southern Italy and the sauces tend to be thicker.

the traditional ragu sauce in Bologna
The traditional ragu sauce of Bologna is not very thick. The Brit who wanted more sauce on his Indian food (see the story below) would not be impressed.
pasta bolognese in Cefalu
The bolognese sauce we know in the USA is thicker like this one we had at Osteria Bacchus in Sicily.

Our trip to Sicily highlighted how thick their version Bolognese sauce is.  No doubt, it is this version that made it to the USA along with all the Southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants.  Just like so many other American exports, the American version became the standard.

English Food

English Muffins

My brother was devastated to find that he couldn’t find English Muffins when he visited me in England.  Thanks to the ever-present television commercials, we had grown up hearing about how Mr. Thomas had emigrated to the USA in 1874 bringing his traditional recipe for English Muffins.  The muffins had those nooks and crannies for holding onto butter.   You could have them for breakfast or you could use them for making sandwiches.

A toasted English muffin with butter
A toasted English muffin with butter for breakfast.

You get muffins (like the American cupcake-version) but not English Muffins.  The closest you get in British supermarkets are crumpets. Crumpets like what Little Miss Muffet was eating sitting on her tuffet.

Although they look similar, crumpets are thicker and have smaller air pockets.  Frankly, they are not as good as Thomas’s English muffins. I’m so glad he brought his recipe to the USA. The butter doesn’t melt in crumpets as well, and they don’t get crispy.  In a pinch, though, as any good carbohydrate lover will tell you, they will do.

Unlike Little Miss Muffet we decided to forgo the whey and have crumpets with butter and jam.
Unlike Little Miss Muffet, we decided to forgo the whey and have crumpets with butter and jam.

Indian Food

Chicken Tikka Masala

The origins of the much-loved Indian dish Chicken Tikka Masala are fairly murky.  Both the British and the Indians have laid claim to the dish. It is now a much-loved dish found in Indian restaurants all over the world.

One popular story says the dish was invented in the United Kingdom by a local chef when a customer at his Indian restaurant deemed  chicken tikka too dry. The British, you see, are big on gravy with their meat. The chef threw in a can of tomato soup, some yogurt and spices to create a mild sauce for local taste buds.  It’s probably not true but I love this story involving a grumpy chef and a stroppy customer.



Other restaurants in the United Kingdom, though, have claimed to have created the dish.  The upshot?  No one knows for sure who created the dish.  Moreover, any Indian restaurant that claimed this dish was probably operated by Bangladeshis who had cornered the market on Indian restaurants in Britain.

creamy Chicken Tikka Masala
I personally am a big fan of the gravy in Chicken Tikka Masala.

Another version put forth by Indian foodies is that Chicken Tikka Masala has a long illustrious origin in Indian history.  Chicken tikka was cooked for a Mogul Emperor who was paranoid about choking on chicken bones.  Chicken tikka masala, itself, probably derives from the popular very-Indian dish, Butter Chicken (or murgh makhani) created in New Delhi in the 1950’s.  When Butter Chicken was brought to Britain by immigrants who adapted the dish for local tastes, a whole new uber-popular dish was created.

What I do know?  It’s tandoori chicken in a creamy tomato sauce and it’s delicious.  Good enough for me.


French Fries

Sometimes I wonder if Americans put the word French in front of something so that it automatically sounds more sophisticated.  For example, French Fries sounds pretty elegant for something that McDonald’s serves in the millions.

Francophile Thomas Jefferson had his French chef prepare potatoes like the French do for a dinner in the White House.  Although the Belgians claim they started frying potatoes long before the French, the name came about because Americans gave naming credit to the French.  Somewhere in the early 20th century the name French Fried Potatoes got shortened to French Fries.  To make matters more confusing, British English distinguishes between fries (thin-cut) and chips (thick-cut).

Origin myths of some favourite family foods
Origin myths of some favourite family foods

French Toast

I grew up loving French Toast which my mother would make on weekends as a treat.  French Toast is also not from France but has been around for hundreds of years as a way to use up stale bread.  Dipped in milk and egg and then fried, stale bread suddenly became fancy (and French).  I love the story (probably apocryphal) that the French part got added because an 18th century grammatically-challenged New Yorker named French sold the dish at his restaurant.

The Croissant

And, to make it a perfect threesome for French food fables, pretty much all the experts agree that the croissant came from Austria.  According to legend, the shape comes from the crescent moons on the Ottoman Empire flags.  The Austrians made the bread to celebrate an Ottoman defeat.  The Viennese were known for their pastry prowess which is something they pride themselves on to this day. Although an Austrian baker brought the croissant to France, the version we eat today with the flaky buttery pastry was a French innovation.

Food Adaptations

So, it’s not just people that emigrate and adapt to their new environments.  The food they bring with them may change to the extent that it is unrecognisable to the people in their homeland.  As you can see, it’s not all traffic from Europe to the USA either.  Anywhere you get people moving, you will find they bring the comfort of their favourite food with them.

debunking the origin myths of five favourite foods

I find it ironic that both the tomato and the potato were brought back from the New World by European explorers.  They went into dishes that travelled to the United States.  American popular culture exported them to the rest of the world.

What other food fables do you know?  I’d love to hear them.  Go on, I’m a big girl.  I can handle the truth.

43 thoughts on “Debunking the Origin Myths Behind Seven Favourite Foods”

  1. Thanks for enlightening us! Now, seriously, there are so many dishes that we think are originally from a place and turn out to be local creations. However, the disappointment doesn’t diminish our appetite for them!

  2. I love this post. I did not know the conflict behind Chicken Tikka masala would be between I dian and British. Omg. And the Sicilian Pizza I would have cried too..

    1. Did Mr Thomas bring them to Australia too? He was a busy man especially in the 19th century with limited transportation options.

  3. Every “local” food has been recreated and renamed somewhere all over the world. I remember asking for a millefeuille in the US and they had no idea what I was talking about because it’s a Napolean over there. It’s why I love travelling and involving myself in learning about food.

    1. Of course! I wondered why it was called Napoleon but probably decided it was too hard to spell millefeuille and/or say it.

  4. It is amazing how travel can open our eyes to different things. I did not know the fact about the croissants. We have croissants for breakfast every day when we are in Paris!

    1. As you should! It might be their butter (I love French butter) but no one makes croissants like the Parisians.

  5. lol 🙂 i have learned that about French food even french manicure. i heard about Italian food in USA but yet i will be happy to just eat authentic italian food in Italy.

  6. Your pictures look so great. You made me very hungry. 🙂 I am not a food lover, but when I see nice and good food, I must admit that gastronomy it’s a real science itself. Congratulations for your passion.

  7. I love crumpets! Being from England I grew up on them rather than ‘English Muffins’ and when I moved to Canada was highly confused by the term English Muffins, having no idea why people meant 🙂

    1. You are just me in reverse. I think a lot has to do with what you grew up with. That version will always be “right” in your own mind.

  8. I heard that story too. It’s not documented unlike Mr Jefferson who really did serve fancy schmancy French fries potatoes in the White House.

  9. Noooooo!!!! As a New Jersey Italian I am devastated to learn that the Sicilian pizza I was raised on is not authentic… It’s like finding out there’s no Santa. Fun about the French toast though!

  10. The French seem to have cornered the market on marketing fancy. It’s not mustard it’s Grey Poupon etc. Love your game – sounds fun.

  11. Lovely quirky little stories. We often just adopt the names without even thinking about it twice. What’s in a name? In the Netherlands, we order take out food from the “chinese” which has nothing to do with the food from China but is more a sweet Indo-Chinese Dutch version of the food. Still love it, nevertheless.

    1. Good point. I love Japanese curry but it’s not a curry at all. It’s a bit sweet. Not sure Indians would call it curry.

  12. Nice article. The French fries bit was something that I discovered as a kid and imagine my confusion. The Chicken Tikka Masala – as I know it, came with the Mughals and possibly is a Persian or Afghani dish . Somethings just blend in and you will never know.

    1. Yes a Mughal emperor who had a phobia of choking on bones. Goes to show that you can be the most important person in a country and still be afraid of something little.

  13. This is a very interesting post and busts a lot of myths. The nomenclature of foods is such an interesting subject by itself. Almost each and every food item would be having its own story. Over time, layers of stories get accumulated on each other and the reality and origins get obfuscated.

  14. My arrival at this blog came due to a friend sending me a link to it and I’ve found it thoroughly interesting and fun to read – thank you!
    Our foray into foods being called different things came as a result of crumpets, and was originally sparked by my explaining the caution required when speaking to us brits (she’s Canadian and I’m currently on her turf) about all things crumpet. This is due to a UK based slang for crumpet referring to an attractive member of the opposite (usually female) sex!
    The discussing went on (sniggers included) and eventually we got to ‘little miss tuffet’. Now, because you mention her in this blog I need to ask you where in that’s nursery rhyme is there a reference to a crumpet? Maybe little miss muffed herself is the crumpet? She certainly isn’t eating anything relating to the edible version . . . !
    Anyway – many thanks to you for the really interesting and fun blog!!

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