Back in April, the official Twitter account of Sweden maddened many by posting that Swedish meatballs—the national dish of Sweden—actually originated in none other than Turkey.
After a barrage of online criticism from people who probably care a little too much about the national identity of meatballs, the account proceeded to retract their statement, claiming that the culinary history of meatballs is “complex.”
It’s true: The exact origin of the meatball remains largely uncertain.
But this divisive tweet has left me questioning the true origins of many of the things I eat—and as it turns out, my skepticism isn’t unfounded: Tons of well-known dishes aren’t from where you might expect. Such as…
While the exact origin of French fries isn’t certain, some historians claim that they can be traced back to the Spanish Netherlands (to be extra confusing, this is modern-day Belgium) in the late 1600s. According to Belgian journalist Jo Gérard, “The inhabitants of Namur, Andenne and Dinant [which are all Belgian territories] had the custom of fishing in the Meuse for small fish and frying, especially among the poor, but when the river was frozen and fishing became hazardous, they cut potatoes in the form of small fish and put them in a fryer like those here.”
Centuries later, American soldiers were introduced to these fried potatoes in Belgium during World War I. But because French was the official language of the Belgian Army, soldiers nicknamed the spuds, “French fries.”
Think vindaloo is an authentic Indian curry dish? Wrong! Vindaloo is actually based on the popular Portuguese dish carne de vinha d’alhos, which is meat marinated in wine vinegar. In the 15th century, Portuguese explorers brought their dish along with them to India, where they were forced to use palm wine and other local ingredients—tamarind, black pepper, cinnamon and cardamom—and thus, Indian vindaloo was born.
Nowadays, fortune cookies are a staple of Chinese-American restaurants. But Japanese researcher Yasuko Nakamachi claims that these small, insightful desserts actually originated in Japan. As proof, she points to many fortune cookie references in Japanese literature, including an image of a Japanese man making them in a bakery that dates back to 1878. She also came upon family-owned bakeries near a temple outside of Kyoto, Japan, that have been producing tsujiura senbei (fortune crackers) for generations. These cookies are admittedly slightly different than their Americanized counterparts, though: Flavored with sesame and miso, they’re larger and browner, and the little paper fortunes are found on the outside.
How fortune cookies became popular in Chinese-American restaurants remains unclear; however, Nakamachi speculates that Chinese-owned manufacturers in San Francisco began to take over fortune cookie production when Japanese bakeries were closed due to Japanese-Americans being sent to internment camps during World War II.
Similar to vindaloo, tempura is also a Portuguese innovation (despite currently being associated with Japanese cooking). Upon landing in Japan in 1543, Portuguese explorers showed the Japanese how to make a battered and fried green bean dish called peixinhos da horta, which was apparently the inspiration for tempura.
While the origin of the dish before that time isn’t clear, the word “tempura” is thought to have derived from the Portuguese word “temporas,” which means Lent. This makes sense: The battered and fried green bean dish may have been meant as a meal served during Lent, when many Christians (who made up a massive portion of the Portuguese population at this time) were forbidden to eat meat.
Croissants are widely accepted as a French delight, but the ancestor of these crescent-shaped pastries (the kipferl) was actually invented in Austria. Popular lore claims that Austrian bakers wanted to create a pastry to celebrate the Austrian victory over the Ottomans at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. They reportedly decided to make a crescent-shaped pastry to symbolize the crescent moon on the Ottoman flag, which would allow their people to reenact the victory by “eating” their enemy (SAVAGE).
While popular lore also credits Austrian-born Marie Antoinette with introducing the kipferl to France, historical evidence points to Austrian entrepreneur August Zang, who opened a Viennese bakery that sold the crescent-shaped pastries in Paris in 1838. Just a few years later, the French put their twist on kipferl by making it with puff pastry instead of yeast, and that’s how the croissant came to be.
So what have we learned from all this?
I officially trust no one.