For many people across the world, the phrase “American food” brings to mind a rather limited and often clichéd assortment of dishes. In the more unfortunate instances, the only foods instantly recognized as American will be the generic fast food from American chains such as McDonald’s, or else an over-the-top, deathly indulgent dessert like deep fried Twinkies.People who are more familiar with American cuisine will be aware of other dishes such as pumpkin pie, macaroni and cheese (which, although not American in origin, is now something of an American icon), and the various barbeques and steaks. However, there’s a lot more to American cuisine than this. The humble sandwich and burger alone exist in a mind-boggling number of delicious and well-defined forms across the country. Besides, the US being the cultural melting pot that it is, American cuisine has an incredible variety of influences, from communities all across Europe and from neighboring countries like Mexico and Cuba. From wholesome home-style meals to fine dining classics, and of course a variety of desserts, there are hundreds of amazing American dishes to explore. Here are just ten that any expat in the United States ought to try.
Corn dogs are a pretty recent invention. Various people have claimed to have invented them, some as recently as the 1940s, but the oldest known patent is only in 1927. The corn dog is similar to the hot dog, but what makes it unique is that instead of the sausage going into a sliced bun, it’s coated in cornmeal batter and then fried.
Corn dogs are most often eaten with American mustard sauce, but they’re also eaten plain, or with other condiments. Sometimes corn dogs may be baked, some may be deep fried, and sometimes the sausage may have a coating or filling of cheese. At its core however, the corn dog remains a simple but deliciously satisfying snack that’s available as street food all across the United States.
The Reuben, is another recent invention with contradictory accounts of how and when it first made an appearance. There are two main stories involving protagonists named Reuben, both probably apocryphal, and with several different versions. However, regardless of its origins, the Reuben is an exceptional sandwich – hearty and flavorful, with its own unique taste and texture, and yet with a number of variations. Basically, the Reuben is a grilled sandwich made with two slices of rye bread, between which you will find corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and either Russian or Thousand Island dressing.
The version of the Reuben commonly known as the Rachel uses pastrami instead of corned beef, and some Rachel sandwiches use barbecue sauce instead of Russian or Thousand Island dressing. Similarly, there are other versions of the sandwich that swap the meat or the dressing, often with a local replacement, such as lobster in Florida. There’s even a Reuben egg roll – basically, all the filling of a Reuben sandwich rolled up inside a deep fried egg wrap.
New England clam chowder is arguably the classic clam chowder that everyone absolutely must try, but there are numerous variations across the United States, including in Manhattan and Delaware. In addition, individual restaurants and families often have their own takes on the dish.
In general, clam chowder is a soup made from chopped clams, broth, milk or cream, potatoes, onions, and celery, with a garnish of parsley or bay leaves. Some versions include other ingredients as well, such as tomatoes, peppers, and pork. For example, Manhattan clam chowder (sometimes known as New York Red) is a red, tomato-based chowder, and the New Jersey clam chowder uses both sliced tomatoes and bacon.
As with many foods, locals tend to be quite particular about what goes into their chowder, to the extent that they may sometimes actually try to make specific ingredients illegal. In New England, putting tomatoes into your chowder is an absolute no-no, and in 1939 there was an attempt to introduce a bill against the inclusion of tomatoes in clam chowder in Maine.
Chili con carne
Unlike many other iconic American foods, chili is neither a recent invention nor a dish of European origin. The full name, chili con carne, is Spanish and means “chili with meat”. It was probably invented in Texas, where it remains the state’s official dish, and where it can be described as not just popular but almost sacred. The earliest known chili recipe goes back to 1850, and the ingredients remain more or less the same today – beef, chili peppers, tomatoes, and beans, with seasoning that may include salt, garlic, and onions.
There’s plenty of dispute over which ingredients – apart from the chili peppers and the beef – are authentic. In particular, the inclusion of beans is a matter of contention. In general however, it’s safe to say that although the earliest chili recipes didn’t include beans, they’ve been included in chili for so long and so widely that such recipes are now firmly established and can be considered equally authentic. Either way, there are few things as beautiful as this simple but rich, spicy stew.
Oysters Rockefeller is one of those fine American dishes that clearly falls outside all clichés. In fact, the sumptuousness of the dish is underscored by its name and the legend around it. Apparently, when the dish was invented in 1899 by Jules Alciatore at Antoine’s, a beloved New Orleans institution, a guest tasted it and exclaimed that they were “as rich as Rockefeller”. Because of the green color of the dish, the richness of its taste, and the common perception of John D. Rockefeller as the epitome of American wealth and taste, the name stuck.
The recipe for the dish has never left the Alciatore family (in fact, some say Jules Alciatore took it to his grave), but many restaurants in New Orleans and across the country make their own versions, usually consisting of oysters topped with finely chopped greens, a rich butter sauce, and breadcrumbs. The oysters are then baked in their shells. Some claim that the original recipe also included absinthe, and continue to include it or else substitute it with Herbsaint. If you can, you should try to eat Oysters Rockefeller at the place of its birth – at Antoine’s itself, or else at least in New Orleans.
Salads aren’t all boring “health” and diet foods, and the Cobb salad is a great example of a salad that’s delicious, filling, even indulgent, and yet not unhealthy. The dish was invented in the 1920s or 1930s, probably by Robert Cobb, the owner of the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant. It’s got greens, meats, eggs, and a delicious red wine dressing – what more could you want in a salad?
The standard ingredients of the Cobb salad are boiled egg, avocado, tomato, chicken (thigh or breast, grilled, sautéed, or roasted), onion, bacon, and blue cheese – which you can remember with the help of the mnemonic EAT COBB – and then, in addition, the greens (usually lettuce and watercress), the dressing, and sometimes olives. As always, there are recipes that may substitute or add ingredients – olive oil, mayonnaise, buttermilk, Worcestershire sauce, and yogurt are common – but the basics remain the same.
Chicken and waffles
For most people who have grown up outside the United States, chicken and waffles will seem like a strange combination, and one that will probably not suit everyone’s palate. However, there are two distinct and rather different versions of this dish, and both are worth trying at least once.
The Pennsylvania Dutch version is fairly straightforward, and when you think about it, not really all that strange – it’s the classic combination of starch and protein, with gravy on top. What you get is a plain waffle covered with pulled chicken, and topped with gravy.
The more unusual recipe comes from soul food, a tradition of African American cuisine from the Southern states, with roots that go back to Africa and with influences that include Native American cuisine. In this version, the waffles are the familiar ones that most people know, with even the melted butter and maple syrup; on top of this, however, you have chunks of deep fried chicken and gravy. It’s simple, delicious, and extremely satisfying.
Many of the most unique, delicious, and hearty American dishes come from New Orleans and Louisiana, and jambalaya is one of the most well-loved of all these dishes. It was supposedly invented when a traveler arrived at a New Orleans inn late one night and asked the cook, named Jean, to “balayez” (throw something together) – hence, “Jean, balayez”, which eventually became “jambalaya”.
As charming as the story may be, it’s almost certainly untrue. The dish and its name seem to have their origins in a similar dish from the Provence region of France, with influences that also come from Spanish paella. In any case, what it consists of is rice with sausages and other meats (usually pork, chicken, or shrimp), along with celery, peppers, onions, and sometimes a few other vegetables. There are numerous variations across the state of Louisiana, with slightly different ingredients, different proportions, and different cooking techniques. We recommend trying as many of them as you possibly can.
This classic campfire treat is one of the simplest, most delightful desserts you’ll ever find. All it takes is graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows. The marshmallows are roasted (ideally over a campfire, but your kitchen stove will also do), the chocolate is broken to the size of a graham cracker square, and the two of them are sandwiched between two squares of graham cracker. Usually plain milk chocolate is used, but people experiment with all kinds of chocolate.
The name, of course, comes from the average person’s reaction after having eaten one – “Some more,” or “S’more.” Of course, this isn’t a healthy treat, especially if you gobble down several over the course of an evening (which is incredibly easy to do), but then few desserts are healthy. Nonetheless, if you’re concerned about calories, you can take the advice that Michelle Obama put out on Twitter last year, and replace the chocolate and marshmallow with strawberries and yogurt. Many Twitter users were outraged at the suggestion, but we think the combination is rather delicious. On the other hand, it doesn’t quite compare to a real s’more.
Is it a cookie? Is it a pie? Is it a cake? Is it all three? Well, it doesn’t matter – what matters is that it’s a unique and delicious American treat. The whoopie pie is said to come from Pennsylvania Amish cuisine, and is a kind of dessert sandwich, consisting of two cakes or cookies with a cream center between them. One whoopie pie is usually about as big as a hamburger, and traditionally it’s accompanied by a glass of milk. The cream center is usually vanilla flavored and the two halves of the sandwich are usually chocolate, but other flavorings can also be found. Among the more traditional recipes, pumpkin cake and gingerbread cake are fairly common, but in recent times, more adventurous variations have been attempted. The whoopie pie goes by various names, including gob and Big Fat Oreo or BFO (the resemblance is obvious), but it is always instantly recognizable.
What are your favourite American foods? Let us know in the comments!