The United States is often called a melting pot of cultures, and this food metaphor is also a fitting image of its extremely diverse culinary landscape. The food is so diverse, in fact, that it is impossible to speak of American food in the singular. Building upon Native American crops such as corn, beans, and squash, European settlement in colonial America established an early foundation of British, Dutch, and German recipes. Euro-American settlers encountered a cornucopia of plants and game across the fertile continent, and used these to modify old recipes and invent uniquely “American” ones. Immigration from around the world expanded upon this European foundation, adding flavors and new traditions, and regional cuisines grew out of distinct agricultural and climatic conditions, as well as patterns of immigration.
Beyond the founding northern European culinary traditions, other prominent ethnic influences in American cuisine include Jewish cuisine (centered in New York City), Caribbean (Cuban, Haitian, and Dominican), Arab, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese.
The primary starch consumed depends on the region: potatoes and wheat are common throughout New England and the Midwest, while corn and rice are consumed more frequently throughout the southern and western regions. Today, however, grocery stores provide fresh items to Americans year-round, with Florida and California stocking the nation’s produce all year. Americans tend to eat a lot of meat, with beef, chicken, and pork being the most popular. Seafood and fish are available everywhere, though they are especially important in the coastal cuisines of New England, the West Coast, and Hawaii. Dishes range from rustic peasant dishes to fast food, to comforting recipes passed down from generations, to high-end dining and experimental fusion cuisines. When it comes to American food, there’s truly something from everyone, for everyone.
While there might be nothing more “American than apple pie,” the concept of American food is ever-evolving thanks to the influences of cultures from around the world. Whether it’s burritos, spaghetti, or General Tso’s chicken, Mexican, Italian, and Chinese food have become so deeply ingrained that they are now part of the American menu. Tex-Mex, the Texan take on Mexican food, is now popular around the world, Italian food such as pizza and pasta are on the menu for most Americans on a weekly basis, and almost every American town has a Chinese restaurant. Today, perhaps the very thing that makes modern American cuisine American is, in fact, its embrace of culinary traditions from around the world.
Culinary Regions of the United States
Corn, beans, and squash are the foundation of the Native American diet in the northeastern and southeastern United States. This trio of staples is called the “Three Sisters,” as Native Americans planted the crops together in a symbiotic harmony: the bean plants climbed up the tall stalks of the maize, while the squash spread out, its leaves protecting the root systems of all three crops from weeds. In the west, tribes were more frequently hunter-gatherers owing to the more extreme climatic conditions, making wild game and fish key ingredients. Other indigenous North American ingredients include tomatoes, peppers, sassafras, cranberries, blueberries, and game such as buffalo, venison, and turkey.
Johnnycakes. This unleavened cornmeal flatbread is an indigenous recipe eaten by Native American tribes throughout the United States. Algonquin Native Americans are credited with inventing the recipe, which mixes ground white or yellow corn with water and salt, to New England colonists.
Frybread. A flatbread made with white flour and lard is the foundation of Navajo or Indian tacos. Using commodities supplied to them by the US government when they were forcibly relocated from Arizona to New Mexico, the Navajos invented frybread in the 1860s.
Hominy. Corn is treated in a mineral lime bath and then dried. Traditionally, it is then ground into coarse grains that are used to make grits. Hominy can be made into everything from soup to dumplings, cakes, casseroles, and tortillas.
Succotash. From the Narragansett word for “broken corn kernels,” this northeastern Native American dish is a humble and hearty mix of sweet corn with a legume such as lima beans or shell beans. Other ingredients like tomato or pepper may be added for flavor. It is often eaten as part of the Thanksgiving celebration.
New England clam chowder
Boston baked beans
New England cuisine traces its origins to the first settlers who arrived at Plymouth Rock from England, bringing with them Anglo recipes and cooking styles such as baking, steaming, and stewing. Dishes like baked beans, roast turkey, and savory and sweet pies are a fusion of local New England ingredients with traditional English cooking techniques. But above all, New England is noted for its use of seafood, particularly lobster, clams, oysters, and mussels. Other common ingredients include potatoes, cranberries and blueberries, dairy products, maple syrup, and wild game. New England cuisine is further characterized by its limited use of spices, instead relying on fresh herbs like parsley and sage—another similarity to English cooking. Several traditional Thanksgiving dishes—roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie—have their roots in New England cuisine. Immigrants from Italy, Portugal, and Ireland also left a strong imprint on the local cuisine, with submarine sandwiches, pizza, Portuguese-style cured meats, and Irish corned beef.
New England Clam Chowder. Combining characteristic New England ingredients (seafood and dairy), clam chowder is one of the region’s signature dishes. A thick, rich chowder is made from clams, cream, seafood broth, butter, potatoes, and celery. Though similar to the Scottish soup Cullen skink, the New England version uses clams instead of smoked haddock.
Baked beans. Beans are a New World ingredient, and Native tribes taught European settlers how to cook them. Boston put its own spin on the recipe by adding pork fat and molasses, an ingredient plentiful in the colony due to 18th-century triangular trade from the Caribbean. Baked beans with bread was a traditional Sunday dinner in New England well into the 20th century—the beans were cooked on Saturday and left to stew overnight as a kind of loophole against Sabbath restrictions on work.
New England Clam Bake. This is an iconic regional steamed seafood dish prepared at clambakes, social gatherings, and celebrations held outside or at the beach. The traditional method is simple: build a fire pit, place seaweed on the hot coals, pile on the seafood, and steam by covering in a canvas tarp. It can also be made at home in a pot—but this is called a clam boil instead.
Blueberry pie. Sweet pies are beloved throughout the United States. Wild blueberries thrive in the cool New England climate, and blueberry pie is Maine’s official state dessert.
New York bagels
New York pizza
While American cuisine may often be described as a melting pot in which different cultures fuse together to create a unique whole, perhaps the more appropriate metaphor for the food of New York City is the tossed salad—each element retains its own particularities that can be appreciated individually. Such is a better metaphor the Big Apple’s spectacularly diverse culinary scene: a rich mosaic of traditional ethnic foods from around the world, accompanied by inventions borne of innovative immigrants who combined age-old recipes with new ingredients and culinary influences. Though virtually every cuisine from around the world is firmly represented in New York’s dining scene, Jewish and Eastern European, Italian, Dominican and Puerto Rican, and Chinese food are strongly associated with the Big Apple. And of course, one of the iconic foods for busy New Yorkers is an all-American take on the German frankfurter sausage: the hot dog.
Bagels. Introduced by Eastern European Jews, this ring of yeasted wheat dough, first boiled and then baked, is a popular breakfast food. Delicatessens or “delis” are a New York institution stemming from the Jewish community that combine casual dining and groceries, selling baked goods like bagels along with meats and cheeses.
Pastrami sandwich. Pastrami is heavily seasoned, sliced beef that is brined, dried, smoked, and steamed. The tender meat is served warm, piled high on rye bread with spicy brown mustard. This iconic New York sandwich can be found at any local deli. It was created in the late 19th century by a Jewish-Lithuanian butcher who claims to have gotten the recipe for pastramă from a Romanian friend.
New York-style pizza. Due to the city’s long history of Italian immigration, New York pizza shares much in common with traditional Italian pizza: a thin crust topped with tomato sauce, cheese, and other toppings. Typically sold as a wide triangular slice, the crust is thin enough to fold in half, making it easy to eat on the go. The first American pizzeria was founded in New York’s Little Italy in 1905, and today, there are more than 400 pizza restaurants in the city.
General Tso's Chicken. While this dish—deep-fried, breaded chicken pieces coated in a spicy, slightly sweet soy sauce-based brown sauce—has come to epitomize Americanized Chinese food, the original recipe is said to have been created by a Hunanese chef in a New York restaurant during the 1970s. The dish is named for a famous 19th-century military general from Hunan.
The cuisine of the Mid-Atlantic region—which stretches from New York to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland—is famously eclectic due to its location as the historic point of entry for the vast majority of immigrants arriving in the United States. Italian, German, Irish, Jewish, and British culinary influences are particularly pronounced. With its long industrial history, the region is home to many large commercial food companies, such as Campbell’s and Nabisco. The region’s industrial character is deeply inflected in its cuisine, with many fast foods such as hoagies (Italian-style meat and cheese sandwiches) and other portable lunch items sold by street food vendors to factory workers on their way to their shifts. This region is also noted for its delicatessens and 24-hour diners, which also historically catered to the fast-paced lifestyles of urban and factory workers.
Crab cake. The rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay are home to famous Maryland blue crabs, which are often served simply steamed, but also frequently in the form of crab cakes. A patty made of crab, breadcrumbs, eggs, and seasonings is either deep fried or broiled, and served with remoulade and lemon on its own or on a white roll.
Philadelphia cheesesteak. Made of sliced beef and melted cheese on a long Italian white roll, the Philly cheesesteak is a popular fast-food sandwich throughout the region. Common additions include sautéed onions, peppers, and mushrooms, as well as mayonnaise and hot sauce.
Soft pretzel. Introduced to Philadelphia by Pennsylvania “Dutch” immigrants (actually from southwestern Germany), this soft pretzel rolled in coarse salt is Philadelphia’s iconic snack.
Salt-water taffy. Originally sold on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, salt-water taffy is a chewy candy made from sugar, cornstarch, corn syrup, water, butter, and salt. The malleable mix is aerated by stretching and pulling, which keeps it soft.
Chicago-style hot dog
The Midwest is the cultural heartland of the United States, as well as its productive agricultural and manufacturing core. Due to the large number of German settlers throughout the region in the 19th century, German foods such as bratwurst and sauerkraut are popular, while Scandinavian influences can be seen in the upper Midwest. Being located far from the coasts, meat is more common than fish, especially pork and beef, with Iowa leading the nation in pork production. Wisconsin is known as “America’s Dairyland,” and is famed for its cheese and dairy products. The Midwest is also called the “breadbasket” of America, and bread and baked goods feature prominently. Fruits such as apples, cherries, and blueberries thrive during the summer.
Historically influenced by immigration primarily from Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe, Midwestern food tends to be light on seasonings, though palates are becoming bolder with increasing immigration from Latin America, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. That said, the Midwest remains largely synonymous with hearty, all-American meat and potatoes dishes. Many of the leading national fast-food burger chains, such as McDonalds, Wendy’s, Steak N’ Shake, and White Castle, as well as pizza chains Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s, and Papa John’s, were all founded in the Midwest.
Chicago-style hot dog. This all-beef hot dog is served on a poppy-seed bun with mustard, diced onion and tomato, relish, and a pickle, but—unlike in New York—never with ketchup.
Coney Island hot dog. Despite the reference to a New York neighborhood, this classic dish stems from Detroit’s immigrant and industrial history. A Coney Island is a hot dog in a bun topped with a ground meat sauce, onions, and mustard. They are served at Coney Islands, a type of diner run by Greek immigrants. Catering to factory shift workers, Coney Island-style diners are popular in Rust Belt cities throughout the Midwest.
Chicago pizza. The polar opposite of the thin-crust New York pizza, Chicago pizza is a thick-crusted, deep-dish pie filled with gooey cheese and tomato sauce, as well as other meats and vegetables.
Kansas City-style barbeque. The self-proclaimed world capital of barbeque, Kansas City, Missouri, has over 100 barbeque restaurants and is known for its slow-cooked barbeque meats covered in a characteristically sweet and thick tomato and molasses sauce.
Sugar cream pie. This Midwestern dessert is a single-crust pie filled with a smooth blend of cream, butter, vanilla, brown sugar, and flour, giving it a texture similar to caramel. The recipe is believed to have been brought to the region by Amish settlers of German heritage, as a kind of spin on traditional German kuchen recipes.
Fried green tomatoes
Associated with comfort dishes like fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and buttermilk biscuits, the down-home cuisine south of the Mason-Dixon line is straightforward, honest, and hearty, and served with a big dose of famous southern hospitality. The American South encompasses a large geographical area, stretching from Virginia and Kentucky in the north, to Florida in the south, to Louisiana in the west, and the region’s sub-cuisines are as diverse as the states themselves.
Native Americans contributed staple crops such as corn, squash, beans, and cornbread, as well as barbecue, while West African slaves introduced new ingredients like okra, rice, eggplant, black-eyed peas, melons, and sorghum. Scottish and English settlers gave the cuisine savory and sweet pies, and the concept of the full English-style breakfast, and also introduced deep frying and stewing methods.
Some traditionally prepared southern foods are very high in starch, fat, and cholesterol, giving southern cuisine a reputation for being calorie heavy. Historically, however, southern meals among the rural poor and slaves consisted of heart-healthy “beans and greens”—green beans or black-eyed peas served with stewed collard greens and perhaps a biscuit or slice of cornbread.
Fried chicken. Battered in breading and pan-fried or deep-fried, fried chicken fuses Scottish frying techniques and African spices. Due to the high cost of preparing this dish, before the late 20th century it was traditionally reserved for celebratory feasts and holidays.
Country ham. Salt-cured country ham is famous throughout the Appalachians. It gets its distinctive smoky flavor from the hardwood used to smoke it. The ham is then baked and served with buttermilk biscuits, mashed potatoes, and green beans, for a southern take on the Sunday roast.
Fried green tomatoes. Coated with cornmeal and pan-fried, fried green tomatoes are crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside. They are traditionally served as an appetizer or side, attesting to the apparent southern maxim that just about anything tastes better fried.
Hushpuppies. Made of deep-fried cornmeal batter, hushpuppies are bite-sized cornmeal balls served as an accompaniment to fried seafood dishes such as catfish or shrimp. The origin of the name is disputed: it either comes from hunters who would fry cornmeal bits to feed and quiet their dogs during hunting excursions (“hush, puppies”), or Confederate soldiers who tossed cornmeal scraps to hush barking dogs.
Grits. Southern breakfast would be incomplete without grits—a boiled porridge of coarse ground cornmeal served savory or sweet. Shrimp and grits is a popular main throughout the southern coastal Atlantic.
Louisiana Cajun and Creole
With its French roots, Louisiana is home to a unique Creole cuisine, which fuses traditional French cooking with Native American, African, and other European and American cooking styles. Cajun is a subset of Creole cooking, and is noted for its rustic ingredients (wild game and seafood), bolder flavors, and simpler preparation methods, while Creole is its haute corollary, with a more refined French foundation.
The port city of New Orleans, long a confluence of cultural influences, is the center of refined Creole cuisine, noted for its rich sauces, complex cooking styles, and fusion recipes. Soul food is another strand of Louisiana Creole cooking, stemming from the culinary traditions of African slaves. In this predominantly Catholic region, green bell pepper, onion, and celery are the holy aromatic trinity in the kitchen, and both Cajun and Creole make use of spices like green onion, bay leaf, and cayenne pepper.
Crawfish. Crawfish is a freshwater crustacean abundant in the Louisiana bayous. They are served steamed, deep fried, and in soups or stews. A crawfish boil is a big outdoor social event in which fresh seafood is boiled with potatoes, corncobs, and onions in large cauldrons filled with seasoned water. Once done, the boil is dumped on a newspaper-covered tabletop, and everyone digs in.
Gumbo. The name actually means “okra” in several West African languages, and traditional recipes for this thick soup call for okra as one of the main ingredients. These days, it’s more closely associated with seafood, as well as chicken and sausage, simmered in a golden French-style roux.
Jambalaya. This classic Cajun stew can contain just about anything the cook had lying around the kitchen, but it usually has a rice base, complemented with meat and seafood, as well as green peppers, tomato, onion, and celery. Spanish in origin, its relative paella is a similar catchall of rice, meat, and seafood.
Andouille sausage. This smoked sausage has a coarse texture and lively seasonings. It is often used in gumbo and jambalaya for flavor.
Po’boy. Served on a white-bread baguette style loaf, the Po’boy is a local sandwich piled high with fried seafood or roast beef with gravy.
Fusing north-of-the-border Euro-American influences with south-of-the-border Mexican ingredients and recipes, Tex-Mex is a kind of Americanized Mexican cuisine popular in Texas and beyond. The cuisine stems from Texas’ native Tejano population, who lived in the region before it was a republic, as well as the scores of Mexican immigrants who settled in Texas over the past centuries. Though enchiladas, fajitas, chimichangas, burritos, nachos, hard tacos, and chili con carne may stand for Mexican food in the American imagination, they are all actually Tex-Mex inventions. Compared to traditional Mexican food, Tex Mex makes greater use of shredded cheese, beef, sour cream, and deep frying, which are popular more broadly in mainstream American food.
Fajitas. Probably first cooked by Mexican ranch hands in West Texas, fajita meat (usually steak or chicken) is marinated and grilled with peppers and onions and served on a sizzling hot plate with flour tortillas and all the fixings: salsa, cheese, sour cream, and guacamole.
Chili con carne. This is a spicy, tomato-based stew of beans and ground beef, flavored with cumin and chili pepper. Small, family-run restaurants called chili parlors were a dining fixture throughout Texas and beyond during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the north, chili con carne is served on hot dogs.
Nachos. Fried corn tortilla chips are smothered in melted cheese and topped with beans, various meats, jalapeño peppers, and tomato salsa. Plain tortilla chips are sometimes served with queso, a definitively Tex-Mex dip of liquid-cheese flavored with chili pepper. Despite its Spanish name, it is virtually impossible to find south of the border.
Hawaiian cuisine contains five main culinary influences stemming from its settlement history. In ancient times, Polynesian voyagers populated the islands, bringing plants such as taro as well as pigs and chickens from the western South Pacific. With few natural edible plants on the islands, Native Hawaiians had a heavy fish and seafood-based diet, with the main starch coming from poi, a boiled porridge of taro. Poi is so important in Native culture that it is considered to be the ancestor of the Hawaiian people.
European contact in 1788 forever changed the culture and cuisine of the islands. European and American colonists built extensive sugarcane and tropical fruit plantations, and missionaries brought Christianity and New England cooking styles, such as steamed seafood and pies, as well as dairy products and cheese. Waves of subsequent foreign immigration from China, Korea, Japan, Portugal, and the Philippines introduced new cooking styles and ingredients, resulting in a complex fusion cuisine. Perhaps one of the most iconic Hawaiian dishes is kalua pig, which is served at a luau, a traditional Hawaiian celebration of dancing and feasting.
Spam. Hawaii has the world’s second largest per capita consumption of Spam, the infamous canned pork meat. Originally eaten by US troops stationed on Hawaii as part of their rations, Spam is now a local staple, often served with rice or eggs, or even as a type of "sushi."
Poke. This raw fish salad is made with tuna or octopus, flavored with seaweed, sesame oil, chili, soy sauce, and pepper. It is a popular happy hour appetizer and dish for sharing.
Laulau. Pork or fish is wrapped in a taro or luau leaf. Traditionally steamed in an underground oven on hot rocks, today laulau is a favorite lunchtime dish, and is often served with rice and macaroni salad.
Article written for World Trade Press by Carly K. Ottenbreit.
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