Americans have a habit of co-opting and recreating global cuisines, arbitrarily assigning ethnic labels to dishes unknown in their purported homelands. In the process, of course, they've created some very good - if inauthentic - food. Is a deep-dish pepperoni pie any less delicious for being a purely American invention?
But how do these bastardized dishes play in the nations they're meant to represent? Here, a look at the success and failures of four iconic "ethnic" foods abroad.
According to Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice, the watershed moment in American sushi history came when a chef had the bright idea to flip a California roll inside-out. Although they seem like a sop to middlebrow American tastes, California rolls were first developed for a Japanese clientele by Ichiro Mashita, a Los Angeles sushi chef who had an easier time obtaining avocados than tuna belly. But sushi neophytes went wild for the rolls after another chef realized he could rejigger their construction and hide the potentially offending seaweed.
California rolls are a fairly recent addition to sushi bars in Japan, but they've gained a significant following. As the Tokyo restaurant Rainbow Roll Sushi explains on its web site: "The beautiful presentation and unexpected combination of ingredients will not only bring you surprise, but also a remarkable delicacy."
Taco Bell serves Mexican-American food distilled to its most Americanized essence: While the chain recently rolled out "cantina tacos," it's also responsible for the Volcano Double-Beef Burrito and the Crunchwrap Supreme. Taco Bell's twice tried to gain a foothold in Mexico, and been sent back north of the border both times.
Acknowledging Mexicans might not consider Taco bell's signature hard-shelled sandwich a taco, the chain put "tacostadas" on its menu when it opened the first of two Monterrey locations in 2007. "Taco bell es otra cosa," a sign outside the restaurant announced. But few customers came: As of early this year, Taco Bell in Mexico was a cosa of the past.
The story of American-style pizza in Italy is short: So far as I can tell, there isn't any. None of the major chains have bothered opening outlets in the land of pizza perfection, and homegrown joints seem to be sticking to classical recipes. Italians apparently don't think it's cute to put triple-layers of cheese on a pie or coat its crust in ranch dressing.
General Tso's chicken
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An account of the journey of General Tso's chicken, a dish beautifully documented by cookbook author Fucshia Dunlop, is whiplash-inducing.
The enormously popular battered and sauced chicken has traceable roots: Peng Chang-kuei, a talented Hunan chef, came up with it. But not while he was living in China: Inspiration struck while he was in Taiwan, where he fled after Mao Zedong's Communist regime came to power. Sometime during the 1950s, he first brought together the distinctly Hunanese flavors he described as "heavy, sour, hot and salty."
The dish didn't make much of a splash in Taiwan. Still, Peng held on to the recipe, and kept making it - with added sugar -- when he opened his first American restaurant on New York's W. 44th Street. The sweetened dish was a hit with officials from the nearby United Nations, including Henry Kissinger.
Peng in 1990 opened a restaurant back in his hometown of Changsha, where patrons rejected General Tso's as too sweet. Yet the province's chefs and cookbook authors have since grudgingly added the dish to their repertoires, realizing it was largely responsible for the vaunted reputation of Hunanese food.