Our Edible Heritage

"Ethnic food" isn't new. Throughout history, the foods of one culture have traveled to another, infusing cuisines with more variety and new flavors. Those foods also became new sources of nutrients and food energy.

The quest for flavor-exotic Eastern spices-launched the Age of Discovery and the exploration of the New World. Among the discoveries: a vast array of foods! Among other foods, the Americas contributed tomatoes to Italy, potatoes to Ireland, peanuts (or groundnuts) to West Africa, and hot chiles to Thailand. And foods unknown to the Americas five hundred years ago came from all parts of the Old World-for example, chickens, pigs, beef, wheat, oats, barley, okra, Asian rice, peaches, pears, watermelons, citrus fruits, bananas, and lettuce.

American cuisine has strong roots in its native foods: corn, legumes, pumpkins, peanuts, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, pineapples, squash, wild rice, and turkey, among many others. Each immigrant wave has contributed its own ethnic cuisine. In time, many ethnic foods were adapted and became "typically American"-for example, pizza, tacos, and chop suey. "Food immigration" continues as new waves of immigrants-mostly Latin Americans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, and Middle Easterners-influence American cuisine today.

Regional specialties develop as people adapt their cooking style to foods that are available. And many foods once eaten as regional specialties become nationally popular-for example, sweet potato pie, cooked collard greens, and black-eyed peas and rice from the South, created by African American cooks; crab cakes and clam chowder on the Atlantic coast; tamales, bean burritos, and cactus salad from the Southwest; and smoked salmon and berry cobblers from the Pacific Northwest.

A Fusion of Flavor

The blending of cuisines, sometimes called "fusion cuisine," is one of today's hot culinary phenomena. It combines the ingredients or cooking techniques of two or more cultures not geographically close together. The result: new cuisines, such as Thai-French, Southwest-Asian, Cuban-French, and unique dishes such as Moroccan couscous topped with Chinese stir-fried vegetables. Even fast-food menus reflect the trend, with Mexican pizza, chili in a pita pocket, or a Thai wrap tucked in a tortilla.

The fusion of ingredients and flavors isn't new. It's been going on for centuries as people gradually adapted their cuisines to the available food supply— sometimes by choice, often by necessity. Interestingly, about 50 percent of foods eaten in the world today originated in the Americas.

Today, fusion cooking brings an explosion of new dishes to the American table. In many cases, new "fused" dishes uniquely combine grain products, fruits, and vegetables. Their combinations may offer nutritional benefits for you. For ways to "fuse" ingredients in your meals and snacks, see "Ethnic Table: For Variety, Health, and Eating Pleasure!" later in this chapter.

Simply adding seasonings from an ethnic cuisine also creates fusion: perhaps a touch of curry powder from India blended in pumpkin soup . . . or basil and garlic, borrowed from Italian cooking, added to beef stew. For more about seasoning combinations, see "Flavor Profile!" in chapter 13.

What's New Is What's Old, Too

What's new on the table is also what's old. Grandma's meat loaf, mashed potatoes, soup, and biscuits are "dressed" with today's seasonings, such as sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, wasabi, lemongrass, and fresh herbs. Often sold in farmers' markets, heirloom vegetables and fruits—with their unique flavors, colors, shapes, and scents—add more variety to the table. "Heirlooms" are open-pollinated (grown from seed) culti-vars grown for at least fifty years. Examples? Flavorful, pinkish-red Brandywine tomatoes (Amish); purple-striped Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans (Native American); and sweet, lime-green Jenny Lind melons.

Culture on Your Plate

Moroccan or Lebanese, Nuevo Latino or Thai, Indian or Ethiopian, ethnic fare has captured consumer interest. Many people want to go beyond "ethnic" basics— Italian, Chinese, and Mexican—and explore regional ethnic foods: Tuscan, Liguria Roman, Calabrian, and Lazio (Italian); Sichuan, Peking, and Cantonese (Chinese); and Yucatán, Oaxacan, and Michoacan (Mexican). If you're among those who want to go beyond the basics . . .

• Try an ethnic or a regional restaurant; do "tastings" at community ethnic festivals. Order food that's new to you. For restaurant tips, see "Eating Out Ethnic Style" in chapter 14. Ethnic foods and other new food combinations often get introduced first in restaurants! If you're cautious, try an appetizer portion.

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