American food can be summed up in one word: eclectic. Although the U.S. restaurant scene sometimes gets dismissed as nothing more than fast food joints that serve burgers, fried chicken, barbecue wings, pizza or donuts — and that’s all an undeniable part of the landscape — American cuisine is actually an amalgam of many cultural influences: Chinese, Italian, Mexican, Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and more. How does the American version of international cuisine compare to its international counterpart? Ultimately this depends on individual tastes and the food you grew up with.
Over the past decades (and centuries, in some cases), Americans have borrowed recipes and traditions from other cultures and modified them for local tastes and ingredients. Italian food, one of the most popular varieties of international cuisine in the United States, is no exception.
The pizza you find in Italy is characterized by a flatbread-like thin crust topped with a few selective fresh ingredients — for example, garlic, prosciutto, pesto and vegetables — and which can be, perhaps surprisingly, light on cheese. Its American counterpart is often made with a thick crust, loaded with cheese, meat and/or vegetables and hearty enough for a meal.
Pasta is also prepared differently in both countries. Generally speaking, traditional Italian pasta is lightly coated with a subtle sauce that enhances other ingredients and flavors. American pasta dishes, on the other hand, tend to be smothered in a bold or tangy sauce that steals the show.
Traditional Mexican food is as diverse as American cuisine and varies by region. It’s had a strong influence on recipes in the Southwest and in Texas.
One of the differences between authentic Mexican and American-style Mexican food is in ingredient amounts. Americans use more meat and cheese in their recipes, while traditional Mexican calls for smaller amounts of meat, usually shredded, and less cheese. Depending on the region, fish also features prominently in many native Mexican dishes.
As with other traditions, Americanized versions of Asian and Indian cuisine emphasize one ingredient over the others, like hot chilies, large servings of meat or heavy amounts of coconut milk.
In some instances, Americans have reimagined a dish and made it their own.The California maki roll is a distinctly American version of sushi, which includes the abundant avocados of California. In addition, Americans tend to use soy sauce more liberally than those in Asia, who lightly dip the fish part of the sushi — not the rice, which is more absorbent — into the soy sauce so as not to overwhelm the flavor of the fish.
The Mediterranean Sea borders Spain, France, Italy, Turkey, Egypt and others, and their cuisine often features the fresh fish easily available from the sea. However, when Americans think of Mediterranean food, many think of Greek food in particular, which is known for including olive oil, yogurt, eggplant, herbs and phyllo dough, among other ingredients.
Greek salads, which get their flavor from a very light, herbal dressing, are notably different from Greece to the U.S. with the Greek version including cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, a wedge of feta cheese on top and no lettuce. The American version is lettuce-heavy with cucumbers, tomatoes and feta sprinkled on top. And the gyro, the Greek sandwich wrap, has also received an American modification. In Greece, sliced meat is cooked on a vertical rotisserie for this wrap. In the U.S., the meat comes from ground meat pressed into loaves and cooked on a spit.
Middle Eastern food has a popular following in the States; the most familiar dishes are hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tabouleh and baba ghanouj. There is, of course, much more to this cuisine, and it’s probably seen the least Americanization of all the other types, though American preferences lean toward heartier and creamier dishes like falafel or gyros smothered in cucumber sauce.
France has had more of an influence on American cuisine than just fine dining. New Orleans is steeped in French roots and features two styles of cooking: Cajun and Creole. Cajun food grew out of rustic French country cooking, while Creole evolved from the cream- and butter-based recipes of the French aristocracy. Both styles have also absorbed the traditions of African, Portuguese and many other cultures, as well as Southern heritage.
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