Ever heard of General Tso’s chicken? Americans have. They eat plenty of it and think they are enjoying a Chinese delicacy.  Residents of Hunan Province enjoy similar dishes, but they’ve never heard of this one.

That’s because the diverse peoples who settle in the United States frequently adapt their own food traditions and create famous dishes that are American … somewhat.

How does this happen? Sometimes immigrant chefs can’t obtain favorite ingredients in their new home so they look for substitutes. Or they discover in America new types of food and improvise. Often their creations introduce other Americans to their native cuisines. And sometimes chefs adapt their favorites to appeal to the tastes of their new countrymen.

Spaghetti and meatballs

Italian immigrants to the United States certainly had spaghetti noodles, marinara sauce, and meatballs or “polpettes.” But putting all three together was new. The wide availability of canned tomatoes and the cheaper price of meat made the meatballs larger. It also helped red marinara sauce become more prevalent in Italian-American recipes than it had been in Italy.

General Tso’s (or General Tao’s) chicken

The real General Zuo Zongtang lived in China during the 19th century, but he died long before a Hunan Province–trained and New York–based chef introduced the general’s namesake recipe in the 1970s. Chinese food was already popular among Americans, but some found traditional Hunanese cuisine too hot for their palates. The chef added sugar to traditionally prepared fried chicken to offset the spice. The general’s chicken is now a staple in American Chinese restaurants. Few in Hunan have ever heard of it.

Five toasted English muffins (Tanzania/Creative Commons)
“English” muffins were actually invented in New York in 1894. (Tanzania/Creative Commons)


Two Arizona chefs claim credit for this deep-fried burrito. It can be served either as a main course, stuffed with meat, beans and cheese, or as a dessert that comes with chocolate and whipped cream. Both chefs call the creation of the chimichanga purely accidental.


Named by French immigrant chef Louis Diat for a city near his birthplace, this soup was based on a potato and leek soup recipe he remembered from childhood. But Diat always liked to cool his down with milk before serving. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York where he worked, his 1917 recipe of potato, heavy cream, chicken broth and chive soup served cold was an instant hit — even though he added the leeks nearly 50 years later.

If anything, American menus are getting more diverse. Fusion cuisine, which combines food from different regions to inspire new recipes, is winning new fans. It’s a two-way street. Outside the United States, “American” fast food restaurants are adding items that most Americans have never heard of, like Pizza Hut slices served with seafood and mayonnaise in Japan, and McDonald’s Chicken Maharaja Macs in India.