Food for thought: Global influences on American Cuisine

Market stall - Grønland, Oslo

By Charles Kinney Jr.

Growing up in upstate New York, I never questioned that Monday night was pizza night. We ate warm bagels with butter, tacos were a necessity and the neighbor’s gołąbki was, sadly, better than ours. In Washington, DC, business lunches with injera or toppoki were normal. To be considered a cultured American you have to have an appreciation for food, and not just European food; a true bon vivant appreciates the sublime and unusual that only something foreign can bring.

It’s an unwritten rule at IOM Norway that when out on a foreign mission, you return to the office with a delicacy. It’s a perk of the job. Our office speaks an incredible array of languages, but we have one common language that needs no translation: food.

Traditionally, and statistically, in the case of migration to the United States, native language and customs can be lost in one generation. Holiday traditions from the ‘motherland’ become an idea rather than identity. Food, however, remains a constant; this most basic of human necessities connects us all .

In the United States, sushi, falafel, fajitas and pho are as American as well, apple pie, buttered popcorn and potato chips. It is nearly a rite of passage for migrants to add cherished food dishes. Sometimes first hated, eyed-suspiciously, loathed and despised, migrant food dishes are now merely remarkable for how fast they enter the American culinary landscape. The myth of the American food being hamburgers and fried chicken might be true, but each wave of immigrants have brought a new level of food identity and traditions.

In nearly any decent-sized city in America, it is relatively easy to find: Lebanese, African, Ethiopian, Chinese, Mexican, Greek, Indian, French , Japanese, Italian, Polish, Korean, Vietnamese, Jamaican (the list goes on) restaurants. It is desirable and downright hip to find even obscurer ones (we had Angolan-Lithuanian fusion last night with side dishes of fufu!).
Americans stole the pizza idea and exported it as our own. Americans even invented foods that sound foreign but are as American as the first British roast beef with horseradish (itself brought to Britain by migrants): chimichangas, Vichyssoise, Häagen-Dazs, General Tso’s Chicken...all American. Spaghetti and meatballs? Italian immigrants brought both to America. Eaten separately in Italy, America saw a time-saving device and put them together. Voilà ! The world is a much happier place.

Now in Norway, where brunost, risgrøt and sild still hold sway, it may seem migration has brought little to an already established food culture. Not so. In nearly any store in Norway, you can find food inspired by Chinese, Indian, Mexican and Italian cooking. Iranian, Pakistani, Indian, Somali, Polish, Iraqi, Korean and Thai stores have sprung up around the country. They survive not only because the immigrant population wants them, but natives love hummus and pappadums, too. The kebab is a way of life in Norway. It didn’t get here because it was lost on a boat.

This isn’t a one-way street. Lutefisk is so common in America’s Mid-west that visiting Scandinavians are delighted see this delicacy celebrated in popular American culture. Thanks to Ikea, almost single-handedly bringing and promoting Scandinavian culture (and köttbullar) to the world, American friends and colleagues now create recipes with tyttebær and solbær. The Swedes may call it lingonberry and vinbär, but at the end of the day, it still tastes great. I was amazed in Dubai at a celebration of Eid al-Fitr to see Malaysians eating lingonberry on khubz between bites of nasi lemak. Smörgåsbord is a near universal word, including Norwegian.

Without human migration, there would be no vanilla, sunflowers, potatoes, tomatoes, chili, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, corn, cashews and most importantly, gasp!, cacao (chocolate) in Europe. Imagine Norway without chocolate. That would not be right. Don’t get me wrong. There have been some tastes that still leave me afraid: prahok, durian and lakrids but trying seemed better than missing an experience. Life seems far more interesting when there is choice in the fridge, cupboard or your local eatery. I could eat laks every day of my life, but you haven’t lived until you’ve tried it with hondashi, adjika, chermoula or chimichurri.

Charles Kinney Jr. is an outreach officer in IOM Norway