Journey through the history of foods named after places
Once upon a time, ingredients and food was named after their place of origin or where it was manufactured or farmed. It’s how most of our cheese gets their name, from brie, manchengo and cheddar to edam. A closer look at the names of dishes brings up interesting facts: how some dishes were brought in by travellers and re-christened (read Anglicised) in their own country, and how travellers took dishes from colonised countries to their own and created their own ‘inspired’ version of it.
Here’s a look at the origins of the names of some of the most interesting and common food items we’ve eaten.
This tangy, sharp tasting and highly acidic fruit is native to Africa although it is often mistakenly considered indigenous to India. The name has much to do with it. In old texts, Arabs referred to the tamarind as tamar hind or Indian date. Early physicians mention the word tamar indi (referring to India), as does Marco Polo. Today, India is the largest producer of tamarind.
This now ubiquitous bread/pastry filled with meat or cheese and dressed with condiments came about because of one lazy man. In England of 1762, John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, had a gambling problem. During one particularly long session, he asked his cook to make him something he could eat without leaving the card’s table. The cook brought him sliced meat between pieces of toast. The dish grew so popular, the Earl started spreading it among his circles where it soon took the Earl’s name; the original inventor’s name is not on record. It soon became a staple as it was convenient, easy to carry, easy to prepare and didn’t require cooking utensils.
A comforting French Toast has bread dipped in a mixture of eggs, milk and cinnamon and fried till brown. The Roman Empire had the earliest version of this dish, pan dulcis or aliter dulcia: bread soaked in milk and fried in oil or butter. Legend has it that a man named Joseph French, a semi-literate innkeeper – invented the dish and advertised it as French Toast (he forgot the apostrophe). Others claim it was created by European cooks as a way to reuse stale bread; eggs were added to revive them. In the 15th century, the English court of Henry V notes a dish called pain perdu or lost bread, used to reference the stale bread which gets ‘lost’ when you cook it. Pain perdu travelled to England and later America where it earned the name French Toast.
There is an alleged Indian connect to this popular sauce, which has its origins in Worchester. Sir Marcus Sandys, who had allegedly been the Governor of Bengal, on retirement decided to recreate a sauce he had eaten in India. His recipe had molasses, vinegar, spices, tamarind, garlic, anchovies and shallots. He took it recipe to his local grocers John Wheeley Lea and William Perrins of Lea and Perrins. They didn’t like the batch prepared and because the sauce had a strong odour, they left it in their cellar and forgot about it. Two years later, the sauce had matured into a rich-tasting mixture and they began manufacturing it commercially in 1837. It became a British staple and soon travelled the world via ships.
Peking Duck is a whole slow-roasted duck with crispy skin, wrapped in a crepe and served with spring onions, cucumber and hoisin sauce. Peking Duck has been part of Chinese cuisine for centuries, with origins in Yuan Dynasty (1271 to 1368). It first appeared in print in a royal cookbook in 1330, which called for the duck to be roasted inside a sheep. Peking duck is named after Beijing (formerly Peking) though its origins are believed to be Nanjing, the former Chinese capital. When the Ming Dynasty moved the capital to Beijing, roasted duck went along. The traditional preparation method has the duck hanging to dry, coated with a syrup to make the skin crisp. It is roasted in one of two ways: the closed oven method or Menlu, or the hung oven method or Gualu. Two of the oldest Peking duck restaurants in Beijing act as representatives of these two methods.
The quintessentially British dish is a savoury pancake that accompanies the traditional roast. Yorkshire Pudding first appeared in a cookbook in 1737 where it was called a ‘Dripping Pudding’ – the dripping referring to the fat from roast meat that would drip onto the pancake like batter in the oven. Food writer Hannah Glasse popularised the dish by writing about it in her book, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy. She first used the prefix Yorkshire to distinguish it from other batter-based puddings. This pudding was traditionally eaten separately, not as an accompaniment to roast; rather an entrée or filler.
The staple of sports bars all over, buffalo wings are deep-fried chicken wings slathered in a spicy sticky sauce, accompanied by blue cheese drip and celery. There are different versions of its origin story, but they all centre in Buffalo. In 1964, Teressa Bellissimo served the first plate of wings in a special sauce and with a side of blue cheese and celery. Her husband claimed it was because they accidentally received an extra order of wings and wanted to finish them off. The son claimed it was an impromptu midnight drinking snack created on his request. Irrespective of the story, it’s a Buffalo special and every year, the city celebrates July 29 as Chicken Wing Day.
It is widely considered a starter roll for those new to sushi: rice wrapped around cucumber, avocado, and crab. Many LA chefs claim credit to a roll that is now a staple in every sushi restaurant, even in Japan. Hidekazu Tojo, a chef in Vancouver created the ‘inside-out’ sushi in 1974 to hide the seaweed, and added cooked crab because people didn’t eat raw fish. He called it the Tojo roll. Another contender is chef Ichiro Mashita from Little Tokyo. In the 1960s, he realised that people were removing the nori seaweed wrap on his roll thinking it was inedible, so, he added it inside the roll. His version didn’t have sesame seeds, cucumber, or mayonnaise. But, because it enjoyed widespread popularity in southern California, it earned the name California Roll.
This igloo-shaped dessert doesn’t belong to the icy state, but there is a connection. A Baked Alaska has ice cream on a bed of sponge, and shrouded in uncooked meringue, which is either toasted in the oven to using a blowtorch just before serving. The roots of the dessert are traced back to American physicist Benjamin Thompson who, in 1804, discovered that meringue was a great insulator. A widely accepted origin story is that Charles Ranhofer, an expat Parisian pastry chef at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City created this dessert to celebrate the newly acquired territory of Alaska (taken from Russia). He called it Alaska, Florida to highlight the cold and hot elements. This dish made its way to his cookbook too. The name Baked Alaska came about when an English journalist ate it and wrote about it: “The ‘Alaska’ is baked ice….The nucleus or core of the entremet is ice cream.”
Black Forest Cake
This layered chocolate cake with cherry and whipped cream is Germany’s most famous contribution to the cake world. The cake doesn’t take its name from the Black Forest or Schwarzwald mountain range in Germany but from Schwarzwälder Kirsch, a liquor distilled from cherries that gave the cake its flavour. In the 1800s, the liquor was widely manufactured in the Black Forest region and soon made its way in the cake (kirschtorte). A confectioner Josef Keller claimed to have invented the modern-style Kirschtorte in 1915 at the Café Agner in Bonn. He certainly helped popularise the cake. After that, it started appearing in written recipes Anglicised as Black Forest Gateau and many recipes replaced the liquor with rum.
A cheesesteak is a sandwich or roll of thinly-sliced chopped steak (ribeye beef) topped with melted cheese and served with fried onions, mushrooms, and ketchup. The officially accepted story is that the cheesesteak originated in the 1930’s at Lassyunk Avenue where the Olivieri brothers, Pat and Harry had a hot dog stand. One day, bored of hot dogs, they decided to try something different for lunch: they grilled beef and put it in a roll. A regular of theirs, a taxi-driver, asked about the sandwich so they sold it to him (without the cheese). The driver spread the word and soon other cabbies wanted a taste of the steak sandwich. Pat’s King of Steaks opened soon after with Pat himself going around promoting the sandwich. Another claimant is Joe Lorenzo of Geno’s Steaks, which opened close to Pat’s, added provolone to his sandwich thus creating the cheesesteak as it is known today. Both places still exist, still serving up their versions of Philly cheesesteak.