From Sloppy Joes To Tomatoes, Here Are 20 Foods That Latinos Can Take Credit For
I grew up eating plenty of arroz con pollo, ropa vieja, and platanos maduros in my Cuban household. When I eventually moved out of Florida and made my way to New York City, I discovered a whole new world of Latino foods: Colombian dishes in Queens, Puerto Rican food in The Bronx, Mexican food everywhere, and so much more. But in my exploration of Latinx food over the past decade or so, I failed to realize one big thing earlier on: many of the foods and dishes we think are from somewhere else actually have origins in Central America, South America, or the Caribbean.
In fact, most people don’t know that the Sloppy Joe was actually invented in Cuba. Or, that what we now know as American barbecue actually came from the island of Hispaniola, modern-day: Dominican Republic. From tomatoes (they’re not actually from Italy!) to French beans (that’s right, not actually from France), here are the 20 foods that Latinxs can take credit for. If you’ve ever had a friend brag about making the best Caesar’s salad or how much they love chewing gum, now you can tell them just where their beloved foods come from: From Latin America!
1. Sloppy Joe
The story of the Sloppy Joe, that very messy American beef sandwich many of us first tried in school, actually has its roots in Cuba. The story goes something like this: In 1917, José Abeal y Otero opened a bar in Havana which was eventually frequented by Ernest Hemingway, who noticed that tipsy, English-speaking regulars called the owner “Sloppy Joe” (which later became the bar’s name). During this time, José began to serve loose-meat sandwiches, likely made with picadillo, to his patrons. Eventually, Hemingway began to frequent another bar (he did that a lot) in the 1930s, this time in Key West, Florida, run by an American named Joe Russell. Hemingway convinced Russell to rename his bar Sloppy Joe’s, and eventually Russell too began to serve a loose-meat sandwich as well — finally naming the sandwich itself Sloppy Joe… but not without remembering that it was based on its Havana counterpart.
Although quinoa became popular in the U.S. just a few years ago, the mother grain has actually been around for over 5,000 years. The Inca of Peru are the ones who originally coined the term “mother grain” and considered quinoa a sacred gift from the gods. With its nutrition profile of being low-fat, full of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals like iron and manganese, it’s no wonder why!
The story of the margarita is an interesting one since it was not, as many believe, invented in Mexico. However, it WAS invented by a Mexican bartender by the name of Pancho Morales who immigrated to the U.S. in 1945. He was considered the best bartender in all of Mexico before coming to Tommy’s Place in El Paso, Texas, which was located on Juarez Avenue. In an interview with Texas Monthly in 1974, he tells the tale of how he came up with the drink: A lady asked him to make a Magnolia, but he didn’t know how to make it to he faked it, using tequila and what he knew.
“I gave it to her and she says, ‘Oh, this is not a Magnolia, but it is very good.’ And, I said, ‘Oh, oh, I thought you said Margarita.’ You see, daisy, in Spanish, is margarita. The reason I called it the Margarita is because I was thinking of the flower margarita, like the magnolia. She liked it. That’s how it originated.”
Most of us probably associate tomatoes with the flavors and sauces of Italy. But the fruit masquerading as a vegetable actually didn’t arrive in Europe until the 16th century, said to have been brought back from Central America by Spanish Conquistadors. Or was it Jesuit priests or Columbus? Regardless, the humble tomato originates in the Andes, in what we now know as Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador. There, they grew wild and were possibly cultivated as early as 700 A.D. by the Aztecs and Incas.
Now that you know that tomatoes come from South America, it should come as no surprise that salsa originated there, too. Apparently, the Inca people were the first ones to make salsa by combining chilies, tomatoes, and other spices, though it can also be traced back to the Aztecs and Mayans. The Spanish encountered salsa when then conquered Mexico in 1519-1521. The first documented case of a manufactured salsa, however, was Charles E. Erath of New Orleans, who began to manufacture Extract of Louisiana Pepper, Red Hot Creole Peppersauce in 1916. In Los Angeles a year later, La Victoria Foods started Salsa Brava. By the 1990s, Mexican food has become so popular in the U.S. that salsa became the best-selling condiment, surpassing the previous #1 catsup (ketchup).
Just as with tomatoes, most people associate potatoes with the Irish potato famine. We think of potatoes as dominating the cuisines of Europe, especially Eastern Europe such as Germany, Poland, and Russia. However, potatoes are actually from Peru. The Spanish Conquistadors conquered Peru in 1536, and brought potatoes to Europe. They were introduced to Ireland in 1589, and spread across the rest of Europe over the next four decades. But don’t forget: They’re actually from South America.
7. Caesar Salad
The invention of the Caesar Salad comes down to legend but the account we have is that it was invented in 1924 in Tijuana, Mexico, by an Italian-American restauranteur by the name of Caesar Cardini. The tale goes something like this: Cardini’s restaurant was a tourist destination that attracted “Americans frustrated by Prohibition.” Apparently, on Fourth of July weekend, he threw together a bunch of ingredients that included “romaine, garlic, croutons, and Parmesan cheese, boiled eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce.” It wasn’t until 1926 when it was renamed the “Caesar salad,” though, after Cardini’s brother came to Tijuana and added anchovies to the salad — and a new favorite was born.
Many people know agave these days because agave syrup made a big splash a few years ago as a sugar alternative. But not many of those people likely knew that the plant (which has over 200 different species) is a native of Mexico and the Caribbean. Other than the syrup, the agave plant is used in the production of mescal liquors and the blue agave in particular is used for tequila.
Movies and popcorn are a typical part of American life, but popcorn isn’t exactly a modern, U.S. invention. In fact, the history of popcorn has deep roots in Mexico and New Mexico (which, don’t forget, used to be a part of Mexico before colonists began to move into North America). Popped kernels were discovered by Herbert Dick and Earle Smith in 1948 in a dry cave known as the “Bat Cave” in New Mexico. Those have been dated to be approximately 5,6000 years old, though we also know that decorated funeral urns from 300 A.D. Mexico depicted a “maize god with popped kernels adorning his headdress.” There is evidence of popcorn through ancient Central and South American, in fact, particularly in Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico.
10. French Beans
With a name like French beans, you would probably assume that these come from France and, well, your assumption would be wrong. Although originally experts thought that they had Indian or Mediterranean origins, remains of the means were found in ancient Mexican and Guatemalan cities that date back to 7,000 years ago. However, even that seems to not be their original origin. Instead, the beans came from Peru and Colombia and were, like many items on this list, introduced to Europe by Spanish conquistadors.
Did you really not know that chocolate originated in Latin America? Well, chocolate has an absolutely fascinating 4,000-year history that originally began in what is present Mexico. This is where the cacao plants come from, and the Olmec were the first to turn the cacao plant into chocolate. They drank it during rituals, while later on the Mayans praised chocolate as “the drink of the gods.” It is said that explorer Hernán Cortés brought chocolate to Spain in 1528, after being introduced to a cup of cocoa by an Aztec emperor. Soon enough, the Spanish mixed chocolate with sugar and honey to sweeten the naturally bitter taste of the drink and, well… the world’s favorite dessert was born.
12. Madagascar Beans
Another bean whose name seems to imply that it comes from somewhere else when, in fact, the Madagascar bean is not actually from Madagascar originally. Also known as a Tropical Lima bean or a Butter bean, these beans are actually of Andean and Mesoamerican origin. That’s right, the lima bean is from the Andes and was originally domesticated around 2,000 years ago.
The only food more American than barbecue might just be apple pie. But, well, it turns out that the history of American barbecue has some very non-U.S. based beginnings. It all apparently began when Christopher Columbus landed on the island Hispaniola, and saw the natives cooking meat over an indirect flame (the actual definition of barbecue). The Spanish referred to this new method of cooking as barbacoa, a.k.a. the original barbecue. Eventually, the Spanish explorers who moved north after Columbus brought this cooking style with them. The technique made it to what is present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, and even as far north as Virginia before eventually evolving into the food we know today.
There’s no exact information on where peanuts come from, but experts believe that the peanut plant likely is from Peru or Brazil, based on fossil records and South American pottery in the shape of peanuts that date as far back as 3,500 years ago. Eventually, European explorers discovered peanuts in Brazil and helped them spread to Spain, and from there to Asia and Africa. Funnily enough, peanuts were introduced to North America in the 1700s by Africans and not their neighbors to the south.
Ceviche, also called seviche or cebiche, has its origins in South America. It is currently disputed whether the true birthplace of ceviche is Peru or Ecuador, but one thing is clear: This seafood preparation method is centuries old and could have come from the ancient Inca civilizations of those two countries. This preparation method, which uses the acidic juice of citrus juice instead of heat to prepare seafood, is now seen all throughout Mexico, Central, and South America — and has made it onto the menus of many trendy restaurants across the U.S. Let’s not forget where it really came from, though.
As with many of the items on this list, vanilla is one of those foods that many assume are from somewhere else. For many cooks, vanilla from Madagascar or Tahiti. But the origins of vanilla are much closer than we imagine: It turns out that the delicious, always-put-it-in-your-baked-gods flavor comes from an orchid that originally grew in Mesoamerica. Basically, the vanilla orchids that now grow all around the world were from what is now modern day Mexico and Guatemala.
Kahlúa is the key ingredient in a White Russian cocktail, which is why many might be surprised to learn that the liquor actually originates in none other than Mexico. The delightful drink originated in the eastern state of Veracruz, Mexico. Production of the drink began in 1936 and was first imported to the U.S. in 1940, thanks to Pedro Domecq. The drink is made from a combination of coffee, rum, corn syrup, and vanilla bean, and has been known to add a kick to any cocktail (such as the aforementioned White Russian) and a great after-dinner sip.
Squash, from pumpkin to summer squash and so many more, is a fruit of the vine plant that originated in Central America. In fact, it might be as old as 350 million years when other flowering plants evolved. However, people probably didn’t start using squash until about 13,000 B.C. However, the original uses of squash, which tasted bitter and was even poisonous, was when people hollowed out and dried them, then used the squash as cups and bottles. It wasn’t until about 3000 B.C., after people bred the squash to be sweeter, that it became a food source and, eventually, the beloved pumpkin we love today.
19. Chewing Gum
Many ancient cultures enjoyed chewed gum-like substances, but modern chewing gum dates back to the 1860s and came from Mexico. This is when a substance called chicle was developed, which was originally imported from Mexico as a rubber substitute. It was tapped from a tropical evergreen tree in the same way that latex is tapped from a rubber tree. However, chicle gum soon became popular because it has a smoother, softer texture and also held its flavor longer than gums made with resins. Today, however, most gum is made with synthetic bases. Still, don’t forget that you can thank Mexico for that gym you love today!
One of the world’s most popular fish, the anchovy, comes from the seafood-heavy waters of Peru. However, today it has been named “the most heavily exploited fish in world history” by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. The UN estimates that catches from Peru and Chile sometimes total more than nine million tons per year, which is two to three times more than the U.S.’ catching of all fish species. Although the oily fish is regularly found in Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, as well as in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, Peruvian anchovies are largely regarded as the best.
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