How Immigrants Shape American Food Culture
Immigrants have been instrumental in helping to build, shape and define America. And because we all eat, and hand down our recipes and traditions from generation to generation, they’ve also influenced the country’s food culture. Immigrant chefs and cooks—in famous restaurants or family kitchens—affect our palette and our pantries, including the foods we eat, recipes we make, favorite meals, and common practices.
Many of these influences are reflected regionally, for example, African American ancestors’ impact on what’s come to be known as “Southern cooking,” or the pockets of Scandinavian influences in the Upper Midwest, or the effect of Mexican migration that’s created “Tex-Mex,” and so on. Scroll down this page for more on Immigrant Americans & Food Culture. (And, please, feel free to comment and suggest other resources we might include here!)
Restaurants and pop-up dinners led by immigrants and asylees cook up cutting-edge cuisine with a side of cross-cultural connection. (AFAR, Dec 6, 2018)
Each new wave of immigrants has exposed us to new foods, cultures, and foodways, creating, ultimately, a new mainstream American cuisine. (Boston Globe, Jun 26, 2018)
South Philly’s Cristina Martinez has been earning acclaim for her restaurant Barbacoa and for her work on immigrant rights. (UnivisionNews Apr 3, 2018)
Vogue writes about cookbook editor Leyla Moushabeck of Interlink Publishing and her “mission to bridge divides by showing Americans that differences are to be celebrated.” (Dec 16, 2017)
What Abdulraheem and other refugee chefs bring when they come to America has implications beyond the kitchen. (The Washington Post, Dec 7, 2017)
… According to America’s most knowledgeable writer on the subject of Mexican food, Bill Esparza. (Food & Wine Oct 26, 2017)
Here are some of the ways U.S. immigrants make America delicious. Top contributions to America’s culinary scene by refugees, ex-pats, and immigrants, including paella, perogies, and much more. (Upworthy, Feb 23, 2017)
Two French entrepreneurs are using food to try to change perceptions of immigrants with the first Refugee Food Festival, which focuses on different fare and a counternarrative. (The New York Times, Jul 5, 2016)
A first-generation Korean-American writes in ideas.ted.com on food as the single great unifier across cultures… as humanity, community, identity, and more. (Dec 18, 2014)
In this story in the Oxford University Press blog, immigrants are a major driver, via street food carts, ethnic markets, restaurants, and breweries. (Oct 7, 2016)
by Leyla Moushabeck, Interlink Publishing © 2017
This features a diverse bounty of recipes by immigrant chefs from around the world—from the publisher of the award-winning, humanitarian cookbook Soup for Syria.
by Barbara Abdeni Massaad, Interlink Publishing © 2015
Acclaimed chefs and cookbook authors the world over have come together to help food relief efforts to alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees.
by Jane Ziegelman, Harper Paperbacks © 2011
Through the lives and culinary habits of five families of different ethnicities living in one Lower East Side tenement, 97 Orchard demonstrates how immigrant food became American food.
by Lou Sackett and David Haynes, Pearson © 2011
A comprehensive overview, with recipes and information on the culture, products, and cuisine of 15 culinary regions and the micro-cuisines that exist within each region.
by Hasia R. Diner, Harvard University Press © 2001
NYU’s Professor of American Jewish History explores similarities and differences—as well as the eating habits and influences—of Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants in the early 1900s.
by Donna R. Gabaccia, Harvard University Press © 1998
Here’s a complex and entertaining tale of our multicultural culinary tradition and how ethnicity has influenced the direction of the American cultural mainstream.
Linda Keller Brown and Kay Mussell, University of Tennessee Press © 1984
Essays exploring food (preparation, ethnic customs, festivals, etc.) and how it helps define minorities, sustaining group identity and often helping to bridge inter-group barriers.
From the podcast Food: A Cultural Culinary History, by The Great Courses, this explores how American eating has been shaped by immigrants, particularly Italians, Jews, and Mexicans.
Here’s the full report from a 2015 conference at American University by Johanna Mendelson Forman, AU scholar and creator of the Conflict Cuisine® course of study.
Siracha hot sauce, of course… and many more you wouldn’t expect. Posted Mar 1, 2017 on SpoonUniversity.com, a food community/online publication.
#3—Foreign Cultures Have Left Their Mark on American Cuisine: ...There isn’t a corner of the U.S. that isn’t known for food traditions that came from somewhere else.” (Listosaur.com Jun 17, 2015)
This wikipedia page is devoted to American cuisine and its diversity, “owing to the vastness of the continent, the relatively large population, and the number of native and immigrant influences.”
This immigrant resource website outlines historical waves of immigrants to the U.S., popular foods, and how food allows these groups to maintain a sense of identity and cohesion.
José Andrés Born and educated in Spain • came to the US in 1991 and by 2003 earned his first James Beard Award • a grandly accomplished chef, cookbook author, TV personality, and restaurateur, noted for creating the popularity of tapas (small plates) in the US • established his non-profit World Central Kitchen to feed millions in disaster zones and difficult situations • nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize
Cristina Martinez Undocumented Mexican chef-owner of Barbacoa in South Philadelphia (“Queen of BBQ”) • with husband and restaurant co-owner Ben Miller, advocate for immigrant rights and reform, especially a voice for undocumented restaurant workers • Barbacoa, #6 on the Bon Appétit Hot 10 list of America’s Best New Restaurants in 2016
Ceclia Chang Born near Shanghai to an aristocratic family; later escaped during the Communist Revolution of 1949 • came to the business later in life, at age 40, but turned the ground-breaking Mandarin restaurant into San Francisco legend • a James Beard Lifetime Achievement award winner • Per Alice Waters, Chiang did for Chinese cuisine what Julia Child did for French cuisine
Giada De Laurentiis
Italian-born American chef, writer and TV personality who immigrated at age 7 • studied at Le Cordon Bleu • worked the LA restaurant scene, where she tutored under Wolfgang Puck at Spago
Chef, food writer and TV personality • born in China to a restaurateur father and grocer mother • spent 30 years mastering Cantonese cooking before immigrating to Canada and then studying food science at UC Davis
Award-winning restaurateur and cookbook author, left Ethiopia as a refugee, adopted by a Swedish couple • learned to love cooking from his chef grandmother, then studied at the Culinary Institute in Sweden before apprenticing in Switzerland and Austria • immigrated to the U.S. in 1994 and in 1995 received his first 3-star rating from the New York Times (the youngest chef to receive the honor, at 23)
Born in South Korea, came to the U.S. as a 2-year-old and learned to cook in his parents’ restaurant • attended culinary school and, after working his way up as chef for Hilton, launched a food truck business and became famous as brand Kogi for his fusion of Korean and Mexican flavors • has teamed with other chefs to give back by providing healthier, affordable versions of fast food in low-income neighborhoods.
Michelin-star restaurateur born in 1969 in Cairo, Egypt• parents brought him to America in the early 1970s • working in kitchens by age 14 • attended Culinary Institute of America • founder of a restaurant management company that operates 40+ restaurants worldwide
Chef, journalist, TV personality • Started in his mom’s kitchen in Austria, studied culinary arts in Austria and later apprenticed in France • immigrated to America at age 24, helped lead the Alice Waters California Cuisine movement (international dishes made from fresh, local ingredients), opened Spago and, from there, practically too many other restaurants to count • his Foundation works to raise money for Meals on Wheels
And, remember the back-of-house! Like many of these icons before them, a profusion of new immigrants are now toiling as back-of-house staff in restaurants across the country. It’s the launching point for many an American dream.
See also our Fact Sheets for Notable People