If you’re craving cuisine that is half a world away, Houston is the perfect place to live. Just about every type of food can be found down one road or another in this city, especially in the diverse streets of the Heights. But what makes food different, or surprisingly similar, culture to culture?
As far as cooking techniques go, there are minor differences. “Vary the ingredients and spices, you can pretty much cook anything,” said Celeste Terrell, owner of Well Done Cooking Classes off Airline Drive.
The use of certain spices tends to depend on the climate of the area. For example, Terrell said that the hotter the climate the more likely that culture uses spicier ingredients. This is to take advantage of the natural cooling system in the body. When you eat spicy food, you sweat more, which is cooling on a hot day.
But some spices will be found to be used just about in every type of cuisine. “After salt and pepper, coriander and cumin are going to be found in more cuisines than not,” Terrell said.
Ingredients that some cultures gravitate toward more than others has a lot to do with climate and terrain. “[Americans] only consume about 2 percent of lamb, the rest of the world eats a lot,” Terrell said. This is because our terrain allows us to raise more cattle, letting us go straight to the big guys for a food source.
Here are some ingredients that are most common by cuisine: Americans, no surprise by anyone living in Texas, most commonly use butter. The Greeks, Italians, and Moroccans grab most often for the olive oil, while South Americans use garlic.
By animal ingredients in recipes the Irish use the most bacon, Vietnamese use the most beef, Thai the most chicken, Southern/soul food the most ham, Middle eastern the most lamb, Chinese the most pork, and the Southwestern region utilizes turkey the most.
Americans take good food and try to make it better, and it’s been most successful with the cheeseburger. The other most popular food in America is the classic chocolate chip cookie. Mexico is known for their mole: ancient sauce made of chili peppers, spices, chocolate, and more, as well as their tamales, which are an ancient Mayan food traditionally of masa cooked in a leaf wrapping.
Popular in Thailand is the the massaman curry, a Thai curry with Islamic roots. In Greece it’s the traditional gyro. In India dosa, a pancake filled with cheese or spicy vegetables is a common lunch or dinner choice. In France the escargot, in China the sweet and sour pork, and in Italy ragu alla bolohnese are all go-to choices.
In America there’s a little bit of everything and sometimes foreign cuisines mix it up with Americanized flavors. Terrell mentioned the Vietnamese phenomenon happening in Houston right now. Pho shops are popping up left and right and some are offering pho with a Cajun flavor: crawfish pho.
Terrell also talked about changes made in cuisine when a culture migrated to America, such as the French cooking base of onion, carrots, and celery. When the French landed in Louisiana they found that carrots were difficult to harvest there, so they switched the carrots with bell peppers. Now, it’s more of a Cajun base.
Luckily, Houston has a melting pot of cuisine that grant us the ability to have a wider palate. Yet, what are America’s tastiest offerings? According to CNN, America’s must haves are buttered popcorn, ketchup, and donuts. Saunter up to any barbecue pit to challenge that list.