The Tale of the Tastes: Historical Origins of Your Favourite Meals

Do you know where your favorite dish comes from? Keep reading to find out the origins of 10 popular dishes from around the world.

Knowing the history and origins of our favourite things can improve our experience and appreciation. This goes for food as well. If you know why your favourite meal was created, where in the world it originated, and who the first people to eat it were, you may find that you are even more thankful for having it on your plate.

Few dishes have a completely straightforward history. Many came about due to exploration and immigration, and historians cannot always say for certain where a meal comes from, as some cuisines are very similar, and some ingredients may have been imported at some point in time.

So keep reading to find out the origins of ten popular dishes from around the world.

1. Hamburger

The origins of the hamburger are disputed. It is widely agreed that it was first created in the USA, which is not surprising considering that it is represents American cuisine around the world.

Dishes vaguely similar to the modern-day hamburger have been eaten throughout history, even as far back as the 13th century, by Genghis Khan’s horsemen in Mongolia. This dish evolved into steak tartare in Russia, which then became Hamburg steak in Germany.

It was in America that the stereotypical burger on a bun with pickles and condiments came about, at some point in the 19th century. There are three stories of origin that are often retold, hailing from Connecticut, Wisconsin and Ohio.

2. Wiener Schnitzel

wiener schnitzel

Wiener schnitzel is, as the name suggests, a dish that is native to Vienna, and is the Austrian national dish. Some historians believe that it originated in Italy, as it bears many similarities to an Italian dish called cotoletta alla Milanese.

Others believe that the dish came about quite organically in Vienna, as a result of cooks combining the ingredients available to them, such as pork fat and bread crumbs.

Traditionally this dish is made from a thin slice of veal that is crumbed and fried, and served with a slice of lemon, a sprig of parsley, and a side of fries. The term Wiener schnitzel is a protected term, and any dish sold under this name must be made from veal.

3. Spaghetti Bolognese

As Bolognese roughly translates to ‘from Bologna’, it will not surprise anyone to learn that the origins of this pasta dish with a meat sauce lie in the Italian city of Bologna.

The first recorded recipe for a Bolognese sauce was in the cookbook ‘The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well’ by a writer named Pellegrino Artusi. This book was published in 1891.

As with many classic dishes, the recipe for Bolognese has evolved throughout the years. The two main differences that can be seen now are that beef is used more often than veal, and that tomatoes are now regarded as an essential ingredient.

4. Goulash

The traditional Hungarian dish of goulash is a classic that is still eaten and loved today. The word goulash comes from the Hungarian gulyás, which means herdsmen. The beef stew was first cooked in the 9th century, by Magyar herdsmen. The recipe changed throughout the years, with the version most commonly eaten coming about in the 18th century, when paprika was added to the mix.

Although goulash was originally considered a typical peasant’s dish, it gained esteem in the 1800s, as part of a resurgence of Hungarian culture led by Stephen Szechenyi. Nowadays you will be able to find goulash at almost every restaurant in Hungary, and it is also popular in other central and eastern European countries.

5. Roast Dinner / Sunday Lunch


Roast dinners are ubiquitous anywhere you go in the UK, especially on a Sunday. Even now many families will sit down to a roast dinner every Sunday, and any good pub will be packed with hungry diners on a Sunday.

There are two theories about how Sunday dinners came about: one is that it originated in Yorkshire during the Industrial Revolution, the other has it dating back to a medieval practice where serfs were allowed a day of rest and a meal of spit-roasted meat on a Sunday.

It is definitely true that northern families during the Industrial Revolution would put a joint of meat in the oven before heading to church on a Sunday morning, so that it would be cooked perfectly when they wanted a meal later in the day. For many families, this joint would provide food to eat during the coming week, saving money and time in people’s busy lives.

6. Chow Mein

Chow mein is an Americanised version of a Chinese dish, which can be found at almost any Chinese restaurant. In Chinese, chow mein simply means fried noodles, so the term could apply to almost any fried dish involving noodles. It refers to something more specific in America and other western countries, though, and this dish came into being in America in the 19th century.

It is widely believed that chow mein has gained popularity in many countries, particularly America, due to its versatility, as well as the fact that is relatively unintimidating for people who are nervous about trying food from different countries.

7. Curry

Archaeologists have found artefacts in South Asia that suggest people were grinding spices to add to their cooking as far back as 2600 BC. Curry can refer to a number of different dishes, sauces, and cooking styles, depending on a variety of factors. At its most basic, a curry is a dish of meat or vegetables with a sauce that is richly spiced.

There is some disagreement about where the word curry comes from: it could be from a Tamil word for sauce, a Middle English word for cookery, or the term for an Indian cooking pot. The use of the word curry for every dish consisting of a spiced sauce began with traders in the 1600s, and in many places this has stuck until the present day.

8. Fajitas


Some people may consider fajitas to be part of traditional Mexican cuisine, but they would actually be better described as Tex-Mex, with their popularity first spiking in Texas rather than Mexico.

It is thought that ranch hands were eating something they called fajitas in the 1920s and 30s. This was a dish of grilled skirt steak, which was traditionally considered a sub-par cut of meat that would be better thrown away. Ranch hands would grill this meat over a camp fire.

It was in the 1960s that a man named Sonny Falcon set up a fajita stand at a Dies y Seis in a rural Texan town. Soon restaurants were serving fajitas, alongside flour tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, and grated cheese.

9. Macaroni and Cheese

Although pasta is often considered to be distinctly Italian, macaroni and cheese is an American dish through and through. Some urban legends will tell you that Thomas Jefferson invented the dish, although it is likely that he did not create it, though he may have popularised it in North America. When Thomas Jefferson first served it up in America in the 18th century, a somewhat similar dish was already being made in Europe.

Kraft introduced macaroni and cheese in a packet in 1937, which they marketed as Kraft Dinner or Kraft Mac n Cheese. This gained popularity during the Second World War, as milk and dairy were strictly rationed, and meat was not always readily available.

Also more women were working outside the home, leaving many people with less time to create filling and comforting evening meals for their families. As macaroni and cheese was considered by many to be a classic family dish, Kraft’s packaged version was a hit, and many people continue to eat it nowadays, viewing it as the perfect comfort food or a guilty pleasure.

In recent years there has been a trend in America for gourmet macaroni and cheese, with many restaurants serving versions using more luxurious ingredients such as a mixture of cheeses, wild mushrooms, bacon, lobster, spinach, and truffle oil.

10. Pizza


Pizza may be an Italian dish, but it is now enjoyed almost everywhere in the world. Pizza as we currently know it originated in Naples, which is still considered the home of pizza. As with many other dishes that are considered classics today, pizza was originally made by the poorer sections of society, and was considered a meal for peasants for some time.

Peasants in Naples began making pizza in the 16th century, and by the 17th century it had become impressively popular, with people travelling to Naples to sample this delicious meal. By the 19th century, stalls were setting up in the streets of Naples, selling pizza at all times of the day.

About the author


Reader, writer, blogger, part-timer, volunteer, all things to all men. I can usually be found wearing yellow clothes and drinking green tea. Some of my favourite things include waterfalls, polar bears, rum, and charity shops.

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