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What Americans Know About Foreign Food

Survey of American Stereotypes About Foreign Food

Many cultures are broadly stereotyped when it comes to the food they eat… or the food we think they eat… or the food we eat that’s supposed to represent the food they eat. In any case, there’s a lot of confusion! To sort this all out and find out who knows what, we asked 1,000 Americans to tell us what food they associate with 25 different countries. Then we matched up their answers with reality.

The two highest grades went to Ireland and Germany, where responders correctly matched the top main dishes. Even though 21 percent said “potatoes” for Irish cuisine, perhaps that speaks more to historical rather than culinary associations. Japan earned a strong A grade because the two main dishes—ramen and sushi—made up 73 percent of the responses.

Other countries where Americans correctly identified the main food are two of our closest neighbors: Canada and Cuba. Proximity and familiarity earned these two countries solid As. Though Mexico, another neighbor, earned a sad D grade because of our lack of imagination beyond “tacos”.

Given the data, an American traveling in China might be surprised to see that what they know as Chinese food is a far cry from the nuanced and varied cuisines of authentic Chinese tables. Yes, rice is featured heavily in Chinese cooking, but not to the degree that Americans seem to assume. None of the top four staple meals of the Chinese diet were cited by Americans, including Peking duck and egg drop soup. Instead, responders offered variations of the take-out menu: fried rice, dumplings, egg rolls, and noodles.

Other Asian cuisines, like Thailand and South Korea, had moderately better outcomes. Americans named the top two or three main dishes from each respective country but struggled beyond that. Vietnamese food, however, appears to be one-note for Americans. After pho, responders site generic Asian ingredients: noodles, rice, etc.

Middle Eastern countries did not fare very well, either. Egypt (D), Iran (D-), India (D+) had one or less main dish match, though those dishes were vague and generic. European countries were middling with B and C grades, based on a handful of classic dishes from each region. Sadly, France, one of America’s oldest allies, earned an F. Despite knowing French ingredients or words for food, Americans couldn’t name one main dish. We could chalk it up to a language barrier but it’s still a poor showing.

While mostly harmless, these culinary stereotypes can also be helpful. It’s no coincidence that Italian restaurants typically have the same red-checkered tablecloth and map of Italy printed on their pizza boxes—customers expect good pasta and pizza from a place that resembles their ideas of Italian food.