No matter where you travel, the local flavors and dishes you encounter often hold a special place in a country’s history. But the history of some of the world's most popular foods may not always be what you think. Do English muffins really come from England? What are French fries actually called in France? Which countries have banned McDonald's? And what exactly do they eat in Antarctica? Read on for some of our favorite mind-blowing food facts from around the world.
The Pope Had to Give Permission to Allow Coffee in Europe
The history of coffee consumption dates back to around A.D. 850, with early writings pointing toward Ethiopia as the origin of the coffee plant. The beverage, which was brewed by boiling the leaves of the coffee plant, eventually made its way to Yemen and then Istanbul in 1555.
In the kitchens of the royal palace of Istanbul, a new method of coffee drinking was invented: roasting the beans over fire before grinding them into powder, and then boiling them slowly. The beverage became a staple of palace cuisine and eventually reached the public, where the stimulant became a popular beverage partially due to the ban on alcohol under Muslim rule.
By the 1600s, Venetian merchants returned home with the dark and exotic drink. However, the local clergy were less than welcoming to the new import, declaring it the “bitter invention of Satan.” The situation in Venice was so tense and riddled with controversy that the fate of coffee was brought to the attention of the Pope himself. In order to settle the matter, the most important cup of coffee in history was brewed and presented to Pope Clement VIII.
The Pope sampled the beverage, let it sit, and came to his verdict. With his blessing, coffee entered the Western world and spread throughout the rest of Europe. From the middle of the 17th century to the early 18th, coffee spread throughout Europe and eventually the Americas. Seedlings made long journeys by ship from Amsterdam to France, from France to Brazil, and from England to New York. Wherever they landed, the seedlings found open arms, fertile lands, and — most importantly — warm cups.
Ice Cream and Gelato Have Very Different Histories
Although the two frosty desserts might look similar, they have very different origin stories. Ice cream is older, with origins that date back to 600 C.E. The exact origins are unknown, but the earliest mention of a frozen dairy treat is from the Tang dynasty in China, whose emperors were especially fond of it. Since there was no refrigeration technology back then, ice cream was a delicacy that had to be prepared and eaten immediately — and only the elite could afford it.
Ice cream continued to gain popularity throughout history. The ancient Romans ate a flavored iced dessert. In the 16th century, the British came up with their own version of ice cream, and by the 18th century, the U.S. was working on perfecting the recipe as well. Thomas Jefferson even created his own recipe for vanilla ice cream that’s very similar to what we eat today.
Meanwhile, gelato was invented in Renaissance Italy around the 16th century. It started as just a flavoring that was used in drinks and other desserts. Later, a man named Bernardo Buontalenti invented egg cream gelato, which is very similar to modern gelato. Buontalenti served his creation to affluent Italian families, who sang its praises and made it a national hit. The first international gelato shop was opened in Paris in 1686, where it earned the same reputation that it had in Italy.
To make both ice cream and gelato, you must mix the same basic ingredients – dairy, sugar, and flavorings – before churning the ingredients together to add air. The major differences between the two are in the proportions and the texture.
Ice cream is churned faster, adding more air and giving it a whipped texture. Gelato is churned more slowly, so it comes out smoother with less air. Ice cream also has a higher percentage of cream and often includes egg yolks. There are some gelatos that have egg yolks, but they’re less common.
French Fries and Belgian Waffles Have Different Names in their Countries of Origin
Nope, they don’t call them “French fries” in France. If you want to be quite proper, you’d order “pommes de terre frites” (simply, “fried potatoes”). But few people are so formal about such a casual food, so it’s far more likely you’ll be ordering “pommes frites,” or “frites.”
It’s worth noting that the traditional fries in France are more like what Americans would call “steak fries.” They tend to be thicker wedges of potato, as opposed to the thin fast food fries we’re familiar with in the U.S., which are sometimes referred to as “aiguillettes” (little needles) or “allumettes” (matchsticks).
But French fries aren’t the only food that might appear under a different name on a menu abroad.
Belgian waffles are a popular breakfast staple around the world, but in their home country of Belgium, there are actually two varieties you might order: Brussels waffle or Liège waffle. While they look similar, there are distinct differences between the two.
"Gaufre de Bruxelles," or Brussels waffles, are leavened with either egg whites or yeast, cooked on a waffle iron, have a very light texture, and tend to have larger pockets and squared-off edges. These are the type of waffles you’ll see labeled as “Belgian waffles” on menus in the U.S.
Liège waffles (also called “gaufres de chasse” or “hunting waffles”) are still cooked on a waffle iron, but their edges may be more free-form or rounded. They are slightly denser and chewier than Brussels waffles and are often served with pearl sugar. They’re a popular street food in Belgium, and their name comes from the province they hail from, which isn’t far from the Netherlands border.
English Muffins Aren’t Technically From England
As an American breakfast staple, the English muffin has been around since the late 1800s. But despite the name — and the fact that they were created by an Englishman following an English recipe — the baked good was actually invented in New York City.
English muffins were the creation of Samuel Bath Thomas, whose name you might recognize from the packaging of the popular Thomas’ English muffins today. Samuel Bath Thomas left his home in Plymouth, England, in 1876 and ventured to the United States in search of new opportunities — taking a recipe for a new style of crumpet with him.
The crumpet is a traditional British treat similar to a small pancake. It’s baked only on one side, so the top remains soft and spongy. The recipe relies on baking soda to create air pockets in the batter, which add the signature “nooks and crannies” to the top of the crumpet.
Samuel Thomas’s idea was to take the original crumpet recipe, remove the baking soda, and cook the dough on a griddle instead of in an oven. The result was a pastry that was much drier and flatter than a regular crumpet. Since the air pockets were no longer on top, the “nooks and crannies” were instead located in the middle of the bread. Split the muffin in half, and it’s the perfect surface to hold jams, jellies, butter, or eggs.
In 1880, Thomas finally managed to open his own bakery in Manhattan and called his new invention a “toaster crumpet.” The product became very popular and attracted people from as far away as the Bronx and Queens. As popularity grew, he changed the name of the product to English muffins in 1894.
Despite the English muffin's name, the people of England didn’t even know they existed for over 100 years. The first English muffins arrived in England in the 1990s when Thomas’ was bought out by international conglomerate Unilever and the company began shipping the tasty breakfast treats all over the world. Ironically, English muffins in Europe are called American muffins, and they’re not very popular. The traditional crumpet still reigns supreme across the pond.
And Danishes Aren't Actually from Denmark
Americans know these laminated pastries — often filled with a decadent cheese or sticky, sweetened fruit — as Danishes. But in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, the sweet treats are actually part of a category of pastry referred to as wienerbrød (or wienerbröd), which means "Viennese bread." In fact, this style of baking isn’t Danish at all, but is actually derived from the Austrian style of baking referred to as “Viennoiserie.”
So why do we know these pastries as Danishes and not Viennese bread? It’s largely thanks to a bakers’ strike in Denmark, which put the pastry on the map. When bakery workers went on strike in 1850, they were replaced by workers from Vienna, who started making their traditional pastries and selling them in stores. The pastries quickly became so popular that Danish bakers learned how to make them when they returned from strike, adding their own customizations in the process.
Today in Denmark, there are a number of different variations on this classic pastry, including versions that are topped with jam or preserves, filled with custard, or augmented with marzipan. The version closest to what we call a Danish in the U.S. is referred to as “Kopenhagener Plunder,” which is a nod to Copenhagen.
The Spanish Aren't the Only Ones Who Enjoy a Long Lunch
The Spanish "siesta" is the envy of the lunch-eating world. Around 2 p.m., most businesses and even schools shut down for up to three hours to allow people to go home and eat lunch with their families. This meal is not a lunch by American standards. It’s typically several courses, including soup, salad, pasta, meat or seafood, and a dessert. Lunch is enjoyed and eaten slowly with your family.
After lunch, instead of trying to stay awake at their desks, Spanish people take a quick nap to sleep off their meal. Even workers who can’t make it home for siesta still make sure to find a nice shady place at the worksite to doze off for a while.
But the Spanish aren’t the only ones who enjoy a break in the day. The Italian "riposo" is very similar to a siesta but usually without the napping. Between 1 and 4 p.m., Italian businesses shut down to allow workers to take a few hours to enjoy the afternoon. For some, that means going home to spend time with family. Others read or watch TV to unwind during the hottest part of the day.
The tradition was started to benefit the community, and served as a time for people to take a break and share ideas with one another. They discussed problems and politics, shared knowledge and grew as a community before heading back to work.
Not Every Country Loves the Golden Arches
As one of the biggest restaurant chains in the world, with over 37,000 locations, McDonald's is pretty easy to find just about anywhere on the globe. However, this beloved fast-food chain is notably absent in several countries, for political, health, and economic reasons.
Bermuda, for instance, has banned foreign fast-food restaurants since the 1970s. Despite this ban, there was a McDonald’s built in Bermuda in 1985 – on the U.S. Naval Air Station located on the island. When the base closed in 1995, the McDonald’s left with it.
Iran was also home to a McDonald’s at one point, but the country began to distance itself from Western culture following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Tense relations in the decades since make the prospect for a new location unlikely. Should McDonald’s ever regain a foothold in Iran, however, they may find fierce competition. In their absence, an imitator chain known as Mash Donald’s has been selling burgers for years.
Like Iran, other countries, such as Cuba and North Korea, have barred the golden arches for political reasons. But health concerns have also stopped the franchise from gaining a foothold in some nations.
Government concerns about the impact of a McDonald’s franchise on the health of the population caused the closure of McDonald’s in Montenegro’s capital of Podgorica. The local media supported the departure of the country’s only McDonald’s location, favoring the opportunity for local restaurants to serve the community. However, government officials have refuted that claim, stating that “no company, not even McDonald’s, is ‘forbidden’ to do business in Montenegro.” Despite that lukewarm welcome, however, there are still no McDonald’s locations in the country.
In addition to health and political reasons, there are dozens of countries where the McDonald’s corporation has deemed the local economy or political environment too unstable to support a successful franchise. In fact, many economists consider the arrival of a McDonald’s franchise in a developing world an indicator of economic stability.
And Mexico Isn't a Fan of Taco Bell
Taco Bell, the Mexican-inspired restaurant chain, is a massively popular fast-food chain in the U.S., with over 7,072 restaurant locations. But despite being voted America’s favorite Mexican restaurant in 2018, Taco Bell has tried and failed to bring the eatery to the Mexican market twice since first opening its doors. The people of Mexico weren’t as keen on the Taco Bell brand as their neighbors to the north.
Tacos are, of course, a famously Mexican dish. What we call tacos today likely got their name from 18th century silver mines in Mexico when miners used to excavate ore “tacos.” Granted, tortillas filled with ingredients were probably eaten before that time, but, still, tacos are inherently an “authentic" Mexican staple.
With that in mind, it seemed almost sacrilegious for a company like Taco Bell — which was started by an American who first ran hot dog and hamburger stands — to try and bring its Americanized tacos to the country. But that’s exactly what happened in 1992, when the first Taco Ball opened as a food cart in Mexico City.
The chain had plans to open at another location in the city as well as in Tijuana soon after. Unfortunately, customers were quickly confused when the names of menu items didn’t line up with authentic Mexican counterparts. Taco Bell’s crunchy taco had to be renamed the “Tacostada” because it more closely resembled the Mexican tostada. Ultimately, the chain could not overcome a market that was averse to pseudo-Mexican food and left the country only two years later.
Taco Bell took another stab at opening in Mexico in 2007, but the same stumbling blocks stood in the way. Locals felt like Taco Bell tacos were inauthentic, even though the company rebranded with a clear message that Taco Bell wasn’t trying to be authentic Mexican food. The fast food chain went as far as to include fries and soft-serve ice cream on the menu to sell its Americanized image.
By 2010, Taco Bell once again closed all of its restaurants in Mexico due to low patronage.
And Finally, Eating in Antarctica Requires a Lot of Work
Antarctica is one of the most barren places on Earth, without a grocery store or restaurant in sight. And the cold conditions and extreme physical activity required to survive means that you have to ingest a lot more calories than you normally would sitting at home. In fact, the average person in Antarctica can burn around 4,200 calories per day. With all that work, you’re not going to survive on snow cones alone. So, what do they eat in Antarctica?
The first Antarctic expeditions in the early 20th century brought most of their food with them, including 1,600 pounds of York ham, 1,260 pounds of sardines, 1,470 pounds of tinned bacon, 408 pounds of ox tongue, and 384 pounds of sheep tongue. Salty meats were preferred because they could be preserved more easily. Eventually, early explorers were able to hunt and fish to feed themselves. Seals, penguins, and fish were plentiful, and they used the blubber to add some extra calories to their diets.
Today, the Antarctic Treaty prevents anyone visiting Antarctica to fish or hunt in order to preserve its unique environment. Luckily, modern advances allow for easier importing and storage of food, so hunting and fishing for survival are no longer necessary.
Since there are no permanent residents of Antarctica, visiting researchers live on bases. The bases have modern kitchens and chefs, and most of the food is shipped from the home country of the base, so the workers can enjoy recipes that they’re used to back home. Some even do theme nights to keep mealtime interesting.
Fruits and vegetables are rare since they’re harder to store. Some bases have hydroponic systems that can grow a small number of fresh vegetables and herbs, but many go months without having any fruits or vegetables at all. It becomes quite the delicacy when they do arrive.
In Antarctica, it’s not as simple as getting in the car and driving with the heat on. Traveling anywhere requires sledging, one of the hardest and most energy-consuming tasks for residents – sometimes taking days at a time. While meals in the bases are prepared by chefs, meals in the field are less enticing. Much of the food is dehydrated, so it’s lighter to carry and is high in fat to provide energy. For simple day trips, many Antarctic researchers just bring chocolate bars. They might not be the healthiest, but they provide lots of energy and, most importantly, they can be eaten frozen without much effort.