What does ‘American Food’ say to you? Pumpkin pie, a 25-layer baconator and bucket-sized sodas?
In reality the rich landscapes and colonial past of America produce a variety of food styles, with Spanish, Mexican, Cuban, Caribbean, Scandinavian and Jewish influences, plus more.
Both Creole and Cajun seafood are French-influenced with a nod to Spain and Africa, reflecting the region’s history. Look for Creole food in places such as New Orleans or Louisiana and Cajun in bayou country.
Gumbo is a signature dish of both cuisines; Creole Gumbo uses tomato in the base while Cajun has a roux base and is more like a stew.
Another trademark dish is fried catfish, usually rolled in seasoned cornmeal and fried in peanut oil. It’s best served crisp and piping hot with coleslaw and fries.
For authentic Southern prawn dishes, don’t go past a shrimp Po’ Boy – a fried seafood sub sandwich with mayo on a crusty French stick. Variations include fried oysters, smoked alligator, fried chicken or beef barbecue.
New Orleans’ official cocktail, found at the Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel, is the Sazerac, made with rye whiskey, bitters and absinthe. Sip it in an Old-Fashioned glass for a taste of the real South.
Further north, try Maine Lobster rolls – a toasted, buttered roll stuffed with local lobster meat and served with French fries.
Cold-water seafood is also first-rate in Boston. Try clam chowder with a Bloody Mary, or one of the city’s excellent raw bars (cold cooked seafood and oysters).
Authentic American Indian cuisine focuses on ‘pre-colonisation’ – using ingredients and techniques that were available before European settlement. There is no mass-produced white flour, processed sugar, dairy or farmed meats, and many of the ingredients are ‘foraged’ – gathered and hunted from the forests, fields and lakes of America.
The minimalistic style of cooking is often based on plant-based, simple dishes. The ‘three sisters’ (corn, squash and beans) feature, as do game meats like buffalo and rack of rabbit, or fish and seafood.
There are not many restaurants serving this food as yet but try Kai in Arizona for a fusion of Native American and French styles, or the Fry Bread House or Heard Museum in Phoenix.
While there are many Jewish styles, the New York deli menu is one of the most famous. Try a traditional corned beef on rye, lox and cream cheese on a bagel or a Reuben for the experience.
Or chopped herring, matzo ball soup, smoked brisket of beef or babke cakes rich with eggs and poppyseeds.
In New York there’s the famous Katz’s Deli – somewhat touristy since featuring in ‘When Harry Met Sally’ but still worth it for the pastrami and brown mustard on rye or the hot dogs.
Barney Greengrass is said to serve the best lox on bagels, while the full-sour kosher dill pickles and matzo soup at Second Avenue Deli are delicious!
Forget fast food chain tacos! Mamacita in San Francisco serves traditional ceviches, enchiladas and tacos, made fresh every day and often supplied from their family farm.
For gourmet dishes enriched with complex chilli-infused Mexican spices, try Hugo's in Houston. The setting is a beautiful 1920s building with pressed-tin ceilings and leadlight windows.
The dinner menu features adventurous modern Mexican dishes such as lechón (braised tender suckling pig and habanero salsa rolled into tortillas), mejillones y almejas (grill-popped mussels and clams, crab, shallot and nixtamal) or makkum (Yucatan fish stew with tomato, potato, fennel and spices).
At Topolobampo in Chicago, owner-chef Rick Bayless offers enticing starters such as fresh masa tortillas with organic cheddar, and sliced wild mushrooms, onion and huitlacoche with tomatillo salsa.
From the ‘Soulful’ main menu comes crispy-skinned Arctic char, with ancho-porcini broth, roasted chayote and gold potatoes. Desserts include Mexican chocolate cake, eggnog mousse or cajeta crepes with chocolate and plantain.
Traditional Cuban food is rich and delicious, mainly Spanish with some Caribbean and local produce influences.
Try grilled corn on the cob with cheese, chilli and lime. Croquetas are savoury deep-fried ham and cheese balls. Moros y cristianos (white rice and black beans) is a staple, as are fried sweet or savoury plantains (a variety of banana).
Traditional Cuban paella is very similar to the Spanish dish. There is also arroz con pollo, a version with chicken only.
With recent changes in the relationship between Cuba and the United States, it’s much easier to visit Cuba. However, if it’s not on the itinerary, then Miami is famous for its Cuban cuisine.
Try Versailles Cuban Restaurant for corn tamales stuffed with lean pork and served with garlic sauce and onions, Cuban-style ground beef or their sampler platter of ham croquettes, stuffed and fried yucca served with garlic, and tamal y masas de puerco (fried pieces of pork).
Havana 1957 in South Beach features ropa viejo (a traditional dish of spiced beef with vegetables), chilindron de chivo (goat stew with red wine sauce, craft beer, carrots, red and green peppers, onion and potatoes) and a delicious Cuban flan or guava cheesecake for dessert.