But in the UK, there's nothing remarkable about a Marmite sandwich, and in the Philippines, you can grab tasty baluts from street carts on every corner.
Given how strong a typical American reaction might be to these foods, it shouldn't surprise you that when folks from other countries come to the U.S. of A., they can be surprised—and grossed out—by all the foods dear old Mom used to make.
As an exercise in cultural hilarity, we asked a few non-U.S. citizens which American foods weird them out the most. Here are the dishes that they listed:
1. Biscuits and Gravy
Matt Hulland, who runs the website The Travel Blogs, is a Brit who lived in the U.S. for 4 years—plenty long enough to have some interesting food experiences. The first meal Hulland had a difficult time wrapping his head around was the classic Southern breakfast of biscuits and gravy.
“When you come from the UK, biscuits are something very different," Hulland tells FashionBeans. "They are sweet, like cookies, so the thought of putting them with something called sausage gravy (to this day I am still not sure what that is) brings an instant reflux action.”
Actually, American (and Canadian) biscuits are quite different from British biscuits. The British biscuit is often served with tea, naturally.
The residents of the United Kingdom do know the word "cookie," but they use it exclusively to refer to large, substantial cookies, especially of the chocolate chip variety.
Oh, and this isn't restricted to the British, by the way; other Commonwealth nations also refer to American cookies as "biscuits."
So, who's right? Well, "biscuit" comes from a French word meaning "twice cooked," referring to the original cooking process for savory breads, so it looks like the U.S. wins this time.
2. Chicken and Waffles
Hulland's not a big fan of the U.S. propensity for mixing the sweet and the savory, as evidenced by his disdain for chicken and waffles.
“Americans have this reputation of a sugar addiction, and turning a main course into a dessert does nothing to help it," Hulland says. "Why would you take a savoury treat such as fried chicken and smother it in gooey sweetness then whack it on some waffles? As if fried chicken isn't unhealthy enough."
Chicken and waffles might sound strange to the uninitiated, but a few bites is all it takes to convert most meat-eaters. This soul-food dish probably originated in multiple regions of the States at once, John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance and author of Fried Chicken: An American Story, told NPR.
"It's a Southern dish, but a Southern dish once or twice removed from the South," Edge said. "It's a dish popular among expatriate, African-American Southerners, a dish most popular among Southerners now living in urban areas, whether that be the urban South or the urban West, in the case of Los Angeles, or the urban North, in the case of New York."
There are two versions of the dish: one with fried chicken topped with butter and syrup, the other with stewed chicken topped with gravy. To most Americans, both sound delicious.
Despite Hulland’s trepidation, he did try both versions—and thoroughly enjoyed them. That's no surprise, if you ask us — how can you pass up another masterful blend of sweet and savory?
Grits—either you love them or you hate them, and those preferences usually fall on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. So what happens when a Canadian is confronted with a bowl of the buttery corn mush?
It took me forever to try it and once I did I was glad to never eat it again.
Maxim Nasab, a French Canadian who has been living in the American South, had a run in with grits, and the dish won.
"It took me forever to try it and once I did I was glad to never eat it again,” Nasab tells FashionBeans. “The texture of grits is just something I never want to experience willingly again. The look of it is also very unappetizing, it looks like the byproduct of something. I have heard that there are some good ones out there but I do not understand why it is so sought out for in the South."
The truth is, if you can get past the funky texture, grits are a very versatile and yummy dish. They're simply ground corn meal boiled with either water or milk. On their own, grits don’t have a strong flavor. That makes them the perfect base for whatever flavor profile you’d like to highlight. Add butter and berries and honey or brown sugar to grits for a sweet breakfast dish. Or you can go the savory route, with cheeses, broths, and different meats (as in the one-time it-dish, shrimp and grits).
However, if someone can’t get past and feeling of grits on the tongue, no amount of butter or cheese is likely to change their mind.
4. Peanut Butter and Jelly—in the Same Jar
Nasab arrived in the U.S. with plenty of experience eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But when he walked down the aisles of his first American grocery store, he encountered something he had never seen at home in Canada: peanut butter and jelly crammed together into the same jar.
It actually tasted like chemicals rather than food.
“PB&J combo sounded like a great idea when I first saw it in the store," Nasab says. "What a time saver!”
Upon reflection, though, Nasab realized that blending these two very different ingredients into one jar might not be such a great idea.
“The truth is these two products are not the same and do not belong in the same jar," Nasab says. But why?
"For one, they do not behave the same way in storage, which I am not sure how much preservatives they put in there to make it work," Nasab says. Plus, "The taste was just horrible," he adds.
"Like they used two products that looked like peanut butter and jelly and just dyed the colour to match," Nasab says. "It actually tasted like chemicals rather than food.”
Sure enough, Goober Grape PB&J Stripes list the preservatives potassium sorbate and sodium citrate, as well as (count them) three kinds of sugar, among their ingredients. So we're going to have to agree with the Canadian on this one. Make your sandwiches the old fashioned way—with separate jars of peanut butter and jelly.
5. Gator Sausage
There’s no shortage of variety in American regional cuisine, but the South may have everyone else beat when it comes to extreme foods.
Alligator meat as food is already weird enough for me but to see it processed and turned into sausage was probably a tad too much.
When Bino Chua, a Singapore-based travel blogger who writes for I Wander, was visiting New Orleans, one meat dish proved a bridge too far even for this adventurer.
“While I was looking forward to Southern specialties such as gumbo and jambalaya, I was thrown off to see Gator Sausages," Chua tells FashionBeans. "Alligator meat as food is already weird enough for me but to see it processed and turned into sausage was probably a tad too much. Needless to say, I stuck to the gumbo and jambalaya (which were fantastic!)"
Alligator meat isn’t terribly uncommon in the South. It has been steadily gaining popularity over the years, and is served like any other meat: fried, sauteed, thrown into gumbos and stews—or even made into a sausage. Many Louisianians don’t blink twice when ordering or eating alligator.
Guess what they say it tastes like? Yep. Chicken.
6. Miracle Whip
Some Americans assume that Miracle Whip is slightly flavored mayonnaise, but it's quite different. Its ingredients include high fructose corn syrup (which non-Americans often claim that they can taste), sugar, corn starch, dried eggs, mustard flour, paprika, soybean oil, vinegar, and egg yolk.
In any case, it's not especially popular outside of the United States, where it's a big-time comfort food.
7. Velveeta and American Cheese
American cheese: a classic for some and a nightmare to others. Look, it's true that this concoction isn’t quite cheese, not in a literal sense, but it’s still delicious in the right circumstances (nothing melts better for a burger or grilled cheese). Don't tell that to folks from abroad, though.
Ole Sandberg, from Iceland, feels very strongly about his cheeses, and he isn’t just upset by our Velveeta. Our other cheese options aren’t appealing to him either.
“I think most (not all) American cheese tastes like plastic and that they have misunderstood the concept of what cheese is," Sandberg explains to FashionBeans. "In the U.S. 'cheese' is basically just understood as a way to get fat."
We Americans are missing out on the true pleasures of cheese, Sandberg seems to think.
“Cheese is a fermented dairy product that requires time, skill and patience, in order to develop unique flavors," he sniffs. "In the U.S. all 'cheese' is the same. It has no flavor because they do not spend the time (time is money) to allow it to truly become cheese, it is merely coagulated dairy products. Then in order to give them some resemblance of character they add artificial coloring and artificial flavors.”
That makes some amount of sense if you disregard all of the other cheese available in American supermarkets. But perhaps Sandberg is just talking about Velveeta, which is basically a Frankenstein's monster of a dish created by adding special chemicals that weaken the caseins in cheese. It was invented by a Swiss immigrant named Emil Frey, who wanted to reuse "discarded" cheese pieces.
Frey tinkered with his formula on his home stove, eventually creating a cheese product with velvety consistency. That led to Velveeta, a cheese product with a squishy, flexible surface. Kraft bought Frey's company, made a few tweaks, and a legend was born.
If you don't grow up with it, the texture of a cheese food (such as Velveeta or American cheese) can be quite strange.
But just because Americans love a crock pot full of molten Velveeta doesn't mean we're total philistines when it comes to cheese. Even in 2012, there were more than 800 artisan cheese producers in the United States, and they pumped out more than 300 varieties of natural cheeses—so even Sandberg can find a cheese to love in today's U.S. market.
8. Root Beer
You might not think a soda could elicit any kind of strong response—but then there’s root beer. Certain people cannot stand this drink, and they aren’t afraid to describe its terribleness in great detail.
Icelander Guðmundur Þór Jónsson has tried American root beer, and it hasn’t been good to him.
“For me it tastes like those cheap hard and dry gums that included stickers and/or [temporary tattoos,]” says Jónsson. “Still I keep buying it and hope that it tastes different than before. So far I only found one root beer that I've liked, and that is made in UK.”
While some foreigners love it, many seem to believe that root beer is some sort of a sick joke that Americans perform on their naive out-of-town friends. Some even claim that it tastes like mouthwash.
Oddly enough, there's a potential explanation for that one: Some root beers contain mint, which is also a common ingredient in mouthwashes. The "root" in root beer can come from sarsaparilla, licorice, wintergreen, black cherry, or a number of other sources, but all of these tend to be somewhat minty and strong. It makes sense that someone who's never tasted those flavors in a sweet drink might not appreciate the experience.
Now we can't wait to schedule our trip to Iceland to try the súrir hrútspungar! Don't ask.