10 Foods the Americas Gave to the World

Tomatoes in Italy, vanilla in France, potatoes in Ireland—these foods may seem indigenous to each country, but, in fact, these ingredients (among many others) are from the Americas. North, Central, and South America are home to many foods we may associate with cuisines from around the world, and thus, the entire culinary landscape of the planet would be completely different if it wasn't for these native American foods.

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    In addition to avocado toast and guacamole, we are used to seeing this fruit in Asian-American cuisine such as sushi, but it is also used in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia as an ingredient for desserts, and in Ethiopia as part of a spris, or layered fruit juice.

    As you may have suspected, though, this pear-shaped fruit is from a tree that is native to Mexico and Central America. There is evidence it has been cultivated in Central America since 5,000 BC. The Mayans believed the avocado had magical powers and was an aphrodisiac. Perhaps due to its appearance, the Aztecs named the fruit "ahuacat," which means "testicle."

    Avocado's amazing silky texture is due to its high-fat content of over 20% (but it is the beneficial mono-unsaturated type). Sailors used to call avocados "butter pears" and actually used the flesh as one would use butter. In the U.S., California is the largest producer of avocados. While there are many varieties grown, the most popular is the "Hass" variety.

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    Chili Pepper

    Photo © Flickr user flattop341

    Chili peppers, both hot and sweet, are a common ingredient in almost every major cuisine worldwide; it's especially hard to imagine Asian cuisine without them. The origin of the chili pepper began in the Americas over 10,000 years ago. Peppers were clearly one of the first crops grown by the Native Americans; from Peru up to New Mexico, these prehistoric people grew chili peppers for both culinary and medicinal benefits.

    Christopher Columbus is credited with naming them "peppers" because he thought they tasted like an Asian spice (the peppercorn variety). After being brought back to Europe they quickly spread around the globe, especially thriving in the tropics. From Mexican salsa to Thai curries to Italian fra diavolo to Buffalo chicken wings, there are thousands of recipes throughout the world that use chili peppers for flavor and to add spice.

  • 03 of 10


    Photo © Flickr user EverJean

    It is hard to imagine a world without chocolate and all of its delicious forms, from Belgian chocolate bars to German chocolate cakes to French hot chocolate. This list would make you think the sweet was born in Europe, while, in fact, its origins are in the Americas.

    Cacao has been grown for over 3,000 years in Central America and Mexico and is produced from the seeds of the cacao tree, which is native to South America. The Maya and Aztec cultures both used the cacao beans, but it was not the sweet treat we think of today. It was fermented and made into a drink that was often flavored with chili peppers as well. Our modern chocolate is made from cocoa, which is produced from the roasted, and ground, cacao beans.

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    Corn (Maize)

    Photo © Flickr user WayTru

    Corn makes its way into many recipes in Africa, including koki (their version of a tamale), is the basis to Italy's creamy polenta, and is called tōmorokoshi in Japan, where it is basted with soy sauce and grilled. As we know, it is also an American staple, from on the cob to in the can. Before the Pilgrims discovered it in Truro, MA, on Cape Cod, it was a thriving crop in Mexico.

    Over 5,000 years ago, Native Americans were cultivating "maize" in what is now Mexico. The term "corn" was actually a generic English word for any granular particle, most often used when referring to other cereal grains. The early English settlers called the Native tribe's staple crop "Indian grain," then, "Indian corn" which was later shortened to just "corn." Corn was vital in the survival of the first European settlers, as it produces much more grain from an acre of land than any other crop, and can be eaten fresh and stored for long periods when dry.

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    Photo © Flickr user tamakisono

    Although we may associate this fruit with the Caribbean Islands, Thailand's national dish, "Som Tam," is a sweet and spicy salad made from unripe, green papaya. This fruit was originally cultivated in tropical America thousands of years ago, but it has made its way all across the globe. 

    If you think you have never tried papaya, you may have to think again. An enzyme called papain, which is extracted from papaya, is the most common ingredient in tenderizing meat rubs. So, without even knowing it, you have been seasoning you're T-bone with papaya!

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    Photo © Flickr user laffy4k

    There is evidence that peanuts were domesticated in South America over 7,00 years ago. Today, China is the world's largest producer of peanuts. It was brought to China by the Portuguese in the 1600s and became a very popular addition to many dishes, as anyone who frequents Chinese restaurant knows. These nuts are also used in African cooking and are often referred to as "groundnuts."

    To a cook, a peanut is certainly a nut, but to a botanist, it's technically a "woody, indehiscent legume," meaning it is really a bean.

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    Photo © Flickr user visualdensity

    Although we may associate Hawaii with the birthplace of the pineapple, the fruit didn't actually arrive in the 50th state until 1770 ​and wasn't commercially produced until the 1880s. It was Christopher Columbus who discovered the pineapple on the island of Guadeloupe in 1493, but the fruit had been growing in South American for years prior.

    The word "pineapple" was originally an old European term for what's now called pinecones. When the explorers discovered this fruit in the American tropics, they called them "pineapples" because they thought they looked very similar. 

    Today, pineapple is seen in Chinese cuisine, featured in Australian recipes, is even an ingredient in cakes in Poland, and, of course, is a favorite American fruit.

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    Photo © Flickr user maesejose

    When we hear potato we may instantly think of Ireland, but this starchy tuber's origins are traced back to the prehistoric mountains of Argentina. It eventually migrated up through all the Americas and was taken back to Europe where it found many homes, Ireland being the most famous.

    While there were originally only a handful of varieties cultivated, today there are over 5,000. Interestingly, the commercial varieties that Americans currently enjoy were actually developed in Europe.

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  • 09 of 10


    Photo © Flickr user visualdensity

    You would think a tomato's origin is based in Italy since so many of the country's dishes include the bright red fruit. Although the exact dates and location of the first tomatoes are still debated, most sources agree the tomato is indigenous to South America. The Mayans were the first people we know who cooked with the tomato; it was then spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world via the Spanish explorers.

    It took a while for the tomato to become accepted as a food in colonial America, where many held on to the old belief that the plant was poisonous, as it is part of the deadly nightshade family of plants. They were commonly grown as ornamental plants for their bright fruits and dark green foliage. Luckily, the tomato was eventually brought into people's kitchens and became a big component in American cuisine.

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    Photo © Flickr user joyosity

    Vanilla, originating in Mexico, is produced from the long, thin pods of an orchid plant. The name is derived from the Spanish term for "little pod." The French fell in love with the vanilla bean and planted it in their tropical colonies, such as Madagascar, where most of the world's vanilla beans are now grown, along with Tahiti. The Aztecs considered vanilla an aphrodisiac, and that reputation has survived to this day. Vanilla is now the most widely used flavoring across the globe.