This is a basic guide to popular American cuisine, its regional variations, well-known dishes and the worldwide influences that have helped to inspire it.
Pictured above, a steakhouse favorite: Surf & Turf
Defining American cuisine is easier said than done as it’s often a blend of the many cuisines brought to the country’s shores by immigrants from around the world.
As immigrants from other countries settled throughout America, they applied the cooking traditions of their homelands to locally available ingredients and this gave rise to the country’s regional cuisines.
While just about any part of the United States will have its steak houses, seafood restaurants, sandwich shops, pizza parlors and casual bar and grill establishments, distinct cuisine styles can be noted from region to region.
10 American Regional Cuisines
1. New England Cuisine
New England is well known for its top quality seafood. Lobster, clams, scallops, oysters, cod, swordfish and flounder abound. Traditional New England preparations are simple and focus on enhancing the fresh seafood flavor without elaborate sauces or pungent seasonings. Cranberries, blueberries and pure maple syrup are native to the area and are frequently worked into regional New England fare.
2. Mid-Atlantic Cuisine
The states in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States are fortunate to have both fertile farmlands and plentiful fish and seafood. Chesapeake Bay oysters, Maryland crabs and Dover sole are known for their superior quality. Virginia hams are said to be the best in the country, and the summer season yields plentiful crops of Jersey beefsteak tomatoes and butter-and-sugar corn. Like New England, the traditional cuisine of the mid-Atlantic states is simple and focused on the pure, fresh flavor of the ingredients.
3. Southern Cuisine
The cuisine of the southern United States is truly representative of the hospitality you’ll find in the region. Fried chicken, catfish, cornbread, biscuits, collard greens, sweet tea, pecans and bourbon are just a few of the comfort foods that you can expect to find in the area. Traditional southern meals are rich, satisfying and reflect the diverse background of the people who live there.
4. Florida Cuisine
Travel a little further south to Florida and you’ll find the influences of Latin America and the Caribbean in a cuisine called Floribbean. Florida fresh citrus is used along with chiles and spices to ramp up the flavors of seafood, poultry and meat. Favorites of Florida chefs are the fresh grouper, snapper and shrimp that are native to the Gulf of Mexico, and the oysters from Apalachicola Bay rank high amongst oyster aficionados.
5. Gulf Coast Cuisine
The Gulf states are home to both Creole and Cajun cuisine. Creole cuisine originated in Louisiana and blends aspects of French, African, Spanish and Caribbean cooking. Creole and Cajun dishes are easy to confuse because both cuisines commonly use the same local ingredients. These include shrimp and crawfish, parsley, bay leaves, cayenne pepper and a flavor base sometimes called the “holy trinity:” onion, bell pepper and celery. Although the ingredients are similar, Creole and Cajun cuisine differ in terms of cooking styles: Cajun cuisine incorporates rustic cooking methods, while Creole cuisine is steeped in French culinary techniques and tradition.
6. Midwest Cuisine
The cuisine of America’s heartland finds its roots in the German, Swedish, Scandinavian and Hungarian immigrants who originally settled there. Famed for its quality dairy products, the use of milk, eggs, cheese and butter is common. Sausages, stews, soups and breads are mainstays of the midwestern meal. Spices are used in a subtle fashion and the unique flavors of dill, nutmeg and allspice give regional dishes a distinctive flair.
7. Southwest Cuisine
Head south to the border and Tex-Mex cuisine becomes common fare. Meat, beans, tortillas and spice are the chief components of this style of cooking. Chili con carne, crunchy tacos, nachos and fajitas are all Tex-Mex creations. Southwestern cuisine finds its roots in the cuisines of Mexico, Spain and the Native Americans. It makes use of fresh cilantro, a variety of chiles, lime juice, onions, tomatoes, cumin, Mexican oregano and coriander. Rubs and marinades are frequently used on beef, chicken and pork before grilling, and tamales and corn tortillas find their way into the culinary creations of the region.
8. California Cuisine
California-style cuisine is generally considered to be synonymous with culinary innovation. The state’s original Spanish settlers, its Mexican neighbors and Asian immigrant population all have influenced the food of the region. However, true California cuisine focuses on the freshness of the plethora of ingredients available in this agriculturally rich state. Avocados, peaches, plums, oranges, lemons, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, artichokes, figs, fresh herbs, olives and grapes, in addition to the fine wines and abundant fresh seafood, make California a veritable culinary paradise and the nature of its cuisine a vast spectrum.
9. Pacific Northwest Cuisine
Like California, the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest is diverse and creative. Quality seafood is available in ample supply, the vineyards are plentiful and many say the area has become home to some of America’s most talented chefs. European, Asian and Latino cuisines all have influenced the food of the region. The area’s wild-caught salmon and cultivated oysters have a well earned reputation for quality. Cherries, pears, apples and apricots are grown locally and fresh mushroom varieties like morels and chanterelles find their way into the local cuisine as well.
10. Hawaiian Cuisine
Last but far from least, we leave the US mainland for Hawaii. Luau fare like kalua pig, poi, lau lau and lomi lomi salmon originate from the Polynesian influence on the islands. Today’s Hawaiian cuisine, however, draws from a number of other ethnic backgrounds. The foods of the Philippines, Japan, China and mainland America inspire the creative talents of modern Hawaiian chefs to prepare the bountiful fish, seafood and produce of the islands in unique and definitive ways.