There is no question that the military has had an undeniable impact on foods around the world. The occupation of foreign lands, whether through brute force or colonialism, has meant an inevitable introduction of foreign food ingredients. In fact, many iconic dishes that we consider as unique specialties are actually amalgamations of different cultural influences. For example, paella and pasta were made possible because of Africa, a fact that has been long forgotten through history.
Here are five dishes that arrived because of military influences and the story behind them.
The paella is an iconic Spanish dish, but it is less known that it was conceived with the help of servants of the Moorish empire who had occupied Spain in 711 AD to 1492 AD. The servants would take home the leftovers of the Moorish banquet, combine it with rice and saffron (all Moor introductions), and cook it over an open fire. It is believed that the word paella is derived from the Arab word baqiyah, which means leftovers.
During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, bento boxes with deep-fried pork chops became a regular part of what could be bought at train stations. Called ekiben, these meals were already staples of Japanese railway culture and quickly made their way into Japan’s respective territories. Today, this dish can still be bought at train stations across Taiwan and is considered an iconic part of the island’s culinary culture.
Records say that durum wheat was brought over to Italy by the Carthaginians (who were located in modern-day Tunisia) in the 8th century, which was significant because unlike fresh pasta, durum could be dried hard. This long shelf-life led to the flourish of pasta factories, which allowed for the mass expansion of the dish all over Italy and eventually the world.
The banh mi is an internationally-recognized icon of Vietnam but also a classic symbol of French colonialism. In the 17th century, the French arrived in Vietnam as missionaries but eventually established colonial control of the country in 1887. Naturally, they brought the baguette and by the 1950s, the Vietnamese were making their own versions, stuffing in cilantro, pickled veggies and meat. Maggi sauce is another essential component, which was also introduced by the French.
While spam — a six-ingredient lump of meat — was invented before World War II, it was really the war that solidified the product’s position in American history. The U.S. military ordered 100 million pounds of spam to both American and Allied soldiers during the conflict. It was met with hostility by some (hate mail was reportedly sent to the makers of spam by American GI’s) but embraced by others — especially in the Asian Pacific. In Hawaii, fishing sanctions meant that one of the most important sources of protein was gone and, as a result, the locals came to depend on spam and sardines. Today, an annual seven million pounds of spam is consumed on the islands; it’s become an irrevocable part of the local culture.