The Fascinating Origins of 11 Kitchen Staples
Certain ingredients appear time and time again in beloved recipes and cuisines. Certain appliances are so commonplace in the kitchen you don’t think twice about them. But have you ever considered where your food and fixtures come from?
Impress your dinner guests with these eleven origin stories of the most popular kitchen staples, from food to the appliances you cook it with.
Rice is an everyday kitchen staple, often used as a side dish to various cuisines. Historians believe humans began cultivating rice around 5,000 BC — excavating proof of rice crops in India from 4,530 BC. Other records show rice originated in China around 2,800 BC.
It’s difficult to determine where rice is officially derived. However, it remains a crucial ingredient in Asian cuisine. We also know travelers introduced rice seeds to Europe and North America, where the crop has grown for centuries.
Garlic dates back 5,000 years — evidenced by a historical investigation of Babylonian culture. Of course, records also indicate garlic was essential to Indian and Chinese cuisine around similar timeframes. Today, wild-grown garlic comes from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia. Yet, it may have once grown in China, India, Asia and Ukraine, too.
Garlic is now harvested worldwide, including in the United States — with farmers yielding about 5,000 to 17,000 pounds of garlic per acre.
Microwaves are some of the most heavily utilized appliances in the kitchen, with more than 30 million sold worldwide annually. A quick zap is all you need to reheat leftovers, saving time from turning on the stove.
American physicist Percy Spencer invented the first microwave in 1945 by accident. While working for the defense technology company Raytheon, Specer melted a nut cluster with a radar magnetron. He then experimented with various foods, including eggs and popcorn kernels, resulting in a patent.
It took some time before microwaves caught on, mainly due to concerns about radiation. The first microwaves were also about six feet tall and 750 pounds, costing upwards of $5,000 — about $50,000 by today’s standards. A countertop model emerged in the 1950s, with almost every U.S. household owning a microwave by 1997.
Societies have long had unique approaches to refrigeration. Around 1,000 BC, the Chinese began harvesting ice in ice cellars to preserve food. By 400 BC, Persians stored food in Yakhchals — rounded structures built using mudbrick.
In the 1700s and 1800s, ice houses became widely popular across the U.S. and Britain as several inventors pursued different cooling effects with small machines. However, the closest model to today’s refrigerator was developed by Fred W. Wolf in 1913, with mass manufacturing beginning in 1918.
Coolers have undergone several changes within the last century. Today, you can find them in different sizes and forms thanks to rotomolding — a process in which resin gets heated and rotated in a mold to retain a new shape.
Could wheat be one of the oldest known crops worldwide? Societies began cultivating wheat nearly 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent — a region in the Middle East spanning parts of Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Wheat remains the most crucial grain in human diets and within world trade. China produces the most wheat at 10 million tons annually, followed by Russia, Egypt and Japan. Meanwhile, the U.S., Canada, France and Australia export 32.7 to 10.2 million tons of wheat yearly.
Coffee comes from the Arabian Peninsula, becoming a crucial part of world trade during the 15th and 16th centuries in Yemen, Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. People began drinking coffee at home and the world’s first coffee houses during this time. The coffee houses soon became popular for a range of social activities.
Coffee came to the New World in the mid-1600s as more coffee shops appeared throughout cities. In 1723, French naval officer Gabriel De Clieu transported and planted a coffee plant in Martinique. The seedling bred 18 million coffee trees throughout the island within 50 years.
To preserve a high-quality coffee for a special occasion, you can freeze beans in two-week portions in vacuum-sealed bags.
Preparing Thanksgiving dinner is only possible with a sizeable stovetop oven. Although records show the first stovetop was invented in 1490 in Alsace, France, the first manufactured stove came about in 1642 in Lynn, Massachusetts. By 1740, Benjamin Franklin discovered a grate and sliding doors in the fireplace would control airflow.
The cast iron stove was available by the 1820s, capable of withstanding heating and cooling fluctuations. Eventually, coal and wood fueled the stove for cooking and home heating. By the 1930s, the gas range stovetop and oven became a staple in homes across the U.S., proving more durable and easier to clean.
Although many households still use gas stoves, studies have warned against ample nitrogen dioxide and methane emissions — 76% of which emit when turned off — leading to asthma and other respiratory conditions. Experts recommend electric stovetops as a safer alternative.
Believe it or not, wild cherry tomatoes may have originated in Ecuador about 80,000 years ago without farming. Eventually, human cultivation and transport caused widespread growth before larger tomatoes were domesticated 7,000 years ago in Mesoamerica.
Explorers brought the domesticated tomato to Europe sometime in the 16th and 17th centuries — including Italy. While tomatoes may not have originated in Italy, there’s nothing quite like San Marzano tomatoes and fresh mozzarella on a slice of Margherita pizza.
Mediterranean growers have cultivated olive oil from the olive tree for 5,000 years — particularly in Spain, Italy and Greece. During the 18th century, Spanish missionaries transported olives to California. Now, more than 40,000 acres of olive trees grow in California, Hawaii, Arizona and parts of the Southeastern coastline.
Olive oil is a heart-healthy ingredient, appearing often in the Mediterranean diet. The American Heart Association recommends drizzling olive oil over food or using it in cooking to maintain excellent cardiovascular health.
Although indigenous people in Mexico began cultivating wild corn — teosinte — nearly 9,000 years ago, the crop only reached Central and South America 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. It was also only partially domesticated.
Scientists have since learned about a fully domesticated maize crop in the El Gigante Dormido mountain range, near where teosinte was discovered. El Gigante’s rocky terrain protects ancient plants — some 11,0000 years old. About 10,000 domesticated corn crops remain, dating back 4,300 years.
Today, maize crops are as crucial as wheat and are one of the world’s most mass-produced and exported crops.
Archaeological evidence identifies salt-making during the Iron Age, in which humans evaporated seawater and brine over a fire, resulting in salt solids. During Roman times, salt was a rare and pricey commodity.
Salt-making continued into the Medieval times and the Anglo-Saxon period. Records in the Domesday Book of 1086 even highlight Anglo-Saxon salt-making techniques.
Salt is a crucial kitchen staple for flavoring and preserving food. You can also find salt in health care and beauty products. It’s also commonly found in chemical manufacturing.
According to Chinese records, cinnamon originated in Sri Lanka around 2,800 BC. The Ancient Egyptians used cinnamon powder in their embalming process due to its aromatic odor.
During Medieval times, cinnamon was an essential medicinal ingredient for coughs and sore throats. Likewise, societies sprinkled cinnamon powder on meat to prevent spoilage.
As the Dutch tried monopolizing cinnamon in the 17th century, other countries discovered they could grow it in large quantities. Now, cinnamon is cultivated primarily in tropical regions.
Know Where Your Food Comes From
You may look at Italian cuisine differently after learning tomatoes originated in Ecuador. Likewise, salt-making is perhaps a much older process than you thought.
Learning about the history of food and kitchen appliances is fun and gives you a deeper appreciation for what’s on your plate.