French food origins: 13 dishes France borrowed from other cultures

Explore the intriguing French food origins of 13 classic dishes you thought were French that were actually borrowed from other cuisines.

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
Croissants French foods not french
Croissants French foods not french

French cuisine is one of the most well-known in the world, and most people can name a few French dishes off the top of their head.

You may be surprised to learn that many classic dishes commonly associated with French food have surprising roots and connections to other countries and cultures. 

In this article, about French food origins, we’ll uncover the forgotten stories and evolution behind 13 classic dishes you thought were purely French but are actually borrowed, influenced, or reinvented from other cultures into the refined French dishes we know today. 

Evolution of French Food and Dining in Medieval France

French food origins influenced by other cultures and cuisines: medieval food Frans Snyders The pantry

French cuisine has undergone a lot of changes over the centuries, incorporating ingredients, techniques, and culinary traditions from different regions and cultures. 

During the Middle Ages, people ate a lot more gamey meats and poultry like boar, venison, swans, herons, and even cranes. Many staple dishes in French cuisine, like ratatouille, baguettes, and French onion soup, didn’t exist yet.

Common seasonings, herbs and spices crucial to French cuisine today, such as sugar, almonds, cinnamon, saffron, and even garlic, were introduced through trade routes during the Middle Ages and gradually made their way into French cuisine, influencing flavours and recipes.  

Refined cooking techniques we now take for granted, like sautéing and braising, didn’t exist either.  Instead, cooking in medieval France revolved around an open flame, with meats being roasted, boiled, spiced, or preserved by smoking and salting. Vegetables were often salted and stored in jugs to preserve them for the winter.

French dishes with surprising origins

Keep in mind that knowledge of ancient cooking methods is sometimes limited because it is often based on incomplete and scattered sources that include old historical books and archaeological discoveries.

1) Quiche

The German tarte with a French twist.

Quiche Lorraine

Quiche dishes are a staple of French cuisine, and one of the most famous recipes is quiche Lorraine, which you can find in almost any French bakery across France

As much as we would all love to believe that this is strictly a French invention, these savoury pie-like dishes originated in Germany and were introduced to France through Lorraine.

The dish is based on a German recipe called “Kuchen” from the medieval kingdom of Lothringen, which was under German rule. Eventually, Lothringen became part of France and became known as the Lorraine region. 

Over time, the French adapted the German tarte by using local ingredients and incorporating French culinary techniques. The German “Kuchen” became “küeche” in the Lorraine Alsatian dialect, which eventually became “quiche” in French.

Today, a typical French quiche is made with a flaky, buttery pastry crust and a filling made from a “migaine,” which is a mixture of eggs, milk, cream, or crème fraîche. Depending on the recipe, various ingredients can be added to the filling, such as mushrooms, ham, bacon, onions or salmon. Additionally, many French quiche recipes also include cheese, such as Gruyere or Emmental, and a pinch of nutmeg or other herbs and spices.

2) À la Florentine

The French culinary technique from Florence, Italy. 

Chicken florentine; a classic French dish of cooked spinach and protein influenced by Italian cuisine from Florence Italy

“À la Florentine” is a French culinary term that means (in the style of Florence) and refers to any dish that includes cooked spinach, usually combined with a protein element like chicken, fish, or eggs, and a creamy sauce such as Mornay sauce.

Mornay sauce is essentially a French béchamel sauce with cheese such as parmesan or Gruyère.

Cooking spinach with protein and sauce has been a part of Italian culinary traditions for centuries, especially in Tuscany, where spinach is abundant.

Here are some of the most well-known French dishes cooked à la Florentine.

  • Chicken Florentine (Poulet à la Florentine): Involves stuffing chicken breasts with cooked spinach and cheese, then baking or sautéing them and serving them with a cream-based sauce such as Mornay sauce.
  • Eggs Florentine (Œufs à la Florentine): Consists of poached eggs served on a bed of cooked spinach and topped with hollandaise sauce, and is a variation of the classic Eggs Benedict.
  • Sole Florentine (Sole à la Florentine): This dish features sole fillets that are rolled with cooked spinach and often served with a creamy sauce.
  • Gratin Florentine: A gratin dish that includes a layer of cooked spinach, sometimes combined with other vegetables, topped with a creamy sauce and cheese, then baked until golden and bubbly.
  • Crepes Florentine (Crêpes à la Florentine): Crepes are filled with a mixture of cooked spinach and cheese, rolled up, and often served with a sauce, such as Mornay sauce.

3) Bouillabaisse: 

The French fisherman stew with Greek roots

French fish stew from Marseille: Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse is known throughout France as a hearty fish stew from the provencal city of Marseille, located along the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France.

Although this dish has variations, it usually consists of fish, seafood, and vegetables simmered in a broth. In Marseille, bouillabaisse is often served with slices of toasted bread and Rouille (a garlicky mayonnaise-like sauce.)

However, most people don’t realize that this classic French dish can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who founded the city of Marseille in the 6th century, over 2000 years ago.

These ancient Greek settlers introduced a humble (poor man) fish stew called “kakavia” (κακαβιά), which consisted of leftovers and unsold fish and seafood brought back by the fishermen.

Over time, local Mediterranean and Provençal flavours, such as the French Herbes de Provence blend, made their way into the recipe.

Ironically, what makes this recipe French is how it evolved to include new and exotic ingredients and spices such as saffron, fennel, cumin, and coriander.

Marseille has always been a port city with a history of trade and cultural exchange with North African regions such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, where these new herbs and spices came from.

These additions transformed the dish into the refined Bouillabaisse fish stew we know today.

Did you know that the reddish color of bouillabaisse primarily comes from the use of saffron, and not tomaotes?

4) Aioli:

The Greek and Roman garlic olive oil condiment with strong culinary ties to both Spanish and French cuisines.

Grand Aïoli: French provençal dish

Aioli is a rich garlicky condiment/sauce made by emulsifying garlic, olive oil, and sometimes egg yolk and lemon juice.

If you ask a French person where aioli is from, they’ll most likely say that it’s from the Provence region of southern France, where it’s served as a condiment alongside many dishes, including Le Grande Aioli (a French Provencal seafood and vegetables platter.)

Even the sauce’s name, “aioli,” is derived from French Provençal words “ai” (garlic) and “oli” (oil), which reflect its key ingredients.

However, aioli has its roots in the ancient Greek and Roman empires, where the combination of garlic and olive oil was a common condiment.

The earliest documented reference for a sauce resembling aioli can be traced back over 2000 years to Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.), a resident of Tarragona, a city situated in southern Catalonia, present-day northeastern Spain. Pliny called this sauce garlic (Latin term: aleatum) in his book Naturalis Historia, the world’s first encyclopedia and one of the largest single works to have survived the Roman Empire that covers all ancient knowledge.

Mayonnaise may be a distant relative of Aioli sauce

5) The baguette

The French bread based on an Austrian technique.

French stereotype and cliches: Baguettes

As crazy as it sounds, the baguette – which everyone considers quintessentially French, is a relatively new invention that can be traced back to the thin bread from Vienna, Austria. 

The word “baguette” literally means “stick” or “wand” in French. It refers to the long, slender shape of the bread. In French chop sticks are also called “des baguettes.”

August Zang was an Austrian baker often credited with introducing the baguette to France. He founded the Boulangerie Viennoise in Paris, which opened in the 1830s. Zang brought Viennese baking techniques to France, such as steaming bread in steam ovens, which is one of the reasons baguettes taste so damn good. 

Zang’s contributions played a significant role in shaping the baguette’s presence in French culinary culture.

6) Croissant

The French pastry based on a crescent-shaped Austrian bread.

Butter croissant with straight tips

The croissant is another quintessential French pastry that is based on a dense crescent-shaped Austrian pastry known as the “kipferl.” The Kipferl was made from flour, butter and ground nuts such as almonds. 

While August Zang didn’t directly introduce the kipferl to France, his Boulangerie Viennoise in Paris in the 1830s played a part in familiarizing French bakers and consumers with Austrian-style bread and pastries, including kipferls.

French bakers then refined the recipe by adding yeast, more butter and laminated dough techniques, which made it lighter and flakier than the “kipferl.”

Laminating dough is a technique that involves layering the dough with butter through a process of folding and rolling, which creates the croissant’s distinctive layers and delicate texture.

7) French Crepe

A French pancake based on ancient Greek pancake

French crepe cooked on a skillet on an open fire

French crepes need no introduction. They are so popular that there are crepe restaurants dedicated to serving crepes called les creperies.

The batter for these almost paper-thin pancakes is made of flour, milk, eggs, sugar, and fat, such as oil or butter. Unlike pancakes, there is no yeast or leavening agent added to the batter, which is why crepes stay relatively flat and thin.

Did you know that crepes are not a breakfast food in France? They are eaten as a snack or for lunch or dinner. 

Ancient Greek pancake: agênitai or têganitai 

Although the world associates France with crepes, they can be traced back to an ancient Greek pancake called tagênitai or têganitai (pancake.)

The oldest known mention of this ancient Greek pancake is from “De alimentorum facultatibus” (On the Properties of Foodstuffs)  by Galen, a Greek physician, around the 2nd century CE.

Galen doesn’t give a recipe but gives a good enough description so that we know that Greek pancakes were made with flour and water, then fried in a pan and flipped until fully cooked. He also mentions that honey is sometimes added. You can find the translated text here.

Modern Greeks still eat these, but they are now called Tiganites, but recipes tend to vary by region. Many modern recipes contain milk, oil, sugar and or yeast in the batter.

8) Omelette

A French egg dish based on a Roman recipe.

French omelette aux fines herbes

Since antiquity, the concept of beating eggs and cooking them in a pan with various fillings has existed.

However, it’s a common belief that the French elevated this simple dish, which helped popularize it. Even the term omelette is a French word. It comes from Middle French “lemelle,” (little blade.”) The belief is that they thought the flat egg looked like a small blade of a knife.

Lemell then became “alemette” or “alemelle.”  Through a process called “metathesis,” the order of the letters L and M were switched, turning “alemette” into “amelette” and then into the modern French word omelette. 

Fun facts:
A popular omelette recipe in France is “Omelette aux Fines Herbes” which doesn’t contain any filling or cheese, just herbs.
The most popular cheese for French omlette recipes in France is Emmental cheese, not cheddar. 
Omlettes are usually served for lunch or dinner (not breakfast), often served with a side of salad. 

Ancient Roman spongy eggs made from milk: “Ova Spongia ex Lacte

One of the earliest written examples of a type of omelette dates back to ancient Rome. it can be found in an ancient Roman cookbook called “Apicius,” believed to have been written in the 4th or 5th century AD. 

This ancient Roman omelette was called “Ova Spongia ex Lacte,” meaning “Spongy eggs made from milk.” 

The exact recipe can vary based on different translations and interpretations of the text, but it typically involves beating eggs with various seasonings and possibly adding ingredients like pepper, herbs, and even meat. The mixture is then cooked in a pan with oil or fat, resulting in a spongy texture. Sometimes honey was drizzled over them. 

Although the Romans called this egg spongy, it might have been how Romans described something fluffy. 

9) Anchoïade

The anchovy paste based on a Roman fish sauce.

Anchoïade French anchovy paste spread

Anchoïade is a classic anchovy spread that’s a staple in French Provencal cuisine. It’s made by grinding fermented anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar or lemon juice together into a thick paste using a mortar and pestle or food processor.

Anchoïade is typically served as a spread for bread or as a dip with a platter of hard-boiled eggs and raw vegetables such as cucumber, tomatoes, and radishes during social gatherings such as the French apero.

Historians believe Provencal anchovy paste is a variation of an ancient Roman anchovy sauce called garum.

According to a 2021 article from the Smithsonian Magazine, archaeologists may have found their proof when 2000-year-old concrete vats containing garum (fermented anchovies and salt) were found in France and Tunisia. 

Due to the vast size of the Roman Empire, the Roman anchovy sauce underwent various adaptations based on the region. One adaptation is the Italian Banga Cauda, which means “hot bath” or “hot dip” and is typically served warm during Christmas time and served with crudités. 

9) Tapenade

An olive and caper spread with Roman and Greek roots.

Tapenade olive and caper sauce

Like Anchoide, Tapenade is a provincial staple that includes anchovies, garlic, and olive oil, but tapenade has two additional ingredients: olives (black or green) and capers. Some recipes include lemon juice and fresh or dried herbs such as thyme, basil or parsley. 

The word tapenade is a French Provencal word “tapeno”, from the Latin word  for caper “tāpa,” which is a key ingredient in tapenade.

The origins of tapenade can be traced back to ancient Greece, where they enjoyed a similar spread called “epityrum” or “epityros,” which means “Over Cheese” because the Greeks and the Romans ate this paste together with bread and cheese, but it may have been used a spread for bread also. 

RelatedOlive Tapenade Recipe: A garlic, caper anchovy Provençal spread

10) Pissaladière 

This French pizza is based on the precursor to modern-day Italian pizza.

Pissaladière tarte from Nice France

If you’ve never heard of Pissaladière, you’re not alone. Although Pissaladière is relatively well known throughout France,  it’s not that well known outside of France. 

Pissaladière,” pronounced (Pee-saw-la-dee-Aihr (soft R), is a savoury tart from Nice, a city on the French Riviera, where it’s a popular snack. It’s composed of pastry dough or flatbread that’s topped with caramelized onions, anchovies, and black olives and baked.

The interesting thing about Pissaladière is it can be traced back to a famous Italian Pizza from Liguria called “pissalandrea” which some call the original Pizza. 

If you’re wondering where the tomato sauce is, don’t forget that tomatoes were introduced to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century and didn’t become part of modern-day pizza until around the 18th century. Before that, Italian pizzas had no tomato sauce, just toppings. 

The name pissaladière is closely linked to an ancient condiment known as “pissalat” which dates back to the 1st century AD. The term “Pissalat, ” which means salted fish, comes from “peis salat” in the Niçard language spoken in Nice. This savoury condiment is a blend of pureed anchovy and sardines infused with cloves, thyme, bay leaf, and black pepper, mixed with olive oil.

Nice has an interesting history. It was historically a part of Italy at specific points in history and didn’t become a part of France until the mid-19th century. Given Nice’s history and proximity to Italy, it’s not hard to see the connection between Pissaladière and other flatbread dishes such as pizza. Some people call Pissaladière the French pizza. 

11) Macarons

A Sweet French delicacy with Italian monastery Roots

French Macarons

Macarons are a delicious confection made of two small almond meringue cookies gently sandwiched together with a delicate filling.

Macarons can come in a variety of colours, which usually correspond with the filling.

  • A red macaron will most likely be a strawberry jam or compote filling.
  • A brown macaron will usually be filled with a chocolate ganache.
  • A yellow macaron might have a pineapple filling, and so on. 

Historians believe monasteries in Venice, Italy, were making macarons in the 8th century AD. These earlier versions were simpler. There was no filling sandwiched between two cookies, and they didn’t come in a variety of flavours or colours. 

When the Italian-born Catherine de” Medici married Henry II, the future king of France, she brought her Italian cooks and pastry chefs who brought the Macaron recipe to the French court, where it became popular among the French nobility.

Later, French pastry chefs began experimenting with the Italian Macaron, developing their own unique flavours that elevated the art of macaron-making to a level of refinement. In 1930, the Parisian pastry chef Pierre Desfontaines decided to join two macaron cookies filled with a sweet ganache.

And voila, the Parisian macaron was born. 

12) Pistou: The French version of Pesto

French pistou soup, with a dollop of pistou, the French version of Italian pesto.

Pistou is France’s version of Italian Pesto. The main difference is that French pistou does not contain pine nuts, and parmesan is not always part of the recipe. 

The word “pistou” means pounded or crushed in the Provencal dialect of the Occitan language, which is spoken in the region of Provence in France. The Italian word Pesto also means pounded or crushed. Both words come from the Italian word “Pestare.”

The name refers to the traditional method of preparing pistou and pesto by pounding or crushing the ingredients together to create a paste.

It’s believed that pistou made its way into French provincial cuisine during the medieval period via the Romans and Italians, who used Basil-based sauces and flavouring. 

Today, pistou is an integral ingredient in Provencal cooking and is vital to many French dishes, including pistou soup, a vegetable and bean soup where a dollop of pistou is added just before serving. 

13) Wine

An invention that predates written history.

French Wine Cépage

France is known for many things, including being the land of wine and cheese.

While it’s true that France has played a significant role in shaping and popularizing the culture of winemaking and wine consumption, the history of winemaking dates back thousands of years to many ancient civilizations, long before modern countries such as France were countries. 

Many ancient civilizations, including in the regions of Mesopotamia, Greece, and Egypt, were known to produce wine. However, ancient Rome played an important role in the history of wine. Especially Pompeii, located in Campania, a region in southern Italy.

  • The oldest wine still in production is believed to be the Commandaria wine from Cyprus, which dates back over 5,000 years. 
  • The second oldest wine still in production is believed to be the Rüdesheimer Apostelwein from Germany, dating back over 400 years.
  • The fourth oldest wine still in production is Sherry, a fortified wine from Spain. 

Wrapping up French food origins

Although these dishes may have been borrowed or inspired by other countries’ cuisines, what makes them truly French is how French cooks modified them to make them truly French.

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.

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