13 French dishes France borrowed from other cultures around the world

Explore the intriguing origins of 13 classic French dishes you thought were French that were actually inspired by other cuisines.

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.

But what if I told you that many classic dishes commonly associated with French cuisine have surprising roots and connections to other countries and cultures? 

In this article, we’ll uncover the hidden stories behind 13 classic dishes you thought were French but are actually borrowed, influenced, or reinvented from other cultures around the world. 

Evolution of French Food and Dining in Medieval France

medieval food Frans Snyders The pantry

Food was already an important part of French culture during the Middle Ages, but dining etiquette and French food were very different back then.

For one, people ate with their fingers. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the privileged and wealthy elite started using utensils. Eating with utensils then spread to middle-class homes around the 17th century. And by the 18th century, using utensils became more common among commoners in France. 

Many dishes we think of as common French food today, such as Ratatouille, baguettes, and French onion soup, didn’t exist yet. 

Recipes and Cooking techniques have changed in France

While staples like pork, poultry, beef, and fish were commonly eaten in Medival France, people also ate more gamey meat and poultry, from boar and venison to swans, herons, and even cranes.

Many refined cooking techniques we now take for granted, like sautéing and braising, didn’t exist.

Cooking in medieval France largely revolved around an open flame—fireside hearths and spits. Meats were roasted, boiled, spiced or preserved by smoking and salting them. Vegetables were often salted and stored in jugs to save for the winter. 

While herbs and spices existed in France, the variety was nowhere near what exists today. Many common seasonings, herbs and spices crucial to French cuisine now, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, and even garlic, were introduced through trade routes during the Middle Ages and gradually made their way into French cuisine, influencing flavours and recipes.

French dishes with surprising origins

It’s important to note that historical records of ancient recipes and techniques are limited, and our understanding of their culinary practices is based on fragmented sources, old historical books, and archaeological findings.

1) Quiche

The French tarte with a German twist.

Quiche Lorraine

Quiche dishes are a staple in French cuisine. One of the most well-known quiche recipes you may have heard of is quiche Lorraine which is easy to find in French bakeries across France.

These savoury pie-like dishes are made of a flaky, buttery pastry crust and a filling made from a “migaine” ( a mixture made from eggs, milk, cream or crème fraîche. Depending on the recipe, various ingredients can be added to the filling, such as mushrooms, ham, onions or salmon. Many quiche recipes add cheese such as Gruyere or Emmental into the filling and a pinch of nutmeg or other herbs and spices.

As much as we would all love to believe that this is strictly a French invention, these savoury pie-like dishes are based on a German dish called “Kuchen” from Lothringen, which was part of the medieval kingdom of Lotharingia, named after the Frankish ruler Lothair I. When Lothringen became part of France, the name underwent a linguistic transformation, and the region became Lorraine in French (as in quiche Lorraine.)

The German name for the tart, “Kuchen” also transformed and became “küeche” in the Lorraine Alsatian dialect, which became Quiche in French. 

There are actually many French dishes from the Lorraine Alsacian region that are based on German dishes, including Choucroute Garnie, a fermented Saurkrout dish served with assorted meats. 

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 term that means (in the style of Florence.) As a French culinary term, it refers to any dish whose key component 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.

The concept of cooking spinach with protein and a sauce has been a part of Italian culinary traditions for centuries, especially in the Italian region of Tuscany, where Florence is located and spinach is abundant. 

Here are some of the most well-known French dishes cooked à la Florentine (in the style of Florence.)

  • Chicken Florentine: Poulet à la Florentine: Chicken breasts are often stuffed with a mixture of cooked spinach and cheese, then baked or sautéed. It can be served with a Mornay sauce or a cream-based sauce.
  • Eggs Florentine: Œufs à la Florentine: 
  • Poulet à la Florentine: This dish typically consists of poached eggs served on a bed of cooked spinach and topped with hollandaise sauce. It’s a variation of the classic Eggs Benedict.
  • Sole Florentine: Sole à la Florentine: This dish features sole (a type of fish) fillets that are rolled with cooked spinach and often served with a creamy sauce.
  • Gratin Florentine: Gratin à la Florentine: A gratin dish 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 ofen 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.

But, 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. Because of the tartness of the capers, there’s no need to add vinegar or lemon juice, and some recipes include fresh or dried herbs such as thyme or parsley. 

The word tapenade is a French Provencal word “tapeno”, from the Latin word  for caper “tāpētum,” 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 cheese, but it may have been used a spread for bread also. 

10) Pissaladière 

The French pizza based on the precursor to the 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 a 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 dishes influenced by other cuisines

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. 

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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 annieandre.com 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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