They came to Chicago they brought their cuisines
Chicago is a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world.
Immigrants came to Chicago, fleeing poverty, the ravages of war, oppression, cruelty, natural disasters, and other reasons. Many came for work. Some work so bad no one else would do it, like working in the various packing plants near the Union Stockyards.
Immigrants stayed in Chicago. They brought their cuisine and adapted some foods that are Chicago classics today.
Chicago’s storied food history is a result of the city becoming the transportation hub and commodity trading center of the nation.
Outside of hotels, fine dining through the early part of the 20th Century was ethnic, or what were considered exotic restaurants. These were mostly German, Chinese, and Italian.
As larger waves of immigration came in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Poles, Lithuanians, and Greeks brought their foodways to the city.
Before air conditioning became mainstream, you could walk down the street in summer and tell who lived where from cooking odors emanating through open windows.
Along with their own ethnic cuisines, they used the bounty of the American food supply chain to adapt foods to their liking. For example, most of what is known as Italian food is actually Italian-American fare.
With immigration came international wholesale food businesses and distributors. As the world became more globalized, more original food products became available from all points of the compass.
Greeks had the largest impact on the restaurant business in Chicago. They opened lunch counters and diners with large varied menus of American fare. During the 1950’s Greeks owned 85% of the restaurants in the Loop.
Jews escaping various forms of oppression from the late 1800’s through the mid 20th Century, came to Chicago. They brought with them the Jewish cuisines from the various countries they came from. Many joined the Italians, Greeks, and others in the distribution, import, export, and wholesale food business sector.
Great creations, especially sandwiches came from immigrant communities. The Italian beef sandwich, pepper and egg sandwich, gyros, flaming saganaki, the Chicago style hot dog, hamburgers, deep dish pizza (Created by a Jewish restaurateur), Maxwell Street Polish, and until the Mid 20th Century, something called Chicago chop suey.
Soul food, a more piquant version of Southern cooking, arrived with the Great Migration of African-Americans from the south.
Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and South Americans brought what is known as Hispanic food to Chicago.
Mexicans form the largest Hispanic community in the city. It is easy to get good authentic Mexican food in just about every neighborhood. Why eat fake Chipol-Bell garbage? The best Mexican street food in Chicago can be found on Sundays at the Maxwell Market.
The Korean community made their contribution to Chicago too. At one point, Korean food was so popular, there were lines out the door to get in some of the more noted establishments.
The Thai community made great strides in Chicago, including the fine dining, Arun, on the North Side. There are many Vietnamese restaurants too.
Chicago now hosts Uzbek, Somali, Ethiopian, Nepalese, Afghan, Pakistani, Middle Eastern, Malaysian, Burmese, and other global restaurants.
Authentic ingredients can be found in ethnic or regional grocery stores for any cuisine you want to cook at home. Chinatown and the Argyle Asian Market area stocks goods from all over that part of the world.
Devon Avenue, in Rogers Park, has stores dedicated to Indian and Pakistani ingredients.
Immigrants came to work and live in Chicago. Immigrants stayed. They made and are making a lasting impression on Chicago’s culinary scene.
We, as a city, are better off for their presence.
Note: Some of the information in this piece is from the Chicago Food Encyclopedia (University of Illinois Press).