Baltimore has long been a melting pot of immigrants from all over the world, starting with the German and Irish who arrived in the mid-1800s, and later expanding to Polish, Italians, Greeks and more. In recent years, immigrants from Asian and Latin American countries have joined our diverse community. There’s a lot to celebrate about the energy, experiences and customs that immigrants bring to a city. But one of the best side effects? The food! In a town that cares deeply about its home-grown rituals, Baltimore has taken some traditional cultural foods and made them its own. Here you can experience some customary meals and distinctive ingredients that are rooted in faraway places, but feel wholly Baltimore.
The backstory: A specialty fish “sandwich,” coddies are deep-fried balls of salt cod and potatoes, served between saltine crackers with yellow mustard. Originally sold out of pushcarts by Jewish immigrants at the turn of the last century, coddies grew in popularity, becoming available in nearly every candy shop, hot dog stand and drug store until the 1980s. Recent years have found the snack harder to track down — but it’s making a comeback.
Where to taste it: Coddies are served the traditional way at Mama’s on the Half Shell in Canton and at Faidley’s Seafood in Lexington Market. At Dylan’s Oyster Cellar, they’re prepared with some extra zing thanks to the addition of paprika, onion powder, mustard powder, garlic and other spices.
Cuisine: African American
The backstory: An heirloom variety of hot pepper that’s thought to have originated in the Caribbean, fish peppers were historically used in African American cuisine in the Chesapeake Bay region, where cooks blended them into the creamy sauces that typically topped seafood dishes. The peppers were grown almost exclusively by black farmers in the mid-Atlantic until they lost popularity in the early 1900s. Now, the flavor has been reintroduced to Baltimore cuisine, largely thanks to chef Spike Gjerde, who is devoted to highlighting local flavors on his menus.
Where to taste it: At Woodberry Kitchen, the kick of fish pepper is worked into sauces, mayonnaise and salt; at the sister cafe Artifact Coffee, it’s mixed into lattes for a hint of heat. And the culinary group’s popular Snake Oil hot sauce features fish peppers prominently (sold at local markets).
The backstory: An imported sweet from our Polish immigrants, this rich jelly-filled doughnut was traditionally made in an effort to use up butter and eggs before the sacrificial season of Lent. In Baltimore, they still linger in Polish delis and bakeries alongside other regional specialties like kielbasa (sausage) and krushchiki (flat, bow-tie cookies).
Where to taste it: Traditional Polish markets and delis, like Sophie’s Place at Broadway Market, Krakus Deli in Fell’s Point and Polish Treasures in Upper Fell’s Point typically sell paczki year-round; just before Lent they are available at local churches and grocers.
The backstory: In Baltimore, we’ve been eating sauerkraut alongside our Thanksgiving turkey feast for more than 100 years. It’s tradition to have the tart, fermented cabbage on the table, thanks to our city’s rich community of Germans. Around Thanksgiving, you can find local delis serving up turkey sandwiches topped with the stuff. And some locals still prepare their sauerkraut the old-fashioned way, fermenting the shredded cabbage in basement cellars.
Where to taste it: Attman's Deli’s day-after-Thanksgiving special, the Double T, features turkey, cranberry sauce and sauerkraut between slices of pumpernickel. At Gertrude’s, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, each January brings Kraut Fest, when the restaurant’s homemade sauerkraut is available in all forms and flavors—even as “krautini” drinks. Local company Hex Ferments sells its different varieties of kraut (plus kimchi, kombucha and other fermented foods) at Belvedere Market year-round.
CORNED BEEF & CABBAGE
Cuisine: Irish... and Jewish
The backstory: Though this dish is now a common St. Patrick’s Day meal in cities like Baltimore, where thousands of Irish landed after fleeing the Great Famine, it wasn’t typically eaten in the homeland due to cost. Historians believe that once the Irish arrived in the United States, a search for a celebratory meal (and more money) led them to buy salted brisket from their Jewish neighbors and serve it up with familiar potatoes and the cheapest vegetable, cabbage. It later became associated with Irish cuisine and the March holiday—at least here in America.
Where to taste it: Most of Baltimore’s Irish pubs serve this combination on their regular menus. Try it at Slainte Irish Pub, James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant, Tír na nÓg Irish Bar & Grill, Ale Mary’s or Mick O’Shea’s.
The backstory: This staple of Mexican cuisine is so commonplace that it probably needs no explanation. But as the Mexican community has expanded in Baltimore—immigrants from the country now comprise over a quarter of the growing Latin population here—better tacos and other Mexican-influenced food are becoming widely available. We’re partial to the taquerias whipping up street-style versions, with handmade tortillas and delicious fillings like carnitas and chorizo—house-made salsa is a must.
Where to taste it: The Amano Taco stall at R. House serves up creative artisanal takes on family recipes, such as chorizo with arbol chili salsa and pickled onion or vegetarian poblano peppers and onion with corn and lime-cilantro aioli. At Sinaloan-inspired Clavel Mexcaleria, the tacos go gourmet and bold atop hand-pressed tortillas, with combinations like lamb braised in Mexican coffee, Modelo Negra and spices and classics like barbacoa and beef tongue. Vida Taco Bar in Harbor Point uses local ingredients whenever possible, combining traditional Mexican cuisine with experimental ingredients such as vegan bahn mi or soft-shell crabs. (Or head down Eastern Avenue from Broadway to Patterson Park for a leisurely taco tour. Here, a string of taquerias, tortillerias and food trucks sit nearby one another, including local favorite Tortilleria Sinaloa.)
The backstory: A kitchen staple that’s like Korea’s version of sauerkraut, this spicy fermented dish typically features napa cabbage and radish, flavored with gochugaru chili powder, ginger, garlic and scallions.
Where to taste it: At the Korean-inspired Dooby’s, find kimchi spicing up many of the dishes, including fried rice, burgers, potato salad and even ketchup.
The backstory: An Italian treat straight from Sicily, cannoli involve a crisp pastry shell tube stuffed with thick, smooth ricotta cream and dotted with chocolate chips. Baltimore’s Italian population, while once large, has dwindled in the last century—but the country’s traditions remain strong, especially in the tight-knit Little Italy. An abundance of family-owned restaurants and authentic Italian markets dot the city, serving up flavorful pastas and pastries.
Where to taste it: The most famous (and local favorite) cannoli is made at Vaccaro’s, in business for more than 60 years. The original shop is still on Albemarle Street in Little Italy, but they also now have locations in Bel Air, Hunt Valley and Canton.