America, the melting pot. It’s interesting that that phrase alludes to cooking. Food is one of the many things that ties a culture together. Admittedly, America has no exclusive cuisine; it is defined, as in the melting pot metaphor, by the diversity of the cultural traditions brought here by generations of immigrants.

Yet, our ethnic diversity does not guarantee that we all have a sense of the history and meaning behind each of these traditions. Much of this melting pot process has meant that what we order when we go out to eat is watered down. Restaurants have learned to adapt their dishes to satisfy some of us used to eating burgers and fries for most meals. In opposition to the “dumbing down” of ethnic food, restaurants hoping to clue us in to their cultural heritage push to bring more authentic flavors to their menus–often competing with other establishments to bring us the most authentic ethnic dishes, the purest forms.

The Triangle, with its astronomical growth, has become a melting pot of its own. In this Dish issue, our writers provide some context to the local ethnic dining experience. We’ll introduce you to four different culinary traditions and help establish some basis for further exploration. Karen Cirillo discusses Italian cooking and a new local restaurant’s efforts to bring us up to speed on Italy’s finest fare. Addressing another ancient cuisine, Thomas Armstrong travels to Hong Kong–Restaurant, that is–and sits down for a few hours of dim sum and delectable conversation. Trinidad may be a small island, but the menu at Trin-B’Ago speaks volumes about the rich history of the Caribbean nation. Then Cynthia Donnell brings it all back to our continent, where Mexican food lovers struggle to explain that the cuisine’s not all tacos and burritos.

No one can presume to understand all the shades of difference in one culture, or even within one cuisine. Even dishes that are distinctive to one region can differ wildly from town to town. But consider this an introduction. A true melting pot can only be delicious if all of the elements blend together with greater understanding.