If you were to look for the “home where the buffalo roam”, would you find really find it in the American range? Not very likely. Although the name is used interchangeably, bison and buffalo are two distinct animals, separated by oceans. Learn all about the great giant of the American plains!
The American Bison
What we in North America are used to calling “buffalo” is actually bison - American Bison specifically. Easily recognizable by its huge size and prominent hump, it's found all over the US and Canada, and it's actually what your "buffalo burgers" are made of. So what is buffalo?
Water and Cape Buffalo
On the other hand (and another continent), the real buffalo is native to Africa (called Cape Buffalo, shown on the left) and Asia (called Asian Water Buffalo, shown on the right). It's smaller, less furry and decidedly hump-less, plus its not usually consumed for meat.
And what about our beloved mozarella di bufala or buffalo mozzarella? That IS actually made from milk from the Asian water buffalo. The animal was introduced to Italy in the 1400s.
The Buffalo-Bison Confusion
So why is bison called buffalo? Chalk it up to a case of mistaken identity. It was the well-meaning but confused European settlers who, upon encountering the unfamiliar animal, saw some similarities with the Asian and African buffalo and decided to lump them in the same category. It wasn’t discovered until later than the animals were different, and by that point the name had stuck, popularized by the popular song, “Home on the Range” and later by the minting of the “Buffalo nickel”. The mistake was by then so ingrained in American culture, that still today, in culinary terms (at least in America) we eat “bison”, but call it “buffalo”.
Buffalo and bison are two different animals. In America we call “buffalo meat” what is actually “bison meat” and chalk it up as an accepted mistake.