When most people refer to food as “ethnic,” they likely mean something that isn’t a European delicacy. A number of mainstream food writers often use the term, and food review websites like Yelp also refer to some cuisines as ethnic. Some reviewers even assert that if people of the restaurant’s “ethnicity” are dining there, it must mean that the food is a legitimate representative of the culture.
One reviewer has even gone as far as to say: “When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly?” According to the restaurant reviewer, this is a sign that the restaurant serves delicious and authentic food. There is also the assumption that health code violations and low-rent properties indicate that the restaurant has “true” ethnic food.
So, in essence, some people want to temporarily have an ethnic experience that involves great food, but are certain that unsavory conditions are a necessary component of the dining process.
Americans have long viewed eating out as a cheap way to take a short vacation via their taste buds. Eating the cuisine that is popular in a certain country can be a learning experience. However, eating the dishes that people from other countries grew up enjoying shouldn’t be seen as culinary conquests for America. In fact, it may be time to do away with the term “ethnic food.”
The truth is, food is mostly referred to as “ethnic” when it is made by people with the darkest complexions. For instance, Thai and Indian food is often seen as ethnic, as are Salvadoran and Vietnamese dishes. These foods are commonly sold in service station eateries and strip malls, and are usually pretty rich and spicy. Americans who are willing to try these foods are often deemed as adventurous. However, the dishes are commonplace for the people who grew up enjoying them daily. In fact, the people making the “ethnic” cuisine aren’t seen as brave, or even skilled in many instances.
It’s also no secret that immigrants are often identified by the foods that are popular in their respective countries. So, when foods are described by Americans with adjectives like “exotic,” “cheap” or “greasy,” it’s almost like making a negative comment about the appearance of a person who is from that country.
Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches students about the connection between food and international conflict at American University’s School of International Service, states that “ethnic cuisines are considered low, and fusion cuisines are considered haute cuisines.” New York University professor of food studies Krishnendu Ray adds that people often use the term “ethnic” to describe things they don’t know a whole lot about, but still feel entitled to comment on. Ray has written extensively on the idea of ethnic cuisine, including a book called “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” which will be released soon. He states that the term “ethnic” is used to indicate “ a certain kind of inferiority.” Ray also has a “$30 theory.” He states that diners won’t pay more than $30 for a food they perceive to be “ethnic.”
However, dishes like tapas, Neapolitan pizza and steak frites don’t get the “ethnic” label, even though the people who are from the European countries where this food hails from are either immigrants or the children and grandchildren of immigrants. These foods are so engrained in the Western diet that they get a “pass” when it comes to being negatively labeled.
Dining Evolution in America
Actually, Americans really didn’t start going out to eat until immigrant cuisine was introduced to the United States. That’s when restaurants became an American obsession and turned into a booming business.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the middle class in America began to grow and viewed haute cuisine as food for the rich. The food was also nearly identical to the meals that were eaten by the people the colonists drove out of America more than 100 years earlier.
Eateries that sold Italian, German or Chinese foods were considerably more affordable. Dining at these establishments indicated that a person was worldly or cultured. This was the general perception, even though some of the foods being served at these restaurants were similar to chop suey, a pseudo-ethnic dish that was invented for the Western sense of taste.
Paula J. Johnson, a curator at the National Museum of American History who specializes in food history, states that foods like naan, wasabi, sriracha, hummus, soy sauce and pita would have been seen as strange and foreign in 1950s America. Johnson shares that “…now, these are things that are very everyday for many people.”
Thinking About American Food Differently
Now is the ideal time for people to rethink the way they see immigrant cuisines. American people have never had so much access to such a variety of foods.
One of the ways that people in the U.S. can further expand their palates is to refer to the book “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die” by Mimi Sheraton. There are several tributes to American fare. Chefs Daniel Boulud and Wolfgang Puck both made contributions to the book. Interestingly, both of these chefs are immigrants, yet their dishes are in the American section of the book.
Sheraton also includes treats like Ethiopian coffee. She urges readers to find the coffee in places like Washington, New York and New Jersey. She also recommends dan dan mian, a spicy noodle dish that is easy to find in both San Francisco and Chicago. Kulfi, an Indian dessert, is also mentioned in the book and is easy to find in D.C.’s Penn Quarter. This indicates that foods from other countries are commonplace in the United States and should be appreciated and valued more.
Blue Apron’s executive chef Matt Wadiak even states that “it’s a weird thing to say ‘ethnic food’ these days.” Blue Apron gets ingredients to make foods from all over the world, including tagine, which is native to North Africa, to soba salad, which comes from Japan. Wadiak states that he wasn’t sure if people would want to learn to make some of the dishes he often cooks at home. However, he states that it’s obvious that the market has changed drastically, which is why Blue Apron is such a success.
Choosing Ideal Restaurants
Of course, some people still question the authenticity of some immigrant-inspired dishes, claiming that the food made in the U.S. is sometimes not “ethnic enough.” Diners also complain that some “ethnic” restaurants charge too much for meals, when these same diners would likely be willing to pay similar prices at a fusion restaurant.
Perhaps it’s time to make it clear that “Indian” cuisine is actually divided into distinct categories like Goan and Punjabi. It’s time to inform people of the West African and African-American influences that are apparent in soul food and barbecue. Maybe then, we’d embrace our culinary traditions with pride and be willing to learn more about the traditions of others with an open mind.