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Stop calling food ‘exotic’

Armando Veve for The Washington Post
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“One of the nicest things about Afghan restaurants is that they appeal to even the most timid of diners,” Mark and Gail Barnett wrote in the May 16, 1993, edition of The Post. “Your visiting aunt from Spokane, Wash., can enjoy the adventure of an exotic cuisine with the reassurance of familiar-looking food.”

The Barnetts meant no harm, no foul when they put the word “exotic” in their review of Bethesda’s Sunrise Kebab, but their presumptive Anglocentric perspective on a cuisine based in South Asia says more about how they saw the world than about the cuisine itself. (To say nothing of the assumption that one’s aunt from Spokane may be an incurious recluse.)

After I wrote about a seven-minute, seven-ingredient ramen in early March, I received the first of several emails from readers complaining or gently chiding me for including “exotic” spices or condiments in my “Eat Voraciously” newsletter. “Your offerings tend to be exotic foreign cuisine that we wouldn’t even order in a restaurant and certainly aren’t interested in cooking at home,” one reader wrote. Another complained about “the exotic ingredients” in some recipes, and asked if I could “please try to pick some recipes featuring ingredients that are readily available?”

Reading the word hit me like a slap, and initially, I wasn’t even sure why. Did they think the dish sounded odd or disgusting? Or were these ingredients simply hard for them to find?

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I had a few productive exchanges with these readers on the subject so I could better troubleshoot their issues. My conclusion? What’s “exotic” to you isn’t “exotic” to my neighbor, might not be “exotic” to my mom, probably wouldn’t be “exotic” to my best friend.

The first problem with the word is that, probably within the past two decades, it has lost its essential meaning. The second, more crucial problem is that its use, particularly as applied to food, indirectly lengthens the metaphysical distance between one group of humans and another, and, in so doing, reinforces xenophobia and racism.

“I have never heard the word exotic used in reference to something that is White,” says Chandra D. L. Waring, professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Lowell. “You know that exotic means ‘other’ or ‘different’ from a dominant-White perspective because no one ever says, ‘I’m going to go on an exotic vacation, I’m going to Lowell, Mass.’ No one ever says, ‘Let’s go to that exotic new restaurant, let’s go to McDonald’s.’” I can’t imagine anyone calling a Big Mac an exotic sandwich, even if, when it was first introduced to countries outside North America, it may have been viewed with skepticism.

Like ethnic and alien, the word exotic was invented to describe something foreign. It comes from the Greek prefix, “exo,” or “outside.” It used to mean something “alien” or “foreign,” and though this is an archaic definition, it’s part of the word’s legacy. According to Merriam-Webster, in reference to food, its modern-day usage may describe something “introduced from another country,” “not native” or something “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different.” The problem is that it’s a definition that changes based on the user’s perspective.

Today, only a few things are still consistently described as exotic including: animals; places (see: exotic vacations); cars; women; and, of course, food.

My column’s name does a disservice to the immigrants whose food I celebrate. So I’m dropping it.

Hearing something described as exotic conjures a few specific images: An explorer peeking through a dense jungle with binoculars, peering curiously at the people or flora or fauna in a clearing. Hunters in pursuit of wild game or hides. The facial expression of a television host tasting a certain food for the first time.

The exoticism of food wasn’t something sociologist and NYU food studies professor Krishnendu Ray devoted much time to early in his career. Since he wrote his 2016 book “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” it’s a topic he has considered more carefully.

“The word came into use during a time period in world history when the migration and movement of people and things was limited,” Ray explained via email. In the 1500s, “there was a self-proclaimed center of the world: the West.” Centuries of art, science and language evolved under this perspective. Ray points out that the word “orientation” originally described one’s position in relation to the East.

It’s been a long time since European explorers traveled the world in pursuit of wealth, spices, coffee, tea, chocolate and places they would colonize or people they would enslave — in short, things they would label exotic — but that history is inextricable from the word.

“It’s completely tied to the history of colonialism and slavery,” says Serena J. Rivera, assistant professor of Portuguese and Spanish at the University of Pittsburgh. “If you are exotic, if you’re automatically an ‘other,’ you’re not one of us.” But for someone to make such a judgment, they would need to be in a position of power.

“It turns out people who considered themselves to be the center of the world, and had the power to unilaterally name and classify things with far greater consequences than others, are today increasingly considered to be just another part of the world,” says Ray. South Asian historians, he adds, call this “a shift in the language of power and the power of language.”

Not since we thought it was flat has the world been so small. The continued quickening of human migration, the dawn of the Information Age, today’s global markets, the delivery boom: The speed at which the world is shrinking is striking, and perhaps the English language just hasn’t caught up.

Today, the word is frequently used with more nuance and intrigue, and some even use it as a compliment. Many people surely still think of “exotic” as an objective descriptor. But language is never inherently neutral. Context matters.

Native to Southeast Asia, and wildly revered, durian is often labeled an “exotic” fruit. In dozens of stories, ostensibly aimed at piquing non-Asian readers’ curiosity, durian is called “delicious” and then casually compared to “some sort of strange alien creature.” Such descriptions imply a sort of simultaneous repulsion and attraction.

In her essay “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” the author and scholar Bell Hooks notes that “encounters with Otherness … are more exciting, more intense, and more threatening. The lure is the combination of pleasure and danger.”

Why everyone should stop calling immigrant food ‘ethnic’

An especially visible example is “Bizarre Foods,” the longtime Travel Channel show hosted by Andrew Zimmern. In its 13-year run, it exemplified the exotification of foods: Rare meats, dishes consumed as part of traditional rituals and sometimes age-old cooking methods were all looked upon as abnormal or repulsive — even if the host expressed a sort of revered fascination. Zimmern acknowledged as much in a 2018 interview with Fast Company magazine. Zimmern’s show may have been canceled, but these tired tropes persist in public and private spaces.

The Explorers Club of New York was founded in 1904, and reportedly counts Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) as a member. The club’s infamous “exotic foods” dinners feature insects, larvae, reptiles and other foods that are commonly consumed around the globe. The dinners have a shock-and-awe quality, a sense of disgust alongside an underlying desire to be at one with something that, for members, is strange.

The Explorers and organizations like it are classic examples of what cultural anthropologist Renato Rosaldo calls “imperialist nostalgia” in “Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis.” He defines it as “nostalgia … where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”

In this context, the continued use of the word exotic reads as an attempt at ostracizing the other in the service of empowering oneself.

“Calling a food exotic puts the onus of the puzzle on the people who make the food to define it, to rationalize, explain, or whitewash it until it’s palatable to the dominant culture,” Rivera says.

Further, says Lisa Heldke, author of “Exotic Appetites: Ruminations of a Food Adventurer,” at least for those who live in the United States in 2021, “you can get almost anything at any general grocery store. It used to be a challenge to find ingredients like miso or soy sauce, but this is really no longer the case.” And, if it’s not at your nearest store, you can order it online.

“By exoticizing a food even though it’s actually accessible, you’re assigning it a value that’s lower than the status quo,” Heldke says.

But what even is the status quo? French cuisine is perhaps the most well-documented in the world, with its techniques and dishes taught globally as if they were a universal language. The adoption of French words such as “cuisine” and “julienne” reinforce its dominance. And, since the late 1800s, its influence has been systematized in American culinary school, as Korsha Wilson reported for Eater. The French also have a persistent fascination with the exotic: Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian life, books like “Madame Chrysanthème” by Pierre Loti, lists of “exotic” Parisian restaurants — through the prism of French cuisine’s dominance, it’s no wonder that we still exoticize food, particularly food from places the French colonized, including areas of Africa and Asia.

Though it’s seemingly just as different from Anglo American food, not much English-language literature calls the food of Central or South America exotic. A notable exception: The author Diana Kennedy, who, periodically in her cookbooks on regional Mexican cuisine, calls chiles and other ingredients exotic, despite the fact that they originated on the land upon which she has lived since 1957.

But as a White British woman, Kennedy has always been an “other” in Mexico; she calls herself an “ethno-gastronomer.” Like an ethnographer, she has approached Mexico from the outside looking in. In “La Reina Diana,” a June 1985 Texas Monthly piece, Kennedy comes across as a fierce defender of Mexican foodways, painstakingly researching her subjects and their food in the service of anthologizing it once and for all. Indeed, Kennedy’s work is the largest catalogue of regional Mexican recipes published in English. But Kennedy’s best-selling books are filled with other people’s recipes — and very few credits are given. Along with her critiques of Mexican and Mexican American cooks and authors, her work is tinged with an air of settler colonialism, as Cassie Da Costa wrote in the Daily Beast.

As Kennedy’s influence demonstrates, recipes are not just instructions, they’re documentation. They’re history. They’re representations of a culture. That’s why the language we use to describe any type of food should be regularly questioned.

For a 2020 article in Bon Appétit titled “When Did Recipe Writing Get So … Whitewashed?” food and recipe writers Priya Krishna and Yewande Komolafe discussed the assumption many mainstream publishers make, which colors the work they put out: That their audience is made up of (disinterested? myopic?) White readers who demand what’s convenient for them above all else. “Food media is always addressing the White reader,” Komolafe told Krishna. “I had to fight to not get the name of jollof rice changed to baked tomato pepper rice. And I’m just like, nobody’s going to know what that is. It’s jollof rice. I don’t know who calls it tomato baked rice.”

When Komolafe moved to the United States, she noted that she “had to do the work to understand what a burger was, or what french fries were. Why are publications assuming that as a consumer you don’t have to do any work?”

Last year, one of the oldest recipe sites on the Internet, Epicurious, which was founded in 1995 as a companion to Gourmet and Bon Appétit magazines, announced an ambitious undertaking: Its editorial team would comb through the site’s extensive archives to edit or “repair” recipes that had been “put through a white American lens.”

“One of the first issues ‘repaired’ was use of the word ‘exotic,’” David Tamarkin, who was then digital director for Epicurious, told the AP last year.

“I can’t think of any situation where that word would be appropriate, and yet it’s all over the site,” Tamarkin said. “That’s painful for me and I’m sure others.”

Five words you should stop using when you talk about food

So, what word to use instead? It’s not so much about replacing “exotic” with another word, though “rare” or “difficult to find” might be more accurate descriptions for food in some cases. It’s about reframing your worldview.

As a scholar, Rivera sees her role in these conversations as an educator. “The question I ask myself is: How do we make these histories visible so people are more conscious and able to acknowledge their usage of dated terminology?”

“I don’t think people actually mean it maliciously,” Rivera says. “I think people just don’t realize how much power these words have, how much history they carry with them.”

Change is constant — it’s life itself. A quote I come back to often is one from the writer and futurist Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Ultimately, there are just two kinds of food: food you’re familiar with, and food you’re not. If any particular food fits into the latter category, for you, rather than expressing disgust or disdain, ask yourself: Why am I not familiar with it, and don’t I want to change that?

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that durian is native to South Asia. It is native to Southeast Asia. This version has been corrected.

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