“Ethnic food.” Lately, the very term makes me lose my appetite.
I encounter it where I don’t expect it — in mainstream food writing — and where I do: Yelp. Browsing that vast compost pile of opinion, I learn that one restaurant has “just enough ethnicity to make people feel multicultural.” Another, a Latin American joint that sits on what must be Washington’s gentrification line of demarcation, can still pass one reviewer’s ethnic test. Which is, of course: “Look for patrons of that restaurant’s ethnicity eating there.”
Then there are gems such as this, floating out there on the Internet: “When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly?” That is your cue, suggests the writer: Authenticity awaits. And apparently it is intertwined with low-rent digs and health-code violations.
For Americans, eating out has always been discount tourism, charred fish with the head on being the food obsessive’s equivalent of a visit to Angkor Wat (no malaria pills necessary!). Our desire to explore via our taste buds is as innate as the itch to traipse through the souks of Morocco and snorkel in the blue waters of Bora Bora.
By all means, eat up. Wrap your fingers around a sticky Laotian sakoo yat sai, savor your first tango with corn smut. But it’s time to stop talking about ethnic food as though we’re Columbus and the cuisines served up by immigrants are ours for the conquering. Let us never again blog a lengthy ethnography, no matter how well intentioned, when we visit a pupuseria. In fact, let’s drop the term “ethnic food” altogether.
It’s not the phrase itself, really. It’s the way it’s applied: selectively, to cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin.
“Ethnic food” is always Indian and Thai, Vietnamese and Salvadoran, strip-mall and gas-station eateries and fare so spicy it should be washed down with equal parts water and Pepto-Bismol. Those who seek it out are dubbed “adventurous” eaters, as if only Indiana Jones could get down with a plate of tibs.
Why do a couple of innocuous words have me so ready to slap someone with a roll of injera? Why do I care?
Immigrants’ identities are deeply tied to the foods we bring with us. When we hear our cuisine described as exotic, hodgepodge, greasy or cheap, you might as well be remarking disdainfully about our clothes or skin color.
I am tired of readers requesting restaurant recommendations that do not include Indian or Ethiopian. I’m slack-jawed when I read (Yelp, again) that the offerings at one of Washington’s rare family-owned Mexican restaurants don’t measure up to Chipotle’s.
“Ethnic cuisines are considered low, and fusion cuisines are considered haute cuisines,” says Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches about the relationship between food and international conflict at American University’s School of International Service.
Krishnendu Ray, a New York University professor of food studies, says we use the descriptor “ethnic” for “a category of things we don’t know much about, don’t understand much about and yet find it valid to express opinions about.” Ray, who has written reams about ethnic cuisine, including a forthcoming book, “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” says the term “ethnic food” is used as a way to signify “a certain kind of inferiority.” He even has a $30 theory: Diners, he says, refuse to pay more than $30 for what they perceive as ethnic food.
Yet Neapolitan pizza, steak frites, tapas and trendy, leaf-strewn Nordic cod evade the label, even though citizens of European countries are every bit as connected by ethnicity as those from elsewhere, and even though their ingredients are often just as foreign. We simply give Western European cuisine a pass.
Here’s a funny truth about dining in America: We didn’t really eat out until we had our first taste of immigrant cuisine. After that, restaurants became a national obsession.
Just as the immigrant population blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries, the growing American middle class was beginning to find haute cuisine elitist, not to mention a remnant of the exact people the colonists had booted out more than a century earlier.
German and Italian eateries, and later, Chinese restaurants, were the opposite: They were affordable. Exotic. To eat at one was to project that one was worldly (never mind that sometimes what was being served was the likes of chop suey, that ethnic food parlor trick created for the Western palate).
The rise of leisure travel, the tide of young people enlisting in the Peace Corps and the growing popularity of cookbooks in the post-war years deepened our hunger pangs for foods from Japan, West Africa, India, Latin America and the Middle East.
The ebb and flow of global influences is the only constant in American food.
“Wasabi, Sriracha, and naan and pita and soy sauce and hummus — all of these things would have struck an American in 1950 as very exotic and foreign and odd,” says Paula J. Johnson, a National Museum of American History curator who specializes in food history. “But now, these are things that are very everyday for many people.”
It’s an ideal moment to lay down our forks and rethink how we perceive our immigrant cuisines. Our exposure to a world of foods has never been greater; our palates have never been more primed.
It was only after the world wars, says Michael W. Twitty, a culinary historian specializing in African American and Jewish foodways, that we began to break out of our ethnic enclaves. “We went to school,” he says, “we traded lunches, and we began to eat each other’s food.” The Great Migration turned everyday food of the South into the hip soul food of Chicago.
Pick up Mimi Sheraton’s engrossing book “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” and you’ll find a series of little love letters to American dishes, including the anchovy-laced Caesar salad and Louisiana mudbugs, Daniel Boulud’s foie-stuffed “db burger” and Wolfgang Puck’s smoked-salmon pizza. (Those two chefs, I have to point out, are both immigrants and yet find their offerings filed under “American.”)
But rounding out Sheraton’s tome of the world’s must-try delectables are Ethiopian coffee, which she urges food lovers to find in New York, New Jersey and Washington; Sichuan staple dan dan mian, the numbing peppercorn-spiked wheat noodles you can sample in Chicago and San Francisco; and India’s icy dessert kulfi, as easily found in Penn Quarter as it is in New Delhi.
It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato. And that’s true whether we’re in Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Washington.
“When you think about quote-unquote ethnic food, it’s, like, an antiquated philosophy,” says Matt Wadiak, executive chef of Blue Apron, the start-up subscription service that deposits 3 million DIY dinner kits on American doorsteps every month. “It’s a weird thing to say ‘ethnic food’ these days.”
In any given week, Blue Apron is as likely to deliver the goods to prepare a North African tagine, Japanese soba salad and Vietnamese chicken wings as it is to send good old-fashioned steak.
Still, Wadiak says, “I wasn’t sure when we started the company that people would want to engage with the kinds of foods I wanted to cook, and that I made at home.” But what he found, he says, was that “the market has very much changed.” Millennials travel more, and to more distant locations; sources finally exist stateside for international ingredients; and there’s a whole world of food journalism, from Anthony Bourdain’s televised travel exploits to cooking blogs, exposing diners to varied food traditions.
It’s in that environment that Houston’s Underbelly, opened in 2012, has been able to thrive. Chef Chris Shepherd’s goal was to serve the local food; for him, that’s brisket, a Texas staple, but also tamales and dill-laced snapper on a bed of thin rice noodles. Taken together, he argues, they’re an edible introduction to his city of more than 2 million people, where vibrant Vietnamese, Korean, African American and Latin American populations share the humid urban terrain.
Shepherd calls his food “New American creole,” and, like many chefs of so-called New American food, he’s quick to differentiate it from “fusion,” that relic of the 1980s and 1990s that resulted in the terrible idea to whip wasabi into mashed potatoes. “What I don’t want to do is bastardize or steal,” he says.
“This,” Shepherd explains, “is American food. This is where the food of our country is going.”
Our American taste buds are also being profoundly influenced by a slew of second-generation Americans, including Los Angeles’s Roy Choi and New York’s David Chang and Jessi Singh, each of whom is serving global food without getting slapped with the ethnic label. In Washington, restaurants such as Filipino-flavored Purple Patch, Ethiopian restaurant Ethiopic, hip Cambodian-meets-Taiwanese outfit Maketto, Laotian Thip Khao and Peruvian Ocopa similarly defy the stereotypes foisted upon immigrant eateries. Their chefs are cooking the dishes of their heritage in handsome spaces with exposed brick and Edison bulbs; people of all ethnicities can be found dining within.
Do some question the authenticity of such restaurants, arguing they’re not “ethnic” enough? That they charge too much? Absolutely — and that needs to change, too.
Nearly everyone I spoke to urged diners not to blanket the cuisines of dozens of immigrant groups with such generic labels as “ethnic,” or even “New American,” but to delve deeper into origin stories, to celebrate difference. “My major issue,” says historian Twitty, “is, are the people eating the food appreciating the context?”
At Twitty’s perfect dinner table, diners would be aware of the West African and slave influence on barbecue and Southern food, know kalbi from Kobe, and finally recognize there’s no such thing as Indian food but instead Punjabi, Goan, Kashmiri and more. We’d cling tightly to our own food traditions, and respect others’.
At mine, we would never ding a clean, contemporary-looking restaurant lucky enough to afford the rent in a pricey neighborhood as being “inauthentic.”
And, yes, we’d pay the going rate for dinner.