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How Americans pretend to love ‘ethnic food’

(Amy King/The Washington Post; images from iStockphoto)
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There is a lie we like to tell ourselves, a bending of the truth that permeates most of the food world in the West. We like burgers and fries, and other quintessentially American dishes, but we also love foreign cuisines, the vast and varied bucket of foods we rush to dub "ethnic."

Surely you have told someone that you adore curry, or that you like nothing better than a bowl of pad Thai. Admit it, you have thought, at one point or another, that an unfamiliar dish, whatever it was, was so spicy it must be authentic.

But behind our public enthusiasm for Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Korean, and the many other foreign cuisines that can be enjoyed in cities like New York, there is also private, and yet pronounced, form of bias, a subtle hypocrisy that suggests we think these foods are inferior.

Our palate has undergone something of a renaissance over the past century, evolving to incorporate the cuisines of the immigrants who have made the United States their home. But we have incorporated these foods on our terms — not on theirs. We want "ethnic food" to be authentic, but we are almost never willing to pay for it.

There is ample evidence that we treat these foods as inferior, as Krishnendu Ray, the chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University, writes in his new book "The Ethnic Restaurateur." Ray points to the comparatively low price ceiling for various "ethnic cuisines," as a telling sign. Despite complex ingredients and labor-intensive cooking methods that rival or even eclipse those associated with some of the most celebrated cuisines — think French, Spanish and Italian — we want our Indian food fast, and we want it cheap.

The double standard carries with it all sorts of consequences, which Ray chronicles in his book. The people who make the "ethnic food" we eat are not always what they seem. Nor is the food, which, because of our refusal to treat it with the same prestige we treat others, is not nearly as authentic as we imagine it to be.

I spoke with Ray to learn more about the history of "ethnic foods" in the Western world, the hypocrisy behind our celebration of them and all the ways in which it hurts everyone involved. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with something kind of broad. What exactly is ethnic food, and when did we start calling things that?

The word ethnic has this complex history of both trying to reflect changing relationships and understandings of culture and trying to avoid more taboo terms. It came into play mostly in the 1950s, and is most commonly used in the world of food to mark a certain kind of difference — difference of taste, difference of culture. But you will also see marketing absorb it as a less fraught term than race. You see it in aisles at stores, where products that are not for white people might be advertised as being for ethnic people. You see it in the grocery store. Food that isn't associated with whites will be called ethnic.

What's interesting is that if you look back, we used to use the word foreign instead of ethnic. If you read the New York Times or the San Francisco Chronicle or the Los Angeles Times between the middle of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, foreign foods are talked about in a big way. And what is usually being referenced are things like German food and Irish food.

Now, I think what's happening is some people are beginning to get the sense that the word ethnic is this weird catch-all category that isn't useful anymore, that we should be talking more about Indian food or Thai food or Pakistani food, or maybe even further specifying. Maybe saying Indian food doesn't even make sense. Maybe what makes most sense is talking about regional cuisines.

I see it as part of the larger opening up of the larger American palate and the opening of the larger American mind.

I see why you say that the shedding of this term is indicative of a certain kind of open-mindedness, but in some ways, and you talk about this in your book, we’re not as open minded as we think. Can you explain why? 

Yes, I mean that's exactly right.

When we call a food ethnic, we are signifying a difference but also a certain kind of inferiority. French cuisine has never been defined as ethnic. Japanese cuisine is not considered ethnic today. Those are examples of cuisines that are both foreign and prestigious. There is no inferiority associated with them.

Look, the world has not become flat. It's not a flat food world here in the United States. There are what I call internal hierarchies of tastes, and there is nothing that shows this better than when you look at price, when you look at what we are willing to pay for different types of food. We are really not willing to pay for "ethnic food." It's true of Indian food, it's true of Thai food, it's true of Chinese food, and it's true of many others. They're just not good enough, in the minds of Americans anyway, to pay $30, $40 or $50 for these foods. People might say this isn't true, but it's very clear in the actions of American consumers.

The Civil Rights movement delegitimized the comfortable assignment of inferiority to different people and cultures. And that's a good thing. It's a powerful thing that's a very important part of American culture. But that doesn't mean it cured us of more implicit forms of assigning inferiority, and these hierarchies I think do a good job of showing that. Despite all this talk about how we eat everything and like everything, we are not willing to pay for everything at the same rate, and that tells you something.

It has become impolite to say that certain foods are inferior. But we are still certainly indicating that we feel that way.

Why do we feel that way? Or, at least, why do you think we act as though we feel that way?

I think it's partly a misunderstanding, a question of us just not knowing as much about these cuisines and cultures as we think we do. I actually have a really good example.

A recent graduate from the Culinary Institutes of America — so a trained chef, someone who should know more about food than the average person — was very upset that I had written this book. She said, 'well there are no Chinese chefs in the top 100 chefs in the world, because Chinese food and cooking is one-dimensional.' I couldn't believe it. Chinese food is one-dimensional? It's the cooking of a billion people, over thousands of years of written records and connoisseurship. To dismiss the whole cuisine as one-dimensional, but think about French cuisine, which doesn't date back nearly as far, as the home of all these complicated and varied techniques, tells you everything you need to know. She clearly knew very little about Chinese cuisine. She didn't have a taste or a palate for it. But, as it has been said many times before, she did not know what she did not know, and that's kind of the pitfall here.

If we know more about certain cuisines, we develop a palate for them and can see the various registers and complexities. But if we look at cuisines from a distance, as we do so many here, it's impossible to understand them. Take me for instance. I'm not much of a bread eater. There is a vast range and variety of breads in the world, but to me I see them all as just bread. They aren't very different to me. But if you were to give me a variety of rice dishes, I would be able notice things others cannot.

It's important to point out that this is all probably part of the natural ethnocentricity of a people. The more we know about a culture, the more we can understand about its nuance. That's why you'll hear people couple together Indian food and Thai food, and then say something like, 'Boy, Italian is so great and diverse.'

What’s funny is someone unfamiliar with Italian cuisine might think it’s just a bunch of the same thing in different shapes.

Exactly. If shape doesn't matter, as it doesn't to me as an outsider, because I'm not much of a pasta eater, you might find it bizarre that there are all these names for what are essentially just different shapes of pasta. It's the same thing.

Or take my mother's attitude toward wine. She's only had a few sips in her life, and each time she says the same thing, which is that it kind of tastes like rotten grapes.

And then there's this student, this culinary school graduate who said Chinese food is one-dimensional. She could have easily said the same of French food if she were as unfamiliar with it as she is with Chinese food.

So in some ways this hierarchy of taste is also a hierarchy of interest?

Definitely. It's hard to frame the entirety of it, but I use price as a kind of proxy, as a shorthand for our capacity to make distinctions between cuisines. The point is not to say that we shouldn't be eating each other's food or trying to. You have to begin somewhere, and naturally you begin with archetypes and stereotypes, but the question is whether you are willing to pay as much attention to it as you did to the other cuisines, as you did to, say, French food.

I think you might letting us off easy. It's one thing to be unfamiliar with a cuisine, but it's another thing to associate an unfamiliar cuisine with inferiority. I mean, many of these "ethnic foods" are costly, both in terms of ingredients and labor, to make. Right?

You are absolutely right about that. That is where the true unfairness comes in. It's the fact that we are not willing to pay the same price to get the same level of quality. And frankly, that's why you get so much crappy foreign food in the United States. There is so much bad Indian food here.

Here in the United States, when you buy "ethnic food," you're essentially buying it from people who learn to cook it on the fly, mostly men, who have often never cooked back home. What ends up happening is they hide technical deficiencies behind salt, butter, and fat. That's the food we have gotten used to. Here, Indian food is associated with relatively greasy, spicy, one-dimensional cooking. But that's cooking done by folks who actually aren't that familiar with traditional cooking, especially in the domestic context, which is so important to Indian cuisine.

What I'm saying is, our unwillingness to pay for a certain kind of experience communicates a form of racial or ethnic hierarchy. The price of a dish includes so many things — the price of the ingredients, the price of the skill or labor, the price of the decor, etc. We are making a statement about all of those when we aren't willing to pay more than $10 for what we call "ethnic food."

In this context, the word authentic seems so much more loaded than meets the eye, or I guess ear.

It really does. And I think it is fairly loaded. The word itself is both a search and a stick to beat it with. If the food is expensive, then it can't possibly be authentic. If you're charging $40 for it, it's definitely not authentic. But I'll tell you, some of the most authentic Indian food I have had in the United States costs that much.

But there's another thing going on here. Authentic is a relative term. Something is authentic according to your expectations of what it ought to be, right? Most of the Indian food I eat is not particularly spicy, but in the Western world, Indian food has become synonymous with cheap curry that is highly spiced. Americans might say 'it's not authentic, because it's not spicy,' but that's an absurd caricature of Indian food. Indian food is not necessarily spicy. In fact, a great deal of it is not spicy at all.

So I would ask people to think about what they mean when they say they want something authentic. Because most likely, they mean authentic according to their limited exposure to a country or cuisine.

Are you saying we have such a warped desire for these foods, that the reasons for it are so warped, we would rather have someone make the food that looks the part than someone who actually knows the cuisine very well?

Yes, and that's a pretty astute way to put it. If it appears to be authentic, it is authentic to us.

A really good example is the fact that most Japanese restaurants in the United States are run by Chinese, most inexpensive ones anyway. At expensive Japanese restaurants, this isn't the case — those employ skilled Japanese chefs — but those are few and far between. If you want to lure a skilled Japanese chef to a place like New York City, you have to pry them from a high-wage market in Japan. That means we have to pay them a lot more money. If you're going to pay $8.99 for sushi, which is the bottom of the market, there's no way you're going to get a Japanese chef to do it. That price cannot pay the opportunity costs for this chef to leave Japan. So instead we get poor immigrants, and not ones from Japan. Often that means a Chinese chef, since to most Americans they look similar.

The same can be said of Indian, and in many ways it's even truer. Most cheap Indian food is made by Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, and most Indian food here is cheap. Of course, people don't realize that. But it's true. More than 70 percent of the Indian restaurants in New York City, for instance, are not run by Indians. They are run by Bangladeshi and Pakistani restaurateurs.

And you know what? All of this works, because we can't make out the difference.

It seems like no one wins in this exchange. At least not at the moment.

What do you mean?

Well, for these restaurateurs, it means there is a firm and kind of arbitrary price threshold. For consumers, it's kind of like buying abstract art pieces from people who dress up as artists but actually have very little background in painting.

Oh, yes, that's a great analogy. Actually, it's funny you say that, because the Indian abstract art market has been picking up steam lately. People, I think out of sheer interest in the country and culture, have been buying a lot more abstract art by Indian painters.

Look, the good news is that these things change. There has actually been a growing appetite for mid-level Indian restaurants, especially in New York. Some of them are even bordering on upper market. But again, many of these are ex-pat twists on local cuisine, and as such are distinguishing themselves from the bottom end of the market here, which is run by Bangladeshis.

In your book, you talk about how our treatment of other foreign cuisines has transformed quite a bit in the past. Is that a sign our treatment of Indian food, Thai food and other foods we call "ethnic" will change, too?

Absolutely. German food, for the longest time, was frowned upon. German beer halls, where families would get together, were looked at with great disdain. But over time, as Germans climbed up in the social ladder, that changed, as it did for Italian food, and many others.

Now, all of this is assuming there is no other barrier preventing a people and their food from rising up in the minds of Americans. I'm mainly talking about various forms of racism here. In spite of migration from the South to the North, racism still blocks African Americans to a certain degree. But it has never really blocked white populations, which is why I think they have been the most successful in this regard. Germans, Italians, Jews — all of these people become "white."

Part of the question of becoming white is a question of acquiring prestige. You no longer receive any form of disdain toward your culture. Usually, it takes at least three or four generations. That's what happened with the Germans, with the Irish, with the Italians, with the Jews. We see the evidence of that, because they came from the middle 1850s onward, and that has more or less subsided.

Are there examples of cuisines that have not emerged out of their inferior status?

The thing is, if you move up in the cultural ladder, so will your food. If you don't, your food probably will not. This is clearest with Chinese food. It has been around as long as any other here, but we still aren't willing to pay for it. Our treatment of Japanese food, on the other hand, has changed, largely, I think, because of the nature of the people migrating to the United States from Japan.

Migration of poor people from your country and your culture has to end before America accords you prestige. Chinese food has been where it is, partly because there has always been a steady stream of poor Chinese migrants to the United States. But I think that is going to change big time if China grows over the next 20 years. Not only is our idea of China going to change, but our perception of Chinese things, including cuisine, is going to change.

Not to be cynical, but I'm about to be cynical. Is there a racial component to our food tastes? Are some cuisines kind of stuck in place because of underlying prejudices?

That's a good question. I mean, does it matter that the Chinese look and appear as being racially different from white folks? The Japanese example tells me that at the end of it class can triumph against color or race. The African American example, however, tells me that color or race can triumph against class. I don't know exactly where the Chinese are going to fall, but my guess is that it's going to look a bit more like the case of the Japanese, partly because we have revised our opinion of East Asians. That's because of the relative strength of national economies over there. It's also because of school performance of these minorities.

I'm optimistic about certain things, about our ability to change. But I'm pessimistic about others. We still treat people and cultures unequally, even if these things fly under the radar.

Right, I mean there are almost 50,000 Chinese restaurants in the United States, and yet most of us are unwilling to pay more than $10 for Chinese food.

It's absurd. I mean, in my mind it's one of the most subtle and sophisticated cuisines there are. The country has the largest number of people, with one of the longest food histories, and one of the most developed cuisines. The Chinese have been writing about food since long before the French, a thousand years before the French were writing about food extensively. We're just completely ignorant about it. And we're willing to make judgments based on that ignorance.

We walk in from the outside, and we have these very tight price straightjackets on which we frame our experience. We say, "I only want to pay $10, and it has to be spicy." And then we say, "Oh, that's obviously inferior to French cuisine, or Spanish cuisine," or whatever more familiar cuisine is in fashion at the moment.

I was thinking about how we're willing to pay more for the exact same ingredients prepared in a less time and labor intensive process. We're willing to pay more for roasted chicken and vegetables, when those same ingredients are used for various Chinese dishes. 

Look, some things we are willing to dismiss from afar, and some things we are willing to get close to and better understand and appreciate. But that takes time and money. And despite our omnivorousness, we're not willing to spend the time or money it takes to be thoughtful about our consumption of these foods. We can say what we want about all of these ethnic or foreign foods, but our actions say something completely different.