Ethnic exit

Why it’s time to 86 the term ‘ethnic restaurant’

By Paula Johnson

What is “ethnic food,” exactly? Writer Bruce Palling asked this question in 2011, and he found that key food dictionaries such as “Larousse Gastronomique” and the “Oxford Companion to Food” did not mention it at all. Google the definition of “ethnic food” and you’ll mostly get definitions for the word “ethnic.” “It is a tricky phrase to define,” he writes, “because ultimately, it seems to me to mean food eaten by people poorer than we are.” So defining it might be tricky, but defining what isn’t “ethnic” cuisine isn’t. Think about it. You would most likely never refer to Italian, French, or German restaurants with that term. Further, since Caucasian is an ethnic group, why doesn’t anyone call Cracker Barrel or Applebee’s ethnic restaurants? In an increasingly multicultural society, the term “ethnic food,” is now starting to take on an offensive connotation, because it seems to lump all nonwhite people and their cuisines together in a category of “other.” And that translates to how we view the people whose cuisine it is. In other words, according to Krishnendu Ray, a New York University professor of food studies, how we value a culture’s cuisine in our society often reflects the status of those who cook it.

This has been a hot topic in the food writing world for a while, and it’s time to shed some light on why using the term “ethnic” to describe food and restaurants has fallen out of favor. Close examination of what the word means and what it’s associated with reveals that it’s not simply political correctness. There are some pretty nasty attitudes associated with the term. For instance, ethnic cuisines are considered low, while the current craze for fusion cuisines incorporating flavors and ingredients of those cuisines is considered haute cuisine. Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches about the relationship between food and international conflict at American University’s School of International Service has written a lot about this perception. Then there’s this from an Internet blogger: “When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly?” Her comment is supposed to indicate that means really good authentic dining.

Historically there’s suspicion and hostility associated with ethnic immigrant cuisines. In the 1920s, social workers and nutritionists cautioned that Italian food was too garlicky and spicy—which they said increased the craving for alcohol. The presence of flavor enhancer MSG in Chinese food was part of a health scare which began in the 1960s, something which has since been widely discredited. But ironically, Americans didn’t really eat out until we had our first taste of immigrant cuisine. After that, restaurants with immigrant cuisine became a national obsession, points out Lavanya Ramanathan in her 2016 article in The Washington Post titled “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic.’”

Krishnendu Ray, whom I mentioned before, has written a book on the topic called “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” where he talks about the descriptor “ethnic” being used 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. Ethnic food is used as a way to signify ‘a certain kind of inferiority.’” Take his $30 theory. Diners, he says, refuse to pay more than $30 for what they perceive as ethnic food. The public expects immigrant cuisine to be cheap, even though the cost of ingredients and the labor to prepare them is the same no matter what kind of food is being served.

Matt Wadiak, the executive chef of the popular start-up subscription meal service Blue Apron, weighs in on the topic. (The subscription service delivers 3 million DIY dinner kits to American doorsteps every month.) He says, “When you think about quote-unquote ethnic food, it’s, like, an antiquated philosophy. It’s a weird thing to say ‘ethnic food’ these days.” He points out, “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.” It’s clear the American public is now familiar with and expects a range of tastes. “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. But now, these are things that are very everyday for many people,” says Paula J. Johnson, a National Museum of American History curator who specializes in food history. So we love the tastes that come to us from global cultures, it’s clear. So how do we find a better way to articulate and try to overcome outdated attitudes and terms?

What might we say instead? The term “immigrant cuisine” has been suggested. So has “international,” or “global food,” or “world cuisine.” Probably the best way to describe a cuisine is by what it actually is, like Caribbean, Lithuanian, Moroccan. The bottom line: Learning about a cuisine—experiencing it—can draw the world a little closer. Opening our mouths to each other’s foods can become a gateway to opening our minds to each other’s cultures.

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Paula Johnson
Dayton City Paper Dining Critic Paula Johnson would like every meal to start with a champagne cocktail and end with chocolate soufflé. As long as there’s a greasy burger and fries somewhere in the middle. Talk food with Paula at PaulaJohnson@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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