Friday, April 22, 2016

"Ethnic Food" in the USA

American cities and suburbs are teeming with so-called "ethnic" restaurants: Chinese, Thai, Lebanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian, etc. There are thousands of them, and they are often quite popular. But what makes a type of food "ethnic" while others aren't (take Japanese, French, or Italian, for instance, all cuisines that don't usually get ghettoized in the same fashion)?

What does that even mean?

Why are Americans willing to pay higher prices for some countries' cuisine (again, check out French, for example) but expect "ethnic food" to be cheaper, even if that means sacrificing some quality? Speaking of quality, why are some culinary traditions seen as tasty but one-dimensional while others are marveled at for their complexity and variation? Americans frequently express an interest in "authenticity," but what does that word actually mean, especially if your only familiarity with the cuisine comes from the restaurants here in the States? What does all of this say about subconscious views about inferiority and superiority of different cultures? These and other fascinating questions and issues are discussed at length in this interview published in the Washington Post with Krishnendu Ray, the chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of the new book "The Ethnic Restaurateur." I encourage you to read it and ponder the issues therein (especially if you are one of those Americans who craves "ethnic food"...time to do some self-examination, perhaps).

One particularly relevant quote from the article for me was this: "The more we know about a culture, the more we can understand about its nuance." That, in a nutshell, is one of the main reasons I wrote this book. You can't appreciate the complexity of a culture unless you get out there and dig past the surface. Of course I'm obligated to say that if you really want authentic, high-quality food, and you really want to explore the nuance of a culture, there's no better method than travel...perhaps with a guide to local food in hand...not that I have anything in particular in mind.