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.”
The topic resurfaced recently, when Lavanya Ramanathan penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post titled “Why Everyone Should Stop Calling Immigrant Food ‘Ethnic.’” We highlighted some of her points:
- “I encounter [the term] 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.’… 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.’”
- “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. 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.”
- “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.”
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