Monday, May 10, 2010

What Is "Ethnic" Food?

Steak vs. Fried Goat Udders - Which one seems more ethnic?

What is ethnic food? Is it anything foreign? America prides itself on its cultural diversity. This melting pot of…well, melting pots, is home to almost every type of cuisine on the planet. Yet how is it that we have a limited ideal of “American” foods as burgers, pizza and hot dogs. Or maybe for the more liberal, American food is anything that is fatty, salty or too sweet.

Burger from The Counter - pretty safely not ethnic

The term “ethnic food” is ambiguous. We tend to have a good idea of the foods on either polar extremes of the line. Despite the cultural origins on many of our favorite foods, some of them are unabashedly American now—French fries, steak, and apple pie come to mind. On the other side, foods associated with exotic locales like Thai or Ethiopian are pretty clearly ethnic. Problems occur on the line as America assimilates more and more into its mainstream cuisine. Do people consider Italian food ethnic? Maybe if you were eating sweet corn agnolotti, but spaghetti with meat sauce is about as American as it gets.

More perplexing is whether soul food is considered “ethnic.” Some aspects of soul food are reflexively American like mac ‘n’ cheese or fried chicken, but what about chitterlings and pigs’ feet? Classifying soul food faces the uncomfortable question of whether being American means being white. But for many Americans, especially away from the Deep South, soul food is just as foreign as pad thai.

Polish Pierogi

What about food that is undoubtedly white but just never made it big in America? Polish pierogi are just rare enough to be ethnic, but kielbasas are as common as tailgate parties. Would you therefore say that Polish food is ethnic?

Of course there are also those who describe ethnic when they really mean authentic. And by authentic, they mean non-Americanized. I could take a friend out for Chinese food and depending on what we ordered, you could say it was both ethnic and not. Sweet and sour pork, eggrolls, and chow mein just don’t seem that foreign for most of America these days. Tacos might bring to mind images of haciendas and senoritas, but burritos resonate with gas station microwaves and Taco Bells.

More likely, we associate American food to cooking styles. Barbecue is an American institution. Grilling, also very American. We tend to like fire, and lots of it. And of course, only in American will you find deep fried Coke and KFC Double Downs.

Or is it something inherent in the culture of the food that makes it American. Do we associate ourselves with cowboy independence and self-subsistence? Maybe we identify ourselves as the big beef eaters, preferably wrapped in bacon. Unfortunately, for some, being American is about being bigoted and self-righteous, in which case, “Hello, Freedom Fries!”



mattatouille said...

ethnic food is about perspective. since America is a melting pot, I think ethnic food is really anything that isn't distinctly american, or originated outside of America. I know there are exceptions, but that's the way I see it. Nice piece.

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the constant hunger said...

I think you make a point about how people say "ethnic" when what they really mean is "authentic." Most "ethnic" foods have been so Americanized that they are unidentifiable by "ethnic" groups. Loved this post. Makes you think.

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Nikhil Khandekar said...

I like mattatouille's broad thinking - ethnicity in all its manifestations is certainly based on perspective. Here in India, for example, we are just as at home with KFC and MacDonald's as anyone in American can be.

Come to think of it, the whole world's a melting pot these days.

Food chains and their offerings are contributing greatly to sending ethnic foods a long way away from home.

Ethnic food becomes homogenised to the extent that it no longer sounds or tastes foreign over a period of time. But it will certainly contribute a fat lot to this important cultural exchange if we also display the grace to acknowledge that ethnic food once belonged to the country of its origin.

Great article.

Anonymous said...

I love Indian,Chinese and other Asian food.Generally I go to one of the ethnic grocery store or buy from

Anonymous said...

So, from the perspective of someone going out to eat in Japan, would going to McDonald's be considered going out for "ethnic food"?

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