The Paradox of “Ethnic” Food

indian food buffetOne could argue that the food revolution in the U.S and our increasing interest in taste was made possible by the emergence of ethnic* cuisines brought here by immigrants. While mid-20th Century Americans were subsisting on a bland diet of TV dinners and Twinkies brought to us by the industrial food system, immigrant enclaves were busy figuring out how to preserve the tastes of home using American ingredients. Exposure to these exotic flavors, made available through small, mom and pop eateries, increasingly motivated Americans to be more adventurous in their eating habits paving the way for the explosion of innovation that is now routine in U.S. cooking.

But the driving force behind the acceptance of ethnic cuisines is that the food was cheap and fast. Immigrant populations, especially 1st generation, tend to be less well-off than more established populations and have to hustle to make ends meet. They could not afford high prices or leisurely meals. As a result, ethnic foods—taco stands, Indian lunch buffets, Thai lunch specials, Bento boxes, and a United Nations of food trucks–have become a fixture in the fast food and casual dining sectors providing Americans with a multitude of interesting, exotic up-to-a- point, inexpensive dining options.

But as chef and mathematician Hari Pulipaka points out in this lamentation regarding the plight of Indian food, this path to success for ethnic cuisines has come at a cost:

In a nutshell, the more we expect ethnic food to be inexpensive, the more frequently it is executed in a formulaic and tempered way using sub-standard ingredients. This is a case of driving down the quality of supply to meet an obvious demand. There is certainly a time and place for a less than refined or inspired execution, but just because it isn’t French or Japanese cuisine, to name two examples that have been successfully marketed to be deserving of upscale prices, it doesn’t mean that the other cuisines of the world are lesser in stature when it comes to technique or intrinsic quality.

Pulipaka points out that the Indian diaspora is both highly educated and wealthy compared to other immigrant populations, and the cuisine of India is as refined and varied as more celebrated cuisines. But with a few exceptions this population has not supported a movement to represent this quality in restaurants.The more popular a cuisine gets, the less it becomes representative of its real potential. Indian food is surely more interesting than “hot, spicy, and curried”.

He closes with a gentle upbraid:

The Indian diaspora in this country bear a certain responsibility to spread the deserving demand. After all, the facts point towards a group who can certainly afford it and are educated enough to understand that the stereotypes will remain as long as we perpetuate them ourselves.

But I don’t think this issue is unique to Indian food. As he notes, Japanese food is the only so called “ethnic” food (if we exclude French and Italian) that has been routinely able to charge higher prices and achieve a level of refinement that approximates the highest achievements of which the cuisine is capable. Stereotypes are hard to break even when you have the resources.


*For what it’s worth, I don’t like the term “ethnic” because I’m never sure what is to be included in the concept. Is French food “ethnic”. It’s been part of mainstream high culture for decades; so has Italian food more recently. Generally it seems to mean “food you didn’t eat growing up”. But the term is in widespread use; it would appear we are stuck with it.

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