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Oct 8, 2000 07:10 PM

Ethnic Dining

  • j

In a message titled "Multilingual" on the Manhattan message board, Melanie Wong was pondering the fallacy of the term "ethnic dining", at least as it pertains to the ethnic mishmash of Northern California



Is fried chicken and apple pie "ethnic"? Or does it depend on the color of the chef?

How about a highly-stylized French bistro that deeply evokes a foreign country, where people talk in a foreign accent and play Edith Piaf recordings ethnic? Surely THAT is ethnic...?

Is feijoada more ethnic than cassoulet? Is rodizio more ethnic than a steakhouse? Is General Tso's chicken (cooked ONLY in America, as far as I know) ethnic? Is an egg cream ethnic?

It's ridiculous! EVERYTHING is ethnic. Or nothing. The term is pretty much meaningless at this point, but is still used, out of habit, as euphemism for a restaurant that's inexpensive and somehow "foreign" to the sensibilities of certain sheltered souls (who until recently were the 'tastemakers'). Of course, the tallies of what falls inside/outside the circle for these egocentric people have changed a lot over the past half century (they eat raw fish now, can yuh BELIEVE it?), yet the fallacious exclusionary term has resisted purging from their vocabulary (See my editorial on the subject at the link below).

This is one of the changes in food perception/enjoyment/culture many of us chowhounds work to achieve. When I started writing about food in 1988, there were people in positions of editorial authority who were utterly contemptuous of the thought that a Columbian woman grilling transportive corncakes on a street cart could be worthy of the same sort of non-condescending respect as a 4 star chef. That attitude is much less prevalent now, thank goodness.

Well, all but the condescension part...that's still far from dead. Watch how the NY Times plays Grimes versus Asimov for an idea. Why is this the case? The 5-star restaurants (along with their symbionts in publishing and merchandising) have all the advertising and press agent dough and use that to act as journalistic lobbyists to perpetuate the idea that their mileau is where you get the REAL food. A lot of money rides on this. does not take this money, and we hounds like to eat, think, and judge for ourselves.

I urge everyone to consider the above the next time you find yourself using the term "ethnic restaurant". And to eat skeptically and unhypnotized by artificially-induced conventional opinion.


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  1. m
    Melanie Wong

    Thank you, Jim. This is the first time I've read your editorial. You took it a step further than I was willing to state, that "ethnic dining" is actually a put down.

    But you didn't take my bait about the Taiwanese pastrami . . .

    1 Reply
    1. re: Melanie Wong

      "But you didn't take my bait about the Taiwanese pastrami . . ."

      I don't get it!

      "This is the first time I've read your editorial"

      Not to pick on you, Melanie, but I'm slightly chagrined that some of our most loyal regulars haven't taken full advantage of the site. Our "Articles and Special Reports" section contains--along with that editorial--a lot of infotaining chowhound-related reading material. And don't get me started on Radio Free Chowhound. C'mon, everybody, check this stuff out! Give us the surf we deserve!


    2. "Ethnic Cuisine" has become as overused as "postmodern" anything.

      If one had to choose, I would say that everything is ethnic. The Southern American food Jim mentioned above are the result of different ethnicities blending together in the form of food. Indian, African, and various European traditions blended to form such delights.

      If any one factor is overlooked the most in cooking's adaptablility, it is geography. On several occasions, Chowhounds have brought to my attention the variability of food--- even in relatively small regions like Italy. The nuances of a people's cuisine owes as much to geography as it does ethnicity. German cooking in south america is much different.

      I once studied the eating habits of 3 different Indian tribes (the Cherokee, Hopi, and Gitksan-- just south of alaska) in North america for grad school. Each had its own ways of survival, codified in their legends, agriculture (or lack of it), and cooking.

      as far as ethnic cuisine being a derogatory term, i've found the opposite in many cases. Some Thai or Korean restaurant serves a $5 meal for $15 or more. Italian and Mexican places (though popularized ethnic) especially serve substandard crap under the 'authentic ethnic cuisine' flag. Since when did pasta, beans and corn cost sooo much? Here in Fla (away from elitist food writers and the cornucopia of NYC dining), ethnic is often the liscence to overcharge.

      One more thing: i check out the featured articles all the time here, but find them less than useful since they (by necessity) focus mostly on the NYC area. As a result, many of the restaurant reviews (but not all the features) are purely a matter of curiosity for me.

      1 Reply
      1. re: andy huse

        Andy--FWIW, many of the "articles and special report" are not geographically specific

      2. While I agree that ethnic cuisine can have pejorative connotations, I think that there is a useful aspect to the term. Back in the 50's and 60's, when restaurants were far less varied, it was a convenient catchall for "non-American" places. At that time another term had currency which is also rare these days - Continental - another catchall for pan-ethnic or European, and usually just "Americanized" French. At that time, the sense of the word had as much to do with exoticism as ethnicity. Diners, not to mention chowhounds, were far less adventurous than now. So while I believe it's true that ethnic cuisine is a term that has outlived it's usefulness, the concept of "strangeness" or "foreigness" has not.

        As an example of this, while staying in Anagni, Italy with the relatives of a friend about ten years ago, we had frequent conversations about food. Bear in mind that Anagni (about 50 miles outside Rome) is quite rustic/provincial. They inquired about the cuisine in America and were surprised to find that Italian food and restaurants were available. They expected me to find pasta to be exotic. For them there could be no Italian food in America. It had to be American food. I kid you not. Anything that was not what what they were accustomed to was both ethnic and exotic even if it amounted to the same thing on the plate.

        I'm with you in thinking that ethnic food means absolutely nothing these days, but I am also aware of some geocentricity informing my own attitude.


        1. Hmmm ... yep ... 2000 thread.

          There is a discussion on the SF board about Indian food being labeled as ethnic. A poster linked to this discussion with the comment that the editorial link to the OP was dead and no longer working unfortuantely.

          I really liked some of those special reports on the original site. There was info in some that was no where else on the web with some fabulous pictures. So I saved off those reports. Here's the content to that dead link. I thought probably this would be a better place to copy it than in the SF discussion.

          Chowhound's Articles & Special Reports
          An Editorial

          There's a practice in the food press that bothers me. It's the condescending term "ethnic dining". First of all, what ISN'T ethnic dining? Well...French, Northern Italian, Thai, Chinese; the Officially Sanctioned Cuisines. "All of those other...LITTLE places," goes the old-fashioned rap, "offer surprisingly INEXPENSIVE alternatives to those unfortunate souls who can't afford the Real Thing". Well, screw the official sanctioners. I love cassoulet, but how dare they pronounce it more edibly valid than its Brazilian cousin, feijoada?

          Posh dining is a fine evening's entertainment, and the food in this very narrow slice of the food spectrum sometimes even inspires. But one wouldn't want to live life drinking only champagne; darn it, a banana milkshake is more than just culinary consolation for those who can't afford Dom Perignon. In fact, I won't even concede that Dom Perignon tastes "better" than a beautifully-made shake. They serve different needs and say different things. THE CATEGORIES ARE HORIZONTAL, NOT VERTICAL!!

          An end to culinary materialism! Delicious is delicious...period! The art of cooking is no different from any other: a feeling or idea in the mind of the artist (cook) faithfully transfers via a medium (food) into the mind of the audience (eater), the MESSAGE TRANSCENDING THE MEDIUM. To become caught up with ingredients and technique-- medium for medium's sake--is to flout art.

          All who sample the Arepa Lady's arepas smile the same smile. The Arepa Lady is telling you something deep, and what she's telling you has nothing to do with corn cakes.

          Postmodernism embraces and respects all manifestations of an artform. It's long past time for stodgy gourmets to adopt a more postmodern attitude toward food.

          © Jim Leff, 1999.

          5 Replies
          1. re: rworange

            I wonder if Susan Sontag ever read this. If she had ,she would have enthusiastically approved. She said similar things about visual art in her "Notes on Camp" "The
            experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the
            sensibility of high culture has no monopoly on refinement," Sontag
            wrote. "The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving
            himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy; in the
            constant exercise of his good taste he will eventually price himself out
            of the market, so to speak. Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste
            as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste
            cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated.
            It is good for the digestion."

            The only problem is, there are times when I try to express a concept and the only word that will fit the bill is "ethnic" E.g. Postmodernism is great, but sometimes it can subvert communication.

            1. re: Brian S

              Is any "ethnic" food in Manhattan worth the trip from Queens??

              Is any Asian, African, European, Latin, etc food in Manhattan worth the trip from Queens??

              Is any food in Manhattan worth the trip from Queens??

              ethnic replaced by? ...
              other than American

              Oddly enough the thesaurus defines international as the antonym of ethic which is defined as local

              I guess that would mean that your question was asking if there was any local food ... that is American food ... better in Manhattan. It's a melting pot anyway ... I was kidding about using un-American.

              I don't know ... maybe by restricting your question, it missed the opportunity to find the best apple pie in Manhattan. Also by restricting food from specific nationalities to a 'location ghetto' the isolated amazing Greek, Indonesian, Mexican, etc joint in Manhattan might get missed.

              That might be the problem with the original question. Not being inclusive of the various cuiines that Queens has more of. It doesn't mean that Manhattan might not have great, though fewer of the same.

              Because there are more ... for example ... Thai restaurants, in Queens ... sure the higher ratio of good Thai restaurants ... also the higher ratio of bad Thai resturants. Some of the best food I've found have been in places they shouldn't be ... where they are unexpected.

              Just learned that the best fish in SF, could be in the most unexpected of places ... Fisherman's Wharf ... San Franciscans won't eat in the Wharf Area because the thought is that it is over-priced, poorly-prepared tourist food .. and yes ... much of it is ... and yet there might be ...

              That doesn't mean I don't understand the concept. When someone asks where's the best Mexican food, I'll often answer International Blvd in Oakland ... though there are specific better restaurants elsewhere.

              1. re: Brian S

                It was my reply over in the SF board that started this little resurgence. I reacted to a poster asking for a recommendation for "ethnic" food. Just struck me funny. I haven't heard anyone use the term "ethnic food" for years. That's a good thing, as mentioned in 2000 - I take "ethnic" as a bit of a slur, like a codeword for black, brown, yellow. Ewww.

                Brian S, you've got a real point, which I think I can paraphrase as: "what's the name for a lower-class restaurant serving the people's food"? Like when I'm traveling in Mexico - I have an aversion to the fancy restaurants, have a higher "miss rate", and tend to eat at outdoor stalls. It's so easy to tell quality - the tone of the crowd, the smell of the grill, the care they take with ingredients, the joy of the cooks. "Street food" is a term we use for stalls, but what about when that class of food moves indoors?

                "Low class" has the wrong connotations, although may be literally what I mean (the opposite of upper class with no slur intended). I find myself using "hole in the wall", or "joint". The local free paper has a column "without reservations" targeted as the rung above, whereas the "cheap eats" column is focused squarely on tiny family run joints. As I consider, "joint" is the word I use the most. "Yeah, it's a little bahn mi joint with one table inside, and one by strip mall curb. Meat can be a little dry, but great pickles and bread".

                How do you descibe this thing? Can we agree on a term?

                I challenge the 'hound community to come up with a good word for this kind of place. I'll do my part to promote it.

                But the word sure ain't "ethnic".

                1. re: bbulkow

                  I stopped using 'dive' and 'hole-in-the-wall' to be replaced by 'mom & pop'. I use joint, but I'm as likely to use that for an upscale restaurant.

                  Here's why I stopped using the other two words ... at least directly in a report about a place.

                  I did a report on a little Russian bakery that had great soup and baked goods. The people didn't even speak English. So I called it a great hole-in-the-wall.

                  You would think the last people to read Chowhound would be at this obsure Russian-speaking place.

                  The owner responded (in English) that they were planning a nicer restaurant in the future and talked a little bit more about the menu they did offer.

                  All I could think is that here's someone who didn't have a great command of English and probably didn't understand the coloquism of a hole-in-the-wall just meaning a little restaraunt. He probably thought I was saying the restaurant was a dump.

                  Yes, I know Chowhound is about the diner and the food. Still, there are real people at these restaurants who work hard and take pride in what they do and might not understand a common term and take it as a slur.

                  So it doesn't kill me to use mom & pop ... people understand.

                  1. re: bbulkow

                    uh oh. I really like the word "ethnic" because 1/ for the most part, people understand what it means and 2/ I always thought it was a complimentary not pejorative term. To me it denotes spice, authenticity, interestingness, genuine goodness, flavour etc.

              2. The original comment has been removed