Classifying Food and the 7 Continents...
Sorry, I couldn't come up with a better title.
For awhile now, I have been pondering over something. - When we try to put food into a category, how come we tend to identify some only by the continent and others only by the country. (Well, not ALL of us, but in general)
For instance, I was looking at a restaurant finder where you can search by category. On the same list you can search for "Asian" or "Indian"
Somehow we got it in our brains that Asian means Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and Thai ... How many people recommend a good Indian restaurant when someone is looking for a good inexpensive Asian restaurant? Why should India have its own category? And who thinks Chinese food is the same as Vietnamese? Why do we lump some countries together but not others. We shouldn't do this - especially when it comes to food!!
I decided to post this thread after I read a post where someone was looking for a good African restaurant. Then someone told him to be more specific.
In some people's minds "African" may mean Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria ... to others the word "Africa" means Morocco etc.
I am having such a hard time expressing myself! I hope what I am writing makes a little sense.
Those "eaters", for I cannot call them "diners", who lump all ITALIAN or MEXICAN, or for that matter, AMERICAN food together have zero interest in discovering the subtle and not-so subtle geographic and seasonal nuances of the named country. Witness the legions who complain about the quality of January's tomatoes in the frozen Northeast. Indeed, recognizing the differences presupposes eating "real" food, not chain slop that never varies from region to region.
It does not take Mensa mentality to understand that a country with significent topographical changes will grow different food products in different regions.
You just have to outsmart (or ignore) the lazy minds, you'll never change 'em. Those unwilling to learn will not be forced, save your energy for a project where you have a chance of success. I really think this is a case of leading your horse to the trough ...........
Why shouldn't a restaurant finder group restaurants by a region, whether it is a continent, subcontinent, country, or province? Do you want the finder to have a separate category for each country, regardless of how many restaurants fall in that category?
In many parts of the USA, 'Mexico' is a useful category, while Argentina, Ecuador and Chile might all be grouped under Latin or South America. Maybe in NYC, each country has a large enough representation to get its own listing. Still it might be useful the group the Ecuadorian ones next to the Colombian ones.
There are lots of other useful ways of grouping restaurants. Mexican places could be divided into 'taco trucks', 'taquerias', 'taco-bell clones', 'Americanized sitdown', and 'authentic sitdown', just to list a few.
Geographic regions and cuisines can be grouped and divided in all kinds of ways. The Indian subcontinent is often distinguished from the rest of Asia; for that matter SE Asia has its own identity, and may be grouped with Oceania (Indonesia and Malaysia). Within countries there is plenty of room for division, whether it be the different regional foods of China, or of India (north, south, Mogul style, etc). The Japanese even distinguish a Edo (Tokyo) style from Osaka, and other regions (just watch Iron Chef or Tony Bourdain's latest show on Japan).
I don't tend to lump the various east Asian restaurants together. I readily distinguish Chinese from Japanese from Korean from Thai etc. There are some overlaps, though. One Japanese restaurant near me has a Korean owner/chef, and some Korean dishes on its menu. I just looked at a Cambodian restaurant/bakery, which had some very Vietnamese looking items on its menu.
On there other hand I would classify a number of groceries in the Seattle area as 'Asian', though I can make a guess at their individual ownership or focus. While they carry similar products, some are more Korean, others apparently Thai, and the large California based Ranch 99 chain appears to have Chinese roots.
Further more, some of these Asian groceries have decent Latino/Mexican sections, as well as some sort of East European aisle (another broad grouping). Imagine a Vietnamese owner trying to direct a Mexican employee on how to arrange a shelf full of products labeled with the Cyrillic alphabet :-)
There's much confusion out there, and I think it stems from ignorance and generalizations.
We, as Chowhounds, should do our part, at least on the board, by identifying food and restaurants as specifically as possible. After all, even China and India are large enough to warrant further categorization - by province, city or region. Don't know? Ask. A little inquisitiveness will almost always be appreciated, and most restaurateurs would like to be treated as part of the community, not just as our servants.
I think it has to do with what we have enough knowledge to differentiate. Few American adults would mistake a typical German meal for an Italian meal. But to differentiate between Laotian and Vietnamese? Still learning. But we could tell if it was an Indian meal set before us. Japanese is quite different from Korean, but how many people have eaten them often enough to know exactly (chowhounds excepted, of course). Also, outside the big cities, and depending on the region of the country, Asian may mean Chinese because that's all there is.
I've eaten enough Ethiopian to know what to expect, generally, but only had Nigerian once, and no other black African food that I could ascribe to a particular country. I wouldn't know enough to answer the question of being more specific, except to say, I would be looking for the kind of place where Africans themselves go to eat food from home, not the kind of place that gets reviewed in the newspaper.
re: Anne H
Another interesting thing is how other cultures perceive foreign foods. When speaking with my family, we would talk about going to and differentiate between Chinese restaurants (and various Chinese regional cuisines), Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian, but will lump cuisines of various Arab countries as "Middle Eastern Food" or will usually refer to all cuisines of Europe or North America simply as "Western Food".
re: Anne H
Well, it's really not just food ... I mean when Columbus was on his voyage which landed him in N. America he was on his way to the "Orient" (To bring back the spices from India) When we as Americans say "Oriental" are we ever referring to East Indians. What if we say, "that person is Asian" ... But in Africa, (where there is a LARGE Indian population that came over to work) they are known commonly as Asians.
Food wise though, it seems so weird to me. It's like someone coming to the US and and saying, "I want to try American food." Well, think of all the regions we have - all with their own specialties. (Not to mention that North America includes Canada - and there is South America too!)
I am not trying to sound smarter than anyone ... it is just an observation that has been bugging me for sometime and I just wanted to talk about it.