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Jan 17, 2007 03:52 PM

race/ethnicity as a food topic

I have seen a number of posts questioning the race or ethnicity of particular restauranteurs, ("ethnic viet" on outer boroughs) or questioning the ethnic makeup of a particular area of town. (Repeated references to the possible bangladeshi origin of restaurant staff in the 6th st indian places in NYC.) when I have tried to point out that I think this is bordering on racism, Chowhound removes my posts. Am I crazy? When someone starts a post talking about the ethnic origins of the staff of a restaurant, isn't that kind of appropriate critique? My question is always, what does the ethnicity of the restauranter have to do with the quality of their food? people of different ethnicities can learn to cook food that they are not native to, and of course, this is NYC, no one who is cooking anything other than hot dogs is cooking in the foods' native location. sorry if I offended anyone but I am new to the site, and am stunned by the attitude that this is a normal topic.

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  1. I think claims of racism are always going to be flamebait. Dont you see that?

    Ethnicity of cooks, patrons, etc is a POSSIBLY relevant factor if it sheds light on their orientation toward or knowledge of the food. In general, I totally agree with you that people of any ethnicity should be able to cook or appreciate any food but it would be a total shame if we couldnt mention, in a civilized way, the background of cooks, restauranteurs and patrons of restaurants on this site or discuss any differences of approach or attitude.

    1. Race matters. Well, actually it doesn't, but ethnicity does matter, particularly in low-end eateries where the cooks are making things they grew up with as opposed to things they learned in culinary school or apprenticeships in high-end restaurants. In diners, pizzerias, noodle shops, etc., people cook what they know.

      Someone from Greece, who learned how to cook in Greece, usually makes pizza differently than a Sicilian-American who grew up in a solidly Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn, who does it differently from a lifelong Roman. Ethnic Chinese from Korea grew up with different recipes than most ethnic Koreans, and it really does mean some different dishes, sauces and seasonings. Romanian Jews use sweet-and-sour gravies with meat dishes that non-Jewish Romanians would serve with sour cream.

      These variations aren't necessarily "inferior", they're just different, and while the owners' and cooks' ethnicity isn't a good indicator of whether a restaurant is good, it is a good indicator of how authentic relative to the dishes' place of origin it's likely to be.

      People can and certainly do learn to cook the food of others, and often do it very well, but the ones who do so and run the kitchen in a mom-and-pop restaurant usually bring their own influences along. Someone from Bangladesh is more likely to make South Indian food as it's interpreted and transfomed in Bangladesh than South Indian food as found in southern India.

      Training, if there is any, is only going to go so far if your only experiences of the dish are the interpretations you grew up with, or what you encounter when you get hired. If you're a fourth-generation Irish-American cook from Oklahoma and you buy a Greek diner and that's when you try moussaka for the first time in your life, your moussaka is inevitably going to skew far from most because you don't have enough taste memories of other moussaka in your past to compare to when you're adjusting spices and tweaking the time in the oven.

      This isn't always bad. It's how new dishes and styles of cooking are born. Mexican food is not "Spanish" or "Aztec" or whatever; it's the result of centuries of all sorts of cross-pollination and happy miscommunication.

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