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Feb 6, 2011 10:23 AM

The Meaning of "Ethnic" Food

"I love ethnic food", and the inverse, "I dislike ethnic food", are two statements that I have been hearing more than usual. In my head, I have always thought of ethnic food as non-traditional cuisine from from lesser known countries, but, upon some thought, I entertained the question, "Isn't all food ethnic food?"

The Random House Dictionary definition of ethnic is:

Pertaining to or characteristic of a people, especially a group (ethnic group) sharing a common
and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like.

If we apply this definition to the term ethnic food, we lump every single style of cooking from every single region of the world. Whether it is popularized cuisine from countries like France, Italy, Spain, or China, or lesser known cuisine from countries like Ethiopia, Columbia, or Vietnam, they are forced together under "ethnic food".

Now, using common sense, we know that when people use this term they are not speaking about every single food preparation in the world. My question is this: What are people referring to when they say "ethnic food"?

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  1. I think they mean spicy, strong flavored, unusual ingredients--basically all those foods you would not find at an "American" restaurant in the midWest US.

    1 Reply
    1. re: escondido123

      I'm assuming from your moniker you're in SoCal?
      There are a variety of regional ethnic cuisines throughout flyover country.
      Ever had Bierocks? Lutefisk? Pirogies?
      Maybe ethnic food is whatever isn't indigenous to your area.

    2. I think they use it as a blanket term to mean food that has obvious origins in a country that is outside North America or -- arguably -- Western Europe.

      1 Reply
      1. re: woodleyparkhound

        Ding! Ding! This is how I most see the term used as well.

      2. I think "ethnic food" is one of those shorthand phrases that are pretty meaningless, for the reasons the OP points out. I'd suggest that when folk say they "like ethnic food", they don't mean it as generally as that sounds, they mean they like certain cuisines that they've tried

        I suspect that most people use the phrase to describe a clearly identified national cuisine that has only arrived relatively recently in the host country (and has usually had an identifiable community arrive with it). It is not just "foreign" but I suspect it is almost invariably related to countries where the population are not white.

        So, for example, here the UK, you might hear it referred to in relation to Bangladeshi, Chinese or Ethiopian food. But not to French (because the influence has been here for centuries), American (because there's no identifiable community) or Cypriot (because the community is not new).

        1. 'Ethnic' as a label is actually a socially constructed racial label for us. 'Ethnic' food/people in North American common usage means not racially white (or for food, food of people who are racially not white), and also includes some people/groups of ethnicities who are presently considered to be racially white but culturally/socially nearer to the outer boundaries of social whiteness, all of the non-"WASP" groups such as Ashkenazi Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Southern Europeans, etc. (I cannot comment on the UK or other Anglophone countries and how the term is used, but from reading Harter's response, it seems to be a similar situation in England?) Remember, racial constructions vary from culture to culture and country to country, so someone who is considered white in Colombia may not be considered white in the US. Racial boundaries are also not static. Ashkenazi Jews, Italians, and Irish were all one outside of the boundaries of racial whiteness. So 'ethnic' as a social label is very contextual. Although it varies through culture and time, It is not an 'artificial construct' per se, since being 'ethnic' or non-ethnic affects one's social situation in a variety of ways.

          I dislike the label 'ethnic food' for several reasons. First of all, we have whiteness placed at the center of everything. The food of white people is 'normal' (what sociologists call 'white normativity' -the white American cultural myth that white people don't have a culture, what we do is 'normal' and Other people have culture) and everyone else is Other, different, exotic. Secondly, 'ethnic food' as a category lumps together Cambodian food, kosher deli, Salvadoran, and Afghan food as if they had anything in common other than not belonging to non-ethnic (read non-WASP) people. For me, this is what makes it a completely useless and somewhat ridiculous category. Lastly, in reality white people have ethnicity, too. White does not mean the opposite of ethnic. White is a general racial/ethnic label in our country and beyond that we have our own mix of Euro-origin ethnic backgrounds. German, Scottish, Norwegian, etc. We have white American cultures, sub-cultures, regionality, and so on. We have differences in cuisine (It is so obvious as we see discussions on chowhound.) So we are ethnic, too.

          3 Replies
          1. re: luckyfatima

            Yep, and that typical usage is pejorative.

            Here's on old thread that has been revived from time to time that addresses the issue. Maybe time to take a look at it again.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Typical usage in the UK isoften pejoratve as well. Folk will be described a "ethnics" when, in the not too distant past, other now unacceptable words would have been used. That said, we are the villains in our own tragedy in that officialdom will usually refer to communities generically as "minority ethnic" communities.

            2. re: luckyfatima

              Agree with luckyfatima 100%. The whole concept of "ethnic" food as "non-normal" has always bugged the hell out of me. Same goes for people ( for instance, actors) who are classified as having "ethnic" looks. What the hell does that mean? Isn't EVERYONE part of an ethnicity?

            3. Anybody going to argue that Beef on Weck, fried cheese curds, or barbecue ISN'T ethnic food?

              A never-ending giggle for this transplanted American is finding peanut butter, Reese's cups, and barbecue sauce in the ethnic food aisle of European grocery stores.

              The upshot is that I agree -- "ethnic" is a meaningless term.