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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.

              1. The word "ethnic" has worked its way into modern Japanese, and "essunikku" food is usually non-Japanese, non-Chinese, and non-Western cuisine. This means Asian, African or Latin American food. Many Japanese are shocked to hear that their cuisine would be considered "ethnic" in the United States.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Tripeler

                  Fun point about the "loan word".

                  We won a "foreign cooking" contest with our chicken n' dumplings. Perhaps the essence of essunikku.

                2. We can (and do) argue the semantics of "ethnic" and the appropriate usage of the word. There will always be people unhappy by its application to a wide variety of cuisine. But most people who refer to ethnic cuisine aren't being rude or offensive, they are just describing cuisines that are easily identifiable as coming from a certain place, prepared by a distinct ethnic group that are recent immigrants to the vicinity, foods that is very different in taste and texture from theeveryday food, and (in most cases) relatively new to the "scene."

                  I will argue that certain regional/cultural food items, such as peirogies, don't qualify as ethnic because we're not talking about a distinct, separate cuisine. Peirogies may flourish in certain parts of the midwest, but I doubt there are leagues of cheap Polish style restaurants colonizing low-rent malls or upscale Polish restaurants in fashionable town centers. Peirogoes in that part of America has become a regional foodstuff - a food item somewhat different and widely recognized as from a certain immigrant group in America's past, but at the same time, not "too" different as to be exotic and not coming from an entirely different cuisine. Sauerkraut in Maryland and Pennsylvania is another example.

                  But Chinese, Thai, Malay or what you have it, are cuisines that are deemed ethnic because they are easily identifiable, prepared by easily identifiable groups of people from a different racial and historic background, and perhaps another defining factor is that it is rarely ever served alongside "normal" Western/American food. One doesn't pair a penang curry with roast chicken or with spaghetti carbonara, for example, and even the usage of traditional Thai spices on everyday American cooking is still fairly limited. Once lemongrass is found in every kitchen then Thai will no longer be deemed ethnic.

                  24 Replies
                  1. re: Roland Parker

                    are you claiming spaghetti carbonara isn't ethnic? your claim that piroguies are not ethnic is ridiculous,a s it is clearly a food from a specific cultural milieu. how is eastern european cuisine not distinct and separate.

                    i see every culture you accept as ethic is just not caucasian.

                    1. re: thew

                      Agreed. Roland Parker just perfectly illustrated luckyfatima's statement above about being coded white/nonwhite. Oh and the statement that Chinese food, e.g., is defined as a cuisine "prepared by easily identifiable groups of people from a different racial and historic background" is just laughable. White people don't cook chinese food. Yowza.

                      1. re: LNG212

                        Most - white - Americans don't cook Chinese food. Just as most Chinese do not cook "American" or "Western" food.

                        Just because one recognizes the existence of ethnicity and groups of people who comprise a very different "ethnicity" with its own long-established history and culture and cuisine does not make one a "racist" person. If we're coding things as white/non white it's because the "nonwhite" ethnicities have cuisines that are *very* different from the dominant American cuisine with its strong roots in the cooking of Western Europe, particularly the UK and Germany - because the dominant immigrant groups that made up the clear majority of the country's population for most of its history were from the British Islands and the Germanic states. Skin colors here are simply accidental.

                        1. re: Roland Parker

                          understanding that different ethnicities exist is not the issue. the issue is the word ethnic is being used here to mean non-european/american food. as if being chinese was more ethnic than being italian. ethnic is being used as as a code word for "not white"
                          the word is useless as a rubric for a large swath of cuisine because it defines nothing. all food is ethnic. that is the issue

                    2. re: Roland Parker

                      Pierogies are certainly ethnic food. Ask anyone who knows what they are what culture they are associated with and the answer will certainly be Polish. The fact there are not a lot of restaurants serving them seems irrelevant to me.

                      Chinese food is still ethnic food even though any fool can open a can of Chun King chow mein.

                      1. re: Bob W

                        I hope to add a moment of levity by saying the heavy metal/goth bar down the street from me, right next to the taco shop and Mexican bakery, for some unfathomable reason features pierogies--they even advertise it in big letter on their windows (I tried them they were not very good.) That has cracked me up since the day I moved here.

                      2. re: Roland Parker

                        I think it would be really helpful if we limited the discussion to "ethnic foods" or foods from different world cultures, rather than getting into race issues. When John F Kennedy used the phrase "influenced by ethnic and cultural ties" he was talking about diversity in America.

                        There is a CH who has a wonderful website called EthnicNJ and I know exactly what he is looking for. He is celebrating the multicultural foods of New Jersey.

                        1. re: GraydonCarter

                          but the word ethnic here IS used as a cultural/racial issue.

                          if any food is ethnic, all food is ethic.

                          i've posted my thoughts on this topic ad nauseum on this board already however, and will not go into another long screed. you can thank me later

                          1. re: GraydonCarter

                            but that's the point...traditional American food (hot dogs, apple pie, Buffalo wings, etc., etc.) is every bit as ethnic as anything else...EVERYONE has an ethnicity, whether it's WASP or Jewish or Swahili or Bangladeshi or Polish or otherwise...so ethnic has no meaning whatsoever. EVERYONE has a color, whether it's beige or brown or olive...there isn't anybody running around with absolutely no pigment at all in their skin. EVERYONE has a race, whether that's decided by the country that issues your passport or your parents....it's the fact that saying someone is ethnic or colored or racial has become associated somehow with a negative connotation, and it shouldn't be that way.

                            I know this thread is going to erupt in flames at some point, but unfortunately you cannot divorce the meaning and/or the connotation of the word from the discussion.

                              1. re: bbqboy

                                Agreed. It is a pejorative that reinforces white privilege. Though I still use the term to describe spicy, non-european cuisine. I remember reading somewhere they did a poll of america's favorite ethnic food. Italian was the winner. I thought that was laughable. Technically it's an acceptable answer but it's still a cop out.

                                1. re: david t.

                                  how is that a cop out? italian isn't an ethnicity? why not? what makes italian food less ethnic than thai food?

                                  1. re: thew

                                    Of course it's an ethnicity. But it's so engrained and so completely dominant in American culture that's it's almost a non-answer.

                                    To illustrate further, if I asked what's your favorite ETHNIC dish? you say "pizza."
                                    that's a cop out. Too common and too american. Thai on the other hand (unless you are thai-american) is foreign enough in this country to be a more respectable answer.

                                    Otherwise, why even include "ethnic" in the poll's question?

                                    1. re: david t.

                                      maybe. We've been having this discussion on the PNW board.

                                      1. re: david t.

                                        repeating the same thing twice is not the same as illustrating further.

                                        if the question is "whats your favorite ethnic food?" then italian, or even new england or NY jewish deli food have to be as legitimate answers as thai.

                                        if i'm a 3rd generation thai living in america, does it change the legitimacy of italian as an answer?

                                        1. re: thew

                                          pinpointing a specific food so common in the american diet IS being more specific.

                                          Jewish deli isn't as ingrained in American culture. Italian is. And why would you count New England? You'd likely consider California cuisine as well?

                                          You're being too literal. Then why even ask the question of "ethnic" food? just say food.

                                          To answer your question, It does, ( i already implied that in my previous post) but we are talking about a poll in a country where the majority is white and most likely made up most of those polled.

                                          1. re: david t.

                                            "Then why even ask the question of "ethnic" food? "

                                            i don't. i would never say I like or do not like ethnic food or i'm looking for an etnic place for dinner - all of which are statements made on CH frequently. I would say i like or don;t like italian food, or thai food, or i'm looking for a good jewish deli or hong kong style chinese, or whatever.

                                            i'm jewish, don't think i'm white. others do. italians are certainly white, but i consider italian food of a specific ethnicity, and not just "white people food"; but basically by your last statement you are agreeing with the definition "ethnic food is made by people browner than i am" - a pretty useless category - as mexican food is nothing like mongolian food is nothing like japanese food. i see no real use for a category of not-white food, as it does not define flavors, or techniques, or ingredients in any useful way

                                          2. re: thew

                                            New England is a region not an ethnicity. Now if you said "Old Yankee" cooking that would be what some think of as New England cooking--brown bread, baked beans, clam bake. But there's also French Canadian, Portuguese, Italian, Native American, Polish, Jewish and more in New England--each with their own "ethnic" cooking..

                                            1. re: escondido123

                                              you're correct-ish. i chose my words poorly - but using this common definition as ethnicity - i'm not so sure:
                                              "An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage that is real or assumed- sharing cultural characteristics"

                                              1. re: thew

                                                A lot of countries in the world are not multt-cultural or multi-ethnic. Except for in the big cities where other sorts of foods/restaurants might be available, in many countries there is basically only one cuisine. There are all sorts of reasons to dump on the US, and we may not be the true melting pot, but we certainly are open to trying new foods and flavors--at least a good number of us are.

                                                1. re: escondido123

                                                  im honestly not sure why this post is a reply to what i said.

                                                  1. re: thew

                                                    It wasn't aimed at you but was following along in the thread, at least I thought so. I didn't mean to upset, offend, anger, bother, annoy or otherwise say the wrong thing. Please accept my apology.

                                        2. re: thew

                                          Most of what is served as Italian is much more Italian-American IMHO. My mother learned to make lasagna from Mrs. Pompelio in Chicago who used cottage cheese instead of ricotta. It wasn't until I was an adult that I found out cottage cheese was not Italian!

                                          1. re: escondido123

                                            That''s true. At the same time, a lot of chinese and mexican food you get here in this country is not exactly true to their origins, either.

                                2. Ethnic food is food of a different culture than the one of the speaker.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: JMF

                                    When the Providence Journal for some unfathomable reason wrote an article about my bar mitzvah in 1973, in the article my father discussed some of the food that was served, such as knishes and kishka. He said, and I quote, "You've got to have the ethnic goodies."

                                    So, not always the case.

                                    1. re: Bob W

                                      I guess you could add when the speaker is talking about their food, to someone of a different culture. Seems like flip sides of the same coin.

                                  2. It seems the question of ethnic food has to do with how long the given ethnic group has resided in the good ol USA.
                                    So Italian no, Korean (for example) yes?
                                    But in a polyglot place like LA, I'd bet there are more Korean places than Polish places.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: bbqboy

                                      don't kid yourself. the chinese have been here as long as the italians. it isn't time that makes the difference.

                                      1. re: thew

                                        well, for the record, I agree with you. I was talking about the seeming attitude on this thread.

                                    2. I'm not sure I understand your question, but for me, "ethnic food" is any food culture indigenous to any specific group.

                                      Why would it bother you that "French" food as a whole is considered "ethnic food", & that food specific to the French region of Provence is also considered "ethnic food".

                                      I'm losing what your problem or question is here, since it's only semantics & not derogatory in any way.

                                      17 Replies
                                      1. re: Breezychow

                                        Because French food is rarely called "ethnic", it's called French. Whereas Chinese, Mexican, Thai, etc all get lumped under the term "ethnic."

                                        1. re: escondido123

                                          Hmmm...more of that white-people-aren't-ethnic theme.

                                          What if it's Algerian French? Moroccan? Tunisian? Alsatian? Breizh? Basque? Provencal? Gascon? Certainly all French....which ones are ethnic and which ones aren't?

                                          Labels are such a bad idea.

                                          1. re: escondido123

                                            Again, nothing but semantics. You may rarely hear French food called "ethnic" in your circle, but "ethnic" it is, as are all France's different regions. Same goes for Italy. I think basic French & Italian cuisine most likely aren't considered "ethnic" in the U.S. because they've been around for SO long. They're part of the original "melting pot". But start talking about Provence or Tuscany, & they're ethnic once again - lol!

                                            It must depend on the people you're conversing with, because I've never been misunderstood or questioned when I include French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, etc., as "ethnic" cuisines I enjoy.

                                            I just don't understand why this is such a problem or contentius topic.

                                            1. re: Breezychow

                                              well, because authentic and ethnic are two of the most used buzzwords in these parts and almost always raise hackles.
                                              (I plead guilty myself because I always find myself responding to these threads)

                                              1. re: bbqboy

                                                and both of those threads pretty much suggested that "authentic" and "ethnic" aren't the best word to use.

                                                1. re: sunshine842

                                                  I don't consider the terms "ethnic" & "authentic" to be the same or interchangeable at all. Two completely different animals.

                                                  There are MANY MANY ethnic dishes that may not be authentic to their base origins. That doesn't mean they're still not ethnic dishes.

                                                  And again - who cares? It's just semantics. And good food. :)

                                              2. re: Breezychow

                                                chinese has been around as long as italian. it has nothing to so with the length of time the food is in the country.

                                                it raises hackles because not-white food is a fairly offensive concept

                                              3. re: escondido123

                                                you do see the racism inherent in that, no? not european food is ethnic - which has the connotations of off the norm and exotic. france is as foreign to me as thailand is. more so - i've spent months in thailand, and 2 weeks in france. why should i find thai food more "ethnic"?

                                                1. re: thew

                                                  Of course I see the racism, or at least belittiling in that. I think you and I are on the same side of this issue so there's no need to get upset. (Like your poetry by the way.)

                                                  1. re: thew

                                                    There's a much stronger connection between French cooking and the dominant culinary heritage of American cooking than there is between Thai cooking and the food most Americans eat. Some of the techniques may be different but your average American throughout America's history would have had no problems recognizing the French food on his plate - the meats and vegetables were the same meats and vegetables used by America's cooks.

                                                    But Thai food is prepared very differently. Curries? Very different spices. Very different flavoring. The colors are even different. And it's prepared by a people with a distinct racial and cultural heritage far removed from the West.

                                                    1. re: Roland Parker

                                                      Roland, do most Americans eat escargot, stinky cheese and organ meats? Those are very French.

                                                      Your concept of "most Americans" is misaligned, and assumes that "most Americans" are white Western Europeans. In fact, much of even Western European food that *many* (not most) Americans of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds enjoy today in American restaurants and home cooking is in fact a fusion of what you would refer to as "ethnic" food.

                                                    2. re: thew

                                                      If it were racist, and ethnic food equals food made by brown or yellow people, then why wouldn't we consider Soul Food as ethnic food? We don't. It is a type of mainstream American food.

                                                      1. re: GraydonCarter

                                                        Just by using the term "soul food" you are classifying it as something different from "mainstream." Do you have a similar specialty term for the foods white Protestant Americans grew up eating (say, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches)?

                                                        1. re: GraydonCarter

                                                          in the words of the old lone ranger joke "what do you mean we, white man"?

                                                          i DO consider soul food ethnic. and italian food. and american food. that is the only point i've been making all along. ethnic does not mean exotic. it does not mean asian. it does not mean other than yourself. if you say you like ethnic food it tells absolutely nothing about what food you like or do not like. thats the complaint. thats the issue. the words does not define anything the way it is used.

                                                          1. re: thew

                                                            So, just say "food" then. There is no difference between "food" and "ethnic food."

                                                            1. re: GraydonCarter

                                                              i do. i have never, outside the threads here discussing the term, used the phrase "ethnic food"

                                                  2. Does ethnic relate to linguistics? I grew up eating very ethnic Russian food. And geography? With out offense, my mom used to say that a lot of Jewish food was "really Russian". (Jump on it Thew!)
                                                    Without leaving the states, I live in a heavily populated Navajo* area of New Mexico. Most of the Navajo food I eat are particular to the Rez. and surrounding area and, I feel, would be considered very ethnic on either coast; ie. a Navajo taco, fry bread, mutton and green chiles, and green chile mutton stew.
                                                    *Navajo is actually an Acoma Indian word that means "enemy". The Navajos call themselves "dine" w/ an accent mark on the "e", which means the people and NOT a GM 4WD vehicle.

                                                    7 Replies
                                                    1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                      i would say jewish food and russian food are subsets of eastern european food, and have many many overlaps.

                                                      jump complete

                                                      1. re: thew

                                                        Agreed. Gimme borscht! My favorite ethnic food!
                                                        The Roooshins, however, would say the Eastern European and Jewish foods are a subset of Russian food, just ask my mother, he says w/ a laugh.

                                                        1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                          my mother would have the opposite opinion......

                                                          1. re: thew

                                                            Thew, naturally. Both I know that my mom has never forgiven me that I'm not a doctor or lawyer. Yours?
                                                            I used to make a good Passover Seter for my kids, as a history lesson. Knowledge is power!

                                                            1. re: Passadumkeg

                                                              my brother was the lawyer - so i was supposed to be the doctor.

                                                              but my mom was a doctor, and while her story is incredible (the fight against antisemitism and sexism) it showed me that i would never ever do that.

                                                          2. re: Passadumkeg

                                                            I read someplace that the only really Jewish food is matzo.

                                                            I'll take schav over borscht, and I might be the last person on earth to say that -- witness the coating of dust on the few bottles of schav I ever find at the market.

                                                            Somewhere in my distant past I also recall borscht made with green beans -- haven't seen that in decades. My family definitely kicked it old country.

                                                            1. re: Bob W

                                                              my parents loved schav. but then they're old jews....

                                                      2. "Ethnic" has no universal meaning when applied to food. It's all over the map, with origins both innocent (for example, I know lots of people who merely use it to denote "something that's not the same sick and tired American crap") and somewhat accurate and others less so.

                                                        I would suggest that another dimension lacking in the discussion so far is that it tends not to be applied to what are perceived or marketed as haute cuisines of other cultures, but more to the home and street cooking.