Monday, October 17, 2011

Chew Over: What does "ethnic" food mean?

Is it a harmless euphemism for "foreign," or a more loaded word that means "suspicious?" A debate broke out at the London Restaurant Festival over the use of the term "ethnic food."

British food critic A. A. Gill called it "a pejorative, judgmental and unnecessary term invented by the French to describe food in the Michelin Guide that isn't French or Italian." Comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli countered, "Food defines who we are. People from different parts of the world eat differently—that's hardly headline news."

So is the term "ethnic food" insulting? And if it is, is there a better phrase to use to mean "food from other places"? Here's Bruce Palling's description of the debate in the Wall Street Journal.


Julie @ Willow Bird Baking said...

I use the term ethnic food, but I actually agree with the criticism. It's too much like "foreign" -- lumping societies with diverse, rich culinary histories together to mean "you know, the OTHER ones." It's a term that makes "us" (meaning, in this case, Westerners of European descent) some sort of culinary default.

I already dislike the sort of elitist attitude which with folks regard French cooking, as if that's the pinnacle of "how it's done," as opposed to one of many cultures where food is painstakingly prepared all day, flavors are layers, and new taste profiles are developed. It's become more of a cultural currency than it is a description of anything innate in the food itself. It's a way to divide/rank people.

I'm not sure of a better shorthand way to refer to, for instance, "food other than what we typically eat as a mainstay in our culture." I think the best bet is probably just specifically referring to food by its origin ("Thai food") and ditching the IDEA of "other food" altogether -- i.e. to stop trying to find a term for this IDEA we perhaps shouldn't have.

lkmnews said...

One could call it "American" food. It's one of the things that continues to make our culture so rich and interesting: Folks from other countries come here and share their native foods. Before long, those foods are influenced by other foods and we get something completely new.

Where else could one get an "Indian" taco, for example?