For starters, maybe you shouldn’t call it “ethnic” food.
I love food. You love food. But we might not love the same food, and that’s okay. What’s unacceptable is spinning personal preference into blanket statements—attaching the attributes of right or wrong, or inherent value—about food, or worse, the people cooking it.
It’s shocking how often seemingly benign, off-the-cuff statements about restaurants, cuisines, or ingredients are tinged with cultural misunderstanding or racism. Check yourself before you play into thinly veiled assumptions about cultural hierarchies and authenticity. A good first step is avoiding these five common mistakes.
Being willing to pay $18 for a bowl of pasta, but not to spring for a $12 bowl of pho
Ba Bar is a beautifully-decorated, full-service Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle with a top-notch cocktail bar, but it gets a lot of complaints about its pho pricing, writes chef/owner Eric Banh on his restaurant’s blog: “Nobody ever says it’s not delicious. Nobody ever complains about our portion size or the richness of our broth. No, people only ever say one thing: ‘What a ripoff!’” A glance at the first page of Yelp reviews yields plenty of praise for drinks, service, and flavor, along with multiple comments in this vein: “Overpriced for pho,” writes user Bianca N., before admitting, “I enjoyed my pho…it really did taste yummy.”
Yes, you can get a cheaper bowl down the street, but, Banh argues, his is made with higher-quality ingredients (all-natural, grass-fed beef, locally-made tofu) and without cutting corners—a 24-hour process.
Just a few blocks up the street, nobody complains about the $18 price tag on a bowl of Italian noodles with butter and sage—even though you could make the same thing in your apartment for less than $1 per person.
Thinking French, Italian, and German food aren’t “ethnic,” but Mexican, Chinese, and Ethiopian are
In theory, it seems like a good catch-all term to describe food that is not traditionally American, but in reality, Lavanya Ramanathan wrote in the Washington Post, it gets used selectively, to refer to “cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin.” First We Feast takes it a step further, pointing out: “This question of perceived value is becoming increasingly troublesome as more non-native (read: white) chefs take on ‘ethnic’ cuisines, and suddenly it’s okay to charge $14 for shu mai because hey, the chef is ELEVATING the cuisine.” As white chefs take on cuisines from other countries, the food migrates from “ethnic” to “modern” or “trendy.”
Skipping over the sidebar debate possible here about authenticity (what it is or isn’t and if that’s of any culinary value), the difference in nomenclature occurs when the person doing the cooking has light skin versus dark, proving Ramanathan’s point: the term ethnic is a way to “other” the food, to signify “a certain kind of inferiority.” The presence of a white chef at the stove changes the way we refer to these cuisines, signaling an innate—and racist—dynamic of trust and mistrust. As the food writer (and Top Chef judge) Francis Lam said in a New York Times article in 2012, “Diners’ familiarity and comfort levels can play a part, and can even edge into prejudice.”
Automatically blaming food poisoning on a Chinese or Mexican restaurant
In the same New York Times article, chef Andy Ricker (the James Beard award-winning chef behind Thai restaurants including Pok Pok in New York and Portland) says that diners inexplicably believe that restaurants with white owners are somehow cleaner. Which, of course, brings up the issue of cleanliness as it relates to restaurants: food-borne illnesses.
People love to blame Asian restaurants for food poisoning. Andrew Simmons, writing for Slate, tallied up mentions of getting sick on Yelp. Of reviewers who complained of food poisoning, 44 percent blamed restaurants serving Asian cuisine, and 22 percent accused Latin American restaurants. The rest spread between fast food, deli, and European restaurants.
Many cities, such as New York, assign sanitation grades based on restaurant inspection data. A quick perusal doesn’t show any significant differences between Chinese, Mexican, and American restaurants.
Bill Marler, the top food-borne-illness lawyer in the country, casts doubt on all finger-pointing at specific restaurants or meals. “If you don’t have stool or blood culture, it is virtually impossible,” he says, to place blame on a specific meal. Incubation periods vary from one kind of bacteria to another and the symptoms of many of them can look the same. (His firm doesn’t take on any case where they can’t scientifically prove the source of the illness).
Simmons calls this blaming of specific types of restaurants “gastronomic bigotry.”
Joking about Korean restaurants serving dog
Perhaps the most cringe-inducing restaurant racism I hear on a regular basis is the idea that a chef would try to “trick” diners into eating something that they’re not interested in. (For instance, rumors of Chinese restaurants serving cat or Korean restaurants serving dog.)
It comes through in jokes or broad statements of a fear of the unknown—or dismissive, angry statements like this one that Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee tweeted last night:
As a white diner who is a fan of chicken feet at dim sum and tripe-laden menudo at my local Mexican restaurant, I don’t worry that I might be accidentally served something perceived as “weird.” I’ve had waiters argue with me that I won’t like dishes, or that something would be too spicy for me. I’ve repeatedly promised that I wouldn’t send back the beef tendon or that I’d survive the curry with the five-star heat level.
These are the efforts of a restaurant desperately trying to please a customer—though an astute reader might say that it suggests that a waiter or chef harbors some of the same biases that I’ve maligned here. And it’s true: the river of blind cultural assumptions flows in both directions.
Placing a fork in front of white diners at dim sum
The line between cultural understanding and racism is pushed just as easily with a fork dropped in front of a white diner at dim sum as it is with a statement like, “Who would ever want to eat that?” Sure, the server is just trying to save himself another trip to the table, but with that simple action—just like complaining about $12 pho—he has assumed something based on the color of my skin, rather than wait for any signs of struggle with chopsticks or even an overt request for a fork. The difference, of course, is that unlike claiming food poisoning or price gouging, it’s unlikely that this accusation of a lack of dexterity will affect my livelihood.
Food is essential to everyone—we all need it to make it through the day—and we’ve all grown up with our own cultural lexicon of foods. Salad and cheese might seem so ordinary to Jennifer from Indiana, but to a Chinese diner sitting down to them for the first time, raw vegetables and curdled milk may be abhorrent.
We might never be able to cure our taste buds of culinary bias—and it’s not all that necessary. More important—and harder—is clearing our culinary vocabularies of coded language. But the easiest way to avoid offending anyone goes back to a simple, age-old piece of advice: Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.