A recent book examines food and cuisine through the experiences of the people who produce it.
There are many factors that have led to the existence of Bread & Butter, a small storefront restaurant in lower Manhattan: immigration patterns, a pre-existing network of so-called “ethnic” restaurants, customers’ expectations and demands. Bread & Butter serves Indian and Pakistani food, but it also sells egg sandwiches and rice and bean dishes. Each meal costs about $6.
But for as long as restaurants like Bread & Butter have proliferated in cities across America, there has been a gap in the sociological discussion surrounding them, says Krishnendu Ray, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. The owners’ voices haven’t been part of the cultural dialog.
Ray’s new book, The Ethnic Restaurateur, redirects the conversation toward their points of view. It’s a mixed book, Ray says: it’s engaged with sociological discourse, but also includes straightforward interviews with restaurant owners.
One such restaurateur is Mohammad Rasool, an immigrant from Pakistan and the owner of Bread & Butter. In his book, Ray writes:
The ongoing sociological discussion—of taste, ethnic entrepreneurship, changing gastronomic categories, field theory, shared meaning in restaurant work, and professional identity—can only partially account for Rasool. Not in the sense that no sociology can ever fully explain an individual and his trajectory, but in the sense that scholars have failed to look at his menu, ask for recipes, or seek his judgment in explaining transformations of taste in the city.
The Ethnic Restaurateur opens up a long-overdue discussion about how the tastes—both literal and aesthetic—of urban ethnic restaurant owners shape their businesses, and how they function within the evolving cities around them. CityLab spoke with Ray about his book, and what he hopes people will get out of it.
How did you become interested in the discussion covered by The Ethnic Restaurateur?
It was a slow process. One part of it was coming to terms with myself as an immigrant, the transplantation of the body from one cultural context to another, and all insights that brings. The small miscommunications I experienced made me realize that some of the aspects of culture that we take for granted are some of the most important ones to understand. I got thinking about accents: they’re memories of the old language, which links literally to the tongue and palate. In a new context, memories of both food and language are in some ways inaccessible and tend to get lost in translation. I switched my dissertation in graduate school to focus on questions of how literal taste translates into the social world.
While I was working on my dissertation, I got the opportunity to teach classes on food and culture at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, in New York. There, I realized that the culture surrounding cuisine itself is almost a different language: it’s a very French-influenced professional language. So I thought: where does other people’s food fit in? What about people who don’t have a long tradition of master chefs and haute cuisine, but for whom cooking is a primarily working-class profession? I became interested in the gaps between native and immigrant understanding, especially of the implicit culture of food and taste.
What does the term “ethnic” mean in the context of food and cuisine?
There’s a line in the book: “ethnic food is the shattered mirror of haute cuisine.” There’s nothing that holds “ethnic” food together other than its essential difference to that category; it’s defined by what it is not. So in a sense, to understand one, you have to understand the other.
But for a long time, Western philosophy has disdained discussions of palatal taste. Talking about “good taste” meant talking about painting, about art, about music, about architecture. But god forbid you talk about food.
Why might that be?
Eating another culture’s food is probably the easiest thing you can do to engage a little bit with that culture, but you will not learn much about other people through it. It doesn’t require the complex understanding of say, learning another language. There’s lot of discussion now around cultural appropriation. I’m not so patient with the idea that we need to police boundaries between who can cook whose food: crossing cultural boundaries in this way can be fun; it can be a good thing. But what I’m saying in the book is that there needs to be some effort made to understand the culture beyond the food, and be thoughtful about it.
How could someone trying to navigate the variety of “ethnic” restaurants in a constantly evolving city gain a greater cultural understanding and appreciation in the process?
The first thing to do is relax. Foodie culture now is all about the competition to find the next best place, but that anxiety gets in the way of really engaging with cultural difference. Which leads to my second piece of advice: slow down. Talk to the people who are serving you, the people behind the counter, the people who are cooking, and see if you can have a conversation. Sure, there will probably be misunderstandings and miscommunications: that’s fine. It’s more about paying attention: find out why the owner named the restaurant what he or she did, why certain things are on the menu. There are specific challenges to the running of a cheap restaurant in an American city that could become clearer through talking.
CityLab has previously written about “authenticity,” and how the demand for it sometimes dictates the kinds of food restaurants produce. How do you understand that discussion?
The demand for authenticity is a challenge: be aware of the fact that the ethnic restaurateur might by playing to his understanding of what American taste is. But I don’t think all of the power is in the hands of the consumer. The book is an attempt to turn the tables on that conversation by offering not the “truth,” but [various] different points of view. Because both the customer and the restaurateur are groping toward a relationship, and an understanding of essential difference. Acknowledge that.
In some ways, that will mean coming to terms with our limitations. True engagement with something that’s culturally different will be difficult. That applies to something like language, but to food as well. If something really is “authentic,” you probably won’t like how it tastes right away—seriously appreciating difference requires time, and developing a specific palate. I recently took a bunch of my graduate students to India, and they had a difficult time figuring out all the nuances of different types of daal. It’s a lentil stew, essentially, but there are many different ways to flavor it, and despite being food studies students, they didn’t have the system for it. It takes time.
Restaurants in America often present archetypes of these specific categories, but recognizing that, alongside our own limitations, is the beginning of recognizing each other’s humanity, the complexity of different cultures. And negotiating that is where you begin the relationship, not where you stop.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Ethnic Restaurateur, $25.99, at Bloomsbury.