Food & Drink

Time to push the word ‘ethnic’ off the plate

“Ethnic food.” Lately, the very term makes me lose my appetite.

I encounter it where I don’t expect it – in mainstream food writing – and where I do: Yelp. Browsing that vast compost pile of opinion, I learn that one restaurant has “just enough ethnicity to make people feel multicultural.” Another, a Latin American joint that sits on what must be Washington’s gentrification line of demarcation, can still pass one reviewer’s ethnic test. Which is, of course: “Look for patrons of that restaurant’s ethnicity eating there.”

Then there are gems such as this, floating out there on the Internet: “When it comes to a restaurant run by immigrants, look around at the street scene. Do you see something ugly?” That is your cue, suggests the writer: Authenticity awaits. Apparently, it is intertwined with low-rent digs and health-code violations.

Blech. Let’s drop the term “ethnic food” altogether.

It’s not the phrase itself, really. It’s the way it’s applied: selectively, to cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin.

“Ethnic food” is always Indian and Thai, Vietnamese and Salvadoran, strip-mall and gas-station eateries and fare so spicy it should be washed down with equal parts water and Pepto-Bismol. Those who seek it out are dubbed “adventurous” eaters, as if only Indiana Jones could get down with a plate of Ethiopian tibs.

Why do a couple of innocuous words have me so ready to slap someone with a roll of injera? Why do I care?

Immigrants’ identities are deeply tied to the foods we bring with us. When we hear our cuisine described as exotic, hodgepodge, greasy or cheap, you might as well be remarking disdainfully about our clothes or skin color.

“Ethnic cuisines are considered low, and fusion cuisines are considered haute cuisines,” says Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches about food and international conflict at American University’s School of International Service.

Krishnendu Ray, a New York University professor of food studies, says we use the descriptor “ethnic” for “a category of things we don’t know much about, don’t understand much about and yet find it valid to express opinions about.” Ray, who has written a forthcoming book, “The Ethnic Restaurateur,” says the term “ethnic food” is used as a way to signify “a certain kind of inferiority.” He even has a $30 theory: Diners, he says, refuse to pay more than $30 for what they perceive as ethnic food.

It’s an ideal moment to lay down our forks and rethink how we perceive our immigrant cuisines. Our exposure to a world of foods has never been greater; our palates have never been more primed.

It’s no longer a foreign concept to lunch at a banh mi carryout and then settle in for a dinner of Filipino sisig and end a night at a gelato shop, splitting an affogato. And that’s true whether we’re in Los Angeles, Minneapolis or Washington.

Culinary historian Michael Twitty says that at his perfect dinner table, diners would be aware of the West African and slave influence on barbecue and Southern food, know kalbi from Kobe, and finally recognize there’s no such thing as Indian food but instead Punjabi, Goan, Kashmiri and more.

At mine, we would never ding a clean, contemporary-looking restaurant lucky enough to afford the rent in a pricey neighborhood as being “inauthentic.”

And, yes, we’d pay the going rate for dinner.