Kathleen Purvis

Is it time to stop calling food ‘ethnic’?

Is it ethnic food or international food? Or can we just call them tacos?
Is it ethnic food or international food? Or can we just call them tacos? Observer files

It happened again the other night.

I was at a gathering of people in the culinary field when a woman visiting from out of town asked about “ethnic” restaurants. And I cringed.

“Ethnic food.” Isn’t it time for that one to go?

I used to say it automatically, not really considering what I meant. A lot of the food world used it to define food experiences: Ethnic restaurant. Ethnic market. Ethnic cuisine. Ethnic recipe.

It was shorthand, no more or less loaded than “local-food movement,” “organic” or “artisan.” It was a word I grabbed because it was fast and simple, a label that covered complicated concepts with the smallest number of letters.

And then it started to get under my own Anglo-Saxon skin.

What does “ethnic” even mean? And more importantly: Why are the foods of some nationalities commonly described as ethnic, but not others?

There’s an uncomfortable truth here, isn’t there? Here’s the reality I see: The darker the skin of the people doing the cooking, the more likely it is that someone will pull out the E word – usually ethnic but sometimes exotic – to describe it. And, yes, when it’s called ethnic, a lot of people expect to pay less to experience it.

No one calls a French restaurant ethnic, or says Italian cooking is ethnic. (At least, not anymore – a couple of generations ago, Italian food and tasty things like garlic and Parmesan cheese were treated with just as much suspicion in the American mainstream as kimchi and fish sauce are today.)

If a Swedish restaurant opened in Charlotte, would anyone call it “ethnic’? How about a new Ethiopian place?

Caucasian is an ethnic group. Does anyone call Cracker Barrel or Red Lobster ethnic restaurants?

Sure, “ethnic” is just another word in the dictionary. The definition: “Relating to a population subgroup, with a common national or cultural tradition.” Being proud of your ethnicity is a fine thing, a part of the way we sort ourselves by the things we share.

If you think about it that way, we’re all ethnic, we’re all a part of the traditions we share with people who came from backgrounds similar to our own.

It’s just that when you unpack how it’s used, particularly in food, you find some heavy baggage. Ethnic can be a wall we throw up, a way to slot people into stalls that let us stay comfortable as long as we’re controlling our contact.

Is it really a hardship to find a better word for these foods? In this case, anyway, there are better, clearer words than ethnic. We can say “international,” or “global food,” or “world cuisine.”

Even better, we can call them what they are: Cambodian or Ethiopian, Vietnamese or Serbian. That might mean asking more questions, looking more closely, doing a little more homework. But isn’t that a part of what learning a cuisine is about – drawing the world in a little more closely by experiencing it?

If we are really open to exploring the world through our plates, it’s time to let the language get a little bigger.

Kathleen Purvis: 704-358-5236, @kathleenpurvis