Racism in food? US, North European cuisines enjoy a privileged status, while others are named 'ethnic'
In NYC and most of the US even today, non-northern European foods termed are 'ethnic'.
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While cuisines from the US and northern Europe thrive in privileged entitlement, those from the rest of the world are labelled “ethnic”, languishing in the nuances that deem them strange, unequal, dirty, cheap and worse.
When I arrived in New York City in 1993, Manhattan was a very different place from what it is today.
The taxi drivers were Russian, Greek, some even Irish. But this was rapidly changing. More and more frequently, I encountered Haitian, Dominican, Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi drivers.
With this demographic change, there was a burgeoning of restaurants that catered to the culinary preferences of these men — and also some women — on the move.
The changing nationalities of taxi drivers is a fascinating barometer of immigration waves that hit a city. Especially in American cities, taxi drivers mimic the story of immigration to the nation as a whole. They come from someplace and belong to some race. No human can claim to being race-less and without an ethnic identity, however mixed it might be.
It is this identity that we have as humans that makes each one of us fall into some loose grouping of people, however flawed such a criterion might be.
“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” so the song goes, and so even in the most ecumenical of minds and times, people are divided into isms. It is the most natural thing to have happened. It is hard to keep it from happening.
The word “ethnic” is associated with traits exhibited by a group of people with a common ancestry and culture. It speaks of kindred spirits. It creates, rather loosely, large swaths of people familial in ways that might not even make sense to themselves.
It sorts people into groups whose members have racial, cultural, linguistic, tribal, national, or religious features in common. It divides neighbourhoods. It divides people — now matter where they come from.
The chauvinism that comes with the word is nothing new. The American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “These are ancient ethnic revels,/ Of a faith long since forsaken.” With those words, he assigned “ethnic” to that world which was not converted to Christianity.
The Othering This colonising mindset might be nothing respected or celebrated today, at least in places of public domain, but it has a deeply rooted influence on our way of thinking and our way of living. Colonists may have long left many a shore, but their prejudices, their opinions of those they colonised and their dehumanising attitudes towards those they oppressed live and thrive yet today.
Longfellow is long gone, but the word “ethnic” continues to define nationalism, jingoism and superior-ism ever more freely and with nary a care to its egregious, divisive history and discordant essence.
How can civil societies be so uncivil as to use a word that stereotypes and divides? How can super-patriotic citizens of a nation get away with the use of a word with a stealth history of dangerous profiling to further their agendas? Take, for example, the United States, where a majority of citizens are people of a racial and cultural makeup entirely different from the natives. Yet, in the US, “ethnic” has been used with derision to label those people who are something other than northern European. In Longfellow’s time, the word was used to single out the Jewish populace and thus came with baggage similar to what it carries today when it is used to marginalise newer waves of immigrants coming across borders. Post-World War II, the Jewish and Christian immigrants of northern European descent — as well as those considered Caucasian by the mere colour of their skin, with no distinction given to racial origins or geography — have lived happily for the most part as a majority, having had their status magically changed to “native”, while those immigrants who arrived with darker skin, speaking another language from places other than northern Europe, have been deemed “ethnic”.
Did each of those northern European immigrants somehow arrive from some extraterrestrial planet with existing culture, no language, no race of their own?
In NYC and most of the US even today, non-northern European foods termed “ethnic”. This epithet is a kiss death, a poison ivy that looks beautiful but stings viscerally and damns for life.
Food is something we have to indulge in to survive — all of us. Each of us has our comfort food. Then there is “gourmet food”, the “aspirational cuisines”, the “fine cuisines”, the “classy cuisines”, the “expensive cuisines”, the “fancy” ones, the “premium” ones. Ethnic food falls into none of these categories.
It was in the mid-1990s that my friend Ed Schoenfeld, the acclaimed Chinese restaurateur and owner of Red Farm, NYC, took the New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl and I to Pings in Queens for what he promised would be the best Chinese meal in town. It was a given that the restaurant wouldn’t get two stars. Just the fact that we would leave Manhattan meant the loss of one of those rarefied stars. And then there was the “ethnic” element. The food was, after all, Chinese.
Nothing was said, nothing was overt, but the word hung in the air. Ruth couldn’t have been more gracious, more in awe, more inclusive, more forward in her thinking and appreciation, in her celebration and in her review. Pings got one star, the first serious review for an “ethnic restaurant” in a borough. It also made Queens look good at a time when it was even more marginalised than it is now as a not-so-gentile part of the city.
Two and a half decades have passed since I first became aware of the restaurant scene in New York and started paying attention to the word “ethnic” and its baggage. The word has only gotten dirtier and more muddied in jingoism. I am still most often introduced as an “ethnic chef,” my cookbooks characterised as “ethnic cookbooks”, my food called “ethnic food”. This, when I have been one of the lucky few who have achieved a lot in the world of culinaria. How dare I complain? I have no reason to — I am a lucky exception.
But even I, in my day-to-day life, when I am not the lucky ethnic boy” whose “ethnic food” gets rave reviews in newspapers and magazines, quickly become the other. Called slurs that are too dirty and hateful to mention, even shaken up physically, and profiled at airports in cities where go to be feted on local television and to speak at forums. My success in certain circles can’t alter the established mindset. My legend is too small to impact the nation as a whole, my story too insignificant to change the thinking of the majority towards the “ethnic” other.
At the Culinary Institute of America, where I chair the Asian Studies Center, every care is being taken to educate a new cadre of chefs and operators to think of cuisine as a world of diverse flavours, and not in the archaic chauvinistic manner. They are making every effort to lose the term “ethnic cuisine” and instead talk about “world cuisine”. In fact, the cuisines of the non-northern European nations are getting a lot of play in their corridors and in their thought leadership conference Sometimes I feel bad for guard when I see them on the sidelines, feeling as neglected as we “ethnic” did.
I have not yet seen is a bold and daring most culinary institutes elsewhere including in nations that were once colonised marginalised — where native food culinary traditions are given any pride in education or even in societal acceptance. The colonised, now free, are colonising their own landscape through post-colonised mindscape. “Conti Cuisine” is what the food of northern Europe is called at institutes of culinary education across India.
More emphasis is given to this cuisine — a bastardised version of the original — than to the incredible cuisines of the regions of India. The mindset that perpetuates it, the colonisers’ superiority, is in many ways even more flawed than that of the colonisers themselves.
Until the nations of the world that are not part of the northern European geography wake up to take pride in their own cultures and cuisines and start collecting, celebrating and sharing recipes from their own nations, the world that is beyond their shores will certainly find them other, lesser and poorer in more ways than one. We all ought to celebrate a world of flavours, not just a region of flavours.
Is it possible to use the word “ethnic” to simply connect us to a race and geography, and let go of its use in a deeper cultural context? Is it not preferable to have the food of the people of France be called French and that of the people of India be called Indian, and of the people of China, Chinese, and so on? Why should cuisines from the US, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Spain and other nations big and small that we consider part of northern Europe thrive in privileged entitlement and be considered “high end”, even if not called as such, while the cuisines of the rest of the world are labelled “ethnic” and as a result languish in the hidden nuances that deem them strange, unequal, dirty, cheap, other and worse?
We must all rise, as civilised people, and make this world that “one world, one people, one global village” that we all hoped we could become with the dawning of the internet age.
Is that too much to ask? Am I speaking of utopia? Does “ethnic food” — the food most often associated with deeply, deliciously comforting flavours eaten by the majority of the world, food that is often rooted in spiritual, seasonal and local context — not have any chance of being given the respect that is afforded to the foods that had the good luck of arriving with the colonists?
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(Delhi-based Saran is a chef and author)