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curry-ethnic-cooking-nations-restaurant-news.jpg Andrea Pistolesi / Stone
Nancy Kruse and Bret Thorn debate if the word "ethnic" should be used in the culinary world including Alison Roman's #TheStew and the expense of opening an authentic restaurant.

Debating the term ‘ethnic’ and where it fits in food and restaurants

Kruse and Thorn reflect on changing attitudes, and the opportunities they present

Nancy Kruse:

I was surprised, Bret, when the wonderful Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho accepted one of his numerous Oscars last February by thanking the Academy for giving him the inaugural Best International Feature Film Award. He noted that the category had formerly been known as Best Foreign Language Film and he “applauded and supported the new direction that this change symbolizes.”

I’d obviously missed the memo, which circulated last year and called the notion of “foreign” outdated in a global marketplace. The new classification, execs of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said, “promotes a positive and inclusive view of filmmaking … .” Coming from an institution that is frequently criticized for its tin-eared insensitivity to social issues and woeful lack of wokeness, this was at least an admission that words do matter.

It brought to mind a similar, words-can-hurt controversy sparked earlier by David Chang, the gifted and influential Korean-American chef. During a podcast last summer, he declared that the ethnic food aisles in supermarkets are inherently racist; in fact, he blasted them as “the last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America.”

nancy_kruse_0_1_0_0.pngHe recalled that, as the child of immigrant parents living in Washington, D.C., the experience of shopping in a mainstream grocery store and finding the food his mother cooked at home relegated to a separate ethnic food aisle was a reminder that he and his family were different from white Americans. It’s an outmoded form of Jim Crow, he insists, and he asks why, since “all the foods in the ethnic food aisle are already accepted,” do we even have them?

Chang was subsequently interviewed in a Washington Post story on the subject, and lots of readers responded thoughtfully both for and against his contention that “ethnic” connotes marginalization to the average grocery shopper. This controversy echoed an earlier story in the Post that was titled “How Americans Pretend to Love ‘Ethnic Food,’” and leveled the same charges of fostering outsider status directly against our own industry.

It’s a very provocative screed, which boils down to the thesis that our acceptance of foreign cuisines is actually a “form of bias, a subtle hypocrisy that suggests we think these foods are inferior.” This inferiority is underscored by the fact that we demand that they be cheap. The author proffers as proof that we’re generally willing to pay much more for roasted chicken and vegetables in a French restaurant than when those same ingredients are used in, say, a Chinese or Mexican dish.

I’m doing a disservice to the nuances of this last article, which includes a thought-provoking interview the estimable Krishnendu Ray, chair of nutrition and food studies at New York University, because I am anxious to engage you, Bret, and get your thoughts on these complex and loaded charges being directed at restaurateurs and grocers alike. There’s lots to unpack here, and I don’t think it’s quite as simple as black and white.

From the retailer perspective, supermarket operators argued in the Washington Post that ethnic, sometimes referred to as international, food aisles have nothing to do with segregation and everything to do with convenience, since customers don’t want to search a massive store with upwards of 40 thousand SKUs to find a bottle of oyster sauce. What’s more, a representative of Goya Foods, the Hispanic-foods company in the news of late, reported that they’ve actually lost sales when absorbed into the larger supermarket ecosystem and that they prefer to have shelf space on an aisle of their own.

From the foodservice point of view, I agree that there’s a perception that ethnic food frequently equates to cheap. You’ll recall that when you and I pondered why Indian cuisine, long-heralded as the next big ethnic trend, hasn’t truly gotten a footing here, we were contacted by an Indian chef who explained that the costs and complexities of running a true Indian kitchen were incompatible with the inevitable American expectation of cheap eats.

I wonder, though, if this expectation truly indicates knee-jerk prejudice on the part of the patron or if it reflects the harsher realities of commercialism. So many ethnic operations are Mom and Pops, without the trappings that command bigger bucks. They’re selling the steak without the sizzle in a market where sizzle commands a higher price.  I’m not suggesting that our restaurant culture is free from bias, but I am arguing here that customers expect to pay midscale prices in a place that resembles a midscale restaurant, regardless of the costs and complexities in the kitchen. But when the ambiance, service or buzz are elevated, as in some of David Chang’s operations, they’ll gladly part with more money.

Bret, this entire debate raises questions that I’ve wrestled with unsuccessfully for a very long time: Namely, when does ethnic cease to be ethnic and become mainstream American? Does it depend on the size of the immigrant community, the timing of their arrival, the color of their skin, the fluency of their English or the flavor of the foods they eat?

And in the bigger picture, do you think that the notion of “ethnic” food, like the concept of “foreign” films, is outdated in a global marketplace?

Bret Thorn responds:

Nancy, I despise the word “ethnic,” and I’m working to remove it from the pages of Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality, not merely because I think it’s often a pejorative term, but because it’s meaningless. Are English and French not ethnicities, and if not, then why is Italian? As you know, the National Restaurant Association does a rather extensive periodic study of “ethnic” cuisine in the United States, and the top three have long been Chinese, Mexican and Italian. So they definitely think the Italians are ethnic, or at least their food is.

The term certainly implies that something isn’t normal. Since about 18% of the global population is in China and another 17% is in India, compared to 14% in the United States, Canada and Europe combined, what exactly are we calling abnormal? 

Bret_Thorn_0_1_0_0.pngIt can be a challenge to completely get rid of the word “ethnic” because potential replacement terms like “global” and “international” are similarly meaningless. If, for example, Sriracha sauce is manufactured by a company in Southern California, even if the sauce itself originated in Thailand, how is it more international than mayonnaise, which originated in France?

So instead, I try to be as specific as possible. We don’t say that marinara sauce is European; it’s Italian, and I’ve met more than one expert on Italian cuisine who would sneer at me being too general for not saying that it was from southern Italy.

Then the conversation might devolve into an argument about whether marinara originated in Sicily or Campania.

If we get so granular about European food, why would we call gochujang, the Korean chile paste, Asian? The fish dish thiebou djenn is Senegalese; there’s no reason to call it African. Painting cuisines with such a broad brush is marginally better than just calling them “ethnic,” but it minimizes the complexity of those cultures.

However, it’s better than painting them all white.

That’s what critics argued that cookbook author and New York Times contributor Alison Roman did with her recipe in The Times for Spiced Chickpea Stew with Coconut and Turmeric.

The dish, which also has ginger, cloves, chile powder and greens, among other things, was such a smashing success that it went viral. It got its own hashtag.

It also raised the hackles of many people, because #TheStew is quite obviously a curry.

No it’s not, Roman protested as the scandal escalated.

“I’m like y’all, this is not a curry ... I’ve never made a curry, I don’t come from a culture that knows about curry,” she told Megan Reynolds on the web site Jezebel. “I come from no culture. I have no culture. I’m like, vaguely European.”

“I have no culture”?

Everyone has a culture. Just because you’re unaware of your heritage, possibly because it’s the same heritage as most of the people you associate with, and most of the people you see in media, doesn’t mean you don’t have one.

Saying you don’t have a culture is an example, in modern parlance, of white privilege. It’s implying that you’re, you know, regular.

What, then, is everyone else?

Commenting on the Alison Roman scandal, such as it was, in The Washington Post, Molly Roberts argued that by pushing a curry dish so far into the mainstream (“mainstream” — we could have a whole separate discussion about that loaded word), it ignored the heritage of the people who inspired the dish.

“It’s impossible to be the everywoman without leaving any woman behind,” she said.

Some people wrapped up in their own wokeness might argue that Roman shouldn’t be profiting from curry recipes at all. That is, in my opinion, nonsense. We’ve discussed that in the past when we took on the topic of cultural appropriation.

But she could extoll the origins  of #TheStew, which, as Jezebel pointed out, The Times ultimately did, saying in an edited introduction to the recipe that it “evokes the stews found in South India and parts of the Caribbean.”

Is that so hard?

And Nancy, what a wonderful opportunity this is for restaurant operators who can trumpet the origins of a dish.

You mentioned David Chang. Well, the founder of his Momofuku Group’s Milk Bar, Christina Tosi, got into some social media hot water for uploading a video on her Instagram account of “flaky bread,” which detractors pointed out looked an awful lot like the paratha of South Asia.

Bettina Makalintal, writing for the Vice food outlet Munchies, noted that Alison Roman herself fell similarly afoul with a recipe for flaky bread in Bon Appétit in 2014 which ultimately changed the name of the dish to “Flaky Bread (Malawah),” explaining that it was based on a Yemeni food item.

Indeed, there are lots of flaky breads out there, but restaurateurs know which one inspired their own creation, why not just say so?

You can still call it Flaky Bread. Just point out somewhere what inspired it. If you end up offending some racist who doesn’t want to eat bread that’s from India or the Middle East, well, you have a good chance of exchanging their money for someone’s who appreciates your gesture.

Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News.
E-mail her at [email protected]

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

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