Taking out Ethnic Food
Critics say “othering” food makes cultures feel perpetually foreign.
STORY BY JOHN LEHNDORFF
It’s hard to take any culture’s claim to culinary purity seriously because invasion, intermarriage, and migration have brought new flavors and ingredients from around the world. But it wasn’t always easy: imagine the consternation the day the first cook in Italy served a tomato sauce made with a foreign vegetable widely considered poisonous.
Whether labeled “international” or “global” or “multicultural,” the implication is that “ethnic” food is not exactly all-American cuisine—it’s made by ethnic minorities and typically expect- ed to be inexpensive.
The issue is being debated in the food world, as some suggest that the word “ethnic”
is inherently racist. A few newspapers have discontinued italicizing non-English words in food stories because doing so highlights foods and peoples as “foreign.” And it’s a fair point: why do we italicize chicharron, but not spaghetti?
Controversy also arises because some chefs don’t want to be hyphenated. They are “American,” not “Italian-American” or “Ethiopian-American.” Other critics see the ethnic food aisle at supermarkets as the last fortress of “us” vs. “them.”
The buzz around labels indicates we are still just a little touchy and confused about
the whole subject of ethnicity—especially in Colorado, with its large immigrant community. According to state statistics, more than 600,000 (about 10 percent) of current Coloradans were born in other countries. Fully half of the population (including me) was born in other states, so there are many “others” living here, and it has done wonders for the food in this state.
Denver’s Ethnic Mixed Message
If you look on Yelp for “best ethnic restaurants” in Denver, the algorithm delivers you menus for Ethiopian (Queen of Sheba), Uzbek (Samarkand), Burmese (Urban Burma), Turkish (Bosphorus), Indian (Spice Room), Cuban (Cuba Cuba), and Syrian (Jasmine), among others. Denver’s many Mexican eateries barely register on the Yelp list.
The Mile High City’s tourism bureau put out a recent restaurant guide labeled variously as “ethnic” and “international.” The roster featured Asian fusion, Chinese, Cuban, Ethiopian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, and Middle Eastern dining spots. Mexican is lumped under Latin and South American. Curiously, French food is considered ethnic, but Italian, Spanish, and German fare is not. Hawaiian food is included on the list, even though it’s all-American.
Meanwhile, in Boulder, Yelp’s “best ethnic food” search suffers from some confusion. The results recommend Ras Kassa’s Ethiopian restaurant, Tibet Kitchen; Flower Pepper Chinese Restaurant; and Ali Baba Grill, along with The Med, which dishes “ethnic” fare like pizza, ravioli, and paella.
Who Gets Put in the Ethnic Aisle?
If you order groceries on Amazon, ethnic food pops up under the International Food Market banner ranked by the most popular cuisines: Asian, Indian, and Latin. In visiting many of the metro area’s supermarket chains and smaller stores recently, worlds of differences exist in how culinary ethnicity is handled.
At Walmart, ethnic is called “International,” but is mainly stocked with Asian and Mexican ingredients. King Soopers labels its ethnic section “International Foods,” and this is where you’ll also find Jewish foods. As at many supermarkets, there is a separate “Kosher” shelf—much like the gluten-free section.
Costco doesn’t count because foods there get placed randomly, making shoppers wander through the store looking for coconut milk and bargains. Safeway boasts an aisle labeled “Hispanic Foods and Asian Foods,” plus a “Pasta” section for all things Italian. However, the rice mixes—like Rice-A-Roni; Cajun rice; and Near East couscous, pilaf, and risotto—mingle like the United Nations of carbohydrates. At Whole Foods Market, the items are separated as much by dietary religion—GF, dairy-free, keto—as ethnicity, but an “International” aisle shelves everything from Thai noodles to organic chipotle chiles.
Trader Joe’s has a looser organizational vibe. There’s a comingling of the world’s great oil and vinegar, aged cheeses, and coffees. However, in the freezers, the Mexican vegetable entrees are segregated from the Asian vegetables, with Beijing-style soy sauce and Trader Joe’s No. 1 favorite item: Mandarin orange chicken.
Critics suggest that this “us” vs. “them” approach to shopping subtly reinforces racism and that Asian ingredients should be spread throughout the store. Would putting the hoisin sauce next to the ketchup make shopping easier or more complicated? And for whom?
If you are looking for an authentic ethnic market, Yelp’s Denver search offers a wealth of choices: M & I International Market for Russian and European goods, the classic Pacific Mercantile Company, and the Middle Eastern-oriented Diyar International Market. Only one Mexican supermarket cracks the ranking, along with two gourmet markets— Marczyk Fine Foods and Savory Spice—which carry some ethnic foods.
To gain a different perspective on ethnicity, take a trip to Asian superstore H Mart (in Aurora or Westminster) or Arash International Market (in Aurora) on
a Thursday afternoon. You will be surrounded by a bustling world of Americans from several continents spread across whole aisles devoted to rice noodles, tea, kimchi, and flatbreads.
At H Mart, food gets unsentimentally subdivided mainly by nationality: Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Indian. Mexican food gets its own aisle, with a Puerto Rican shelf tucked into one corner. Only part of one aisle is labeled “Euro Grocery” and is stocked with a peculiar smorgasbord of Italian pizza, Middle Eastern beverages, barbecue sauce, Skippy peanut butter, Slavic jams, Nutella, and waffle mix.
How Ethnic Are You?
Wikipedia’s big-tent approach to cuisine categories lists all of us under Ethnic and Religious Cuisines from Albanian all the way to Zambian. But DNA tests such as 23andMe have changed what ethnic means. My dad was born in Austria, and my mother’s parents emigrated from Sicily.
I used to say I was half Sicilian and half Austrian, but now that doesn’t tell half the story of my roots all the way back to the old country: Africa.
Like America, I’m a chunky stew, not a smooth fondue. Stews are satisfying entrees that meld ingredients that still retain some individual identity. Ethnic traditions and foods aren’t ditched at the door, even as newcomers assimilate into the US. This makes America rich—and absolutely a much better place to eat.
Dining out has proven to be the surest way to overcome cultural barriers over time. Once you meet the maker of the pupusa or baklava you love, it’s harder to stick their family and culture in the “other” category. In the end, it’s all American food made by Americans for Americans.