Should we drop the term "ethnic food" for certain restaurants?

Washington Post food section (22 July 2015) has interesting article that recommends just that.
What do you think?

  • Posted by: Nancy
  • July 22, 2015


Nancy July 28, 2015
I'm replying before the next set of Wednesday food columns claims our interest and this issue, maybe, slides under the wave of new inquiries.

To those who agreed, MeganVT, ChefJune, AmySarah & Stephanie, thanks for your comments and wit.
Yes, ChefJune, "oriental" when used about kitchens says more about us, our ignorance of Asia & development of restaurant business to that point than it does about the original cultures or their food.

To Barney Simon & Bugbitten, thanks for raising your objections.

To Barney's point, you're right. I hadn't thought of this article in terms of political correctness, its overzealous language policing & its failure to change anything much. So maybe we shouldn't pass a outright ban calling restaurants & cuisines "ethnic."

To bugbitten, Ramanathan in the Washington Post & ChefJune here were alerting us to patterns & associations clinging to these words (CONNOTATION). You are absolutely correct on the dictionary definitions of ethnic and oriental (DENOTATION). But both types of meaning are constantly in play & I for one will keep my ears open for both.
bugbitten July 23, 2015
Hmmm…really? Orient means East. Ethnic means characteristic of a society of people. If you find these words derogatory, your dictionary offers no support.
Barney S. July 23, 2015
No. This is Political correctness gone wrong. In English, we have a term for a non-majority subgroup of a general population based upon a shared cultural background: ethnic group. Therefore, to describe food from such a group as ethnic, is correct. Just because Americans are a simple bunch that think fennel tastes like anise, does not mean you can simply rebrand it and sell it as anise… oh, you CAN do that it seems, but that does not make it correct. It is like trying to ostracize and fire people for using the word ‘niggardly’ correctly in a sentence because it sounds like a completely different word, and yet, the fine people of Washington DC have done THAT too.
‘Ethnic’ like politics is local. I live in NJ. If I go to Garfield to the Polish market, where I am likely going to need to speak Polish and/or point a lot [which is what I end up doing], locally Polish is not ethnic, but based on the county/state/country, Polish food is ethnic. If I go to Union City for Cuban food, same thing. All food is ‘ethnic,’ whether it is from Southern France, Southern Ethiopia, or Southern USA. To quote from “Italy is made up of twenty regions with distinct characteristics. Every town, every village, makes the same dish in vastly different ways, and every town and village has its proudest specialty. These cooking traditions define people's identities just as much as their dialects and their traditional costumes. Local cooking preferences and customs are shaped by geographic, historical, and climactic differences...” So there are 20 ethnically distinct Italian cuisines – this could get complicated, but I know people who think of Olive Garden as true Italian food, and I know people who could tell you all the differences between each districts’ Italian cuisine.
We all know people who are strictly ‘meat and potatoes,’ or their own ethnic version of that. So do not take having your cuisine called ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’ personally. When American society as a whole has been a majority of pale people of European decent, by definition ‘ethnic’ food is going to be from non-pale people. As minority groups gain a foothold, and lose their unique individual culinary identity, their food is indeed no longer thought of as foreign, exotic, or ethnic. Few think of Mexican food as ethnic, nor Chinese, German, French, or Russian, but they are, and we specifically choose to go to these ethnic restaurants for their specific cultural offerings.
As the article points out, people see ‘ethnic’ food as ‘different,’ and by definition it is, and if ‘ethnic’ was not used, some other word would have to made up to use. For Chef Sheppard call his cooking “New American creole” because he doesn’t “want to do is bastardize or steal,” While appealing to his market by using familiar spices and flavor in his cooking, he has done a much more truly American thing: He has forcibly assimilated the ethnic flavor palate, and called it “New American,” what it really is: “New Americans’ Cuisine”
Stephanie July 22, 2015
But, but, will we distinguish between "us" and "them" (whiny voice, dripping with sarcasm). Honestly, it just strikes me as another type of "lazy American" to not be more specific about global cuisines.

Can we also agree to omit the use of the word "fusion"? It's so often improperly used to mean "inspired by" rather than the proper fusion of two distinct cuisines.
Nancy July 22, 2015
;)...thanks Stepahnie, good idea. I would feel no loss if I were never to hear "fusion" again, unless maybe in a sentence about astronomy, chemistry or physics!
amysarah July 22, 2015
Thanks, interesting article. "Ethnic" cuisine has always struck me as a nebulous term - with tacitly derogatory connotations. Let's drop it.
ChefJune July 22, 2015
I agree with the article. Especially because so often the term has unspoken negative connotations. Ditto for the VERY passe "Oriental."
meganvt01 July 22, 2015
yes! what a great article.
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