Gentrification of food: Why we need to stop calling immigrant cuisine 'ethnic'

The label is damaging the people who make the food we love and a dark sign of attitudes towards foreigners 

Kashmira Gander
Wednesday 20 September 2017 14:40 BST

I remember it so vividly. My mum had succumbed to my pleas to make halva, a soft, delicate Persian sweet made using rose water, saffron, sugar, flour and water, and so had packed some in my lunchbox so I could take it to school. Distracted by the contents of my school bag all day, come lunchtime I carefully peeled back the tin foil of the parcel to reveal the caramel-coloured halva, and hungrily tore off a section. I felt as hedonistic as an 11-year-old can as the floral notes of the saffron and rose water danced on my tongue.

“What the hell is that?! Is it poo?! Why are you eating that?” laughed one of my friends, as I offered them a square. They saw the brown colour and rejected it outright. Unable to articulate that, well, chocolate is brown but we eat that, it’s safe to say that I stuck with eating halva at home and didn’t really mention Persian food after that. Fast-forward a decade or so, and now Persian cookbooks are on the shelves of high street stores, and Middle Eastern food from falafels to humus are hugely popular. Although, of course, the attitudes of 11-year-olds aren’t a measure for food trends (and I know they were only joking) it’s a snapshot of a wider attitude we have in the West towards so-called "ethnic" food. It’s what you might call the gentrification of food when, like once “sketchy” and “undiscovered” neighbourhoods, certain cuisines are elevated almost overnight from gross to in vogue.

Most recently, Filipino food was declared the next big thing. Why? Because Anthony Bourdain says so. More specifically, pork sisig - a dish of crispy, sizzling meat using portions of the head and the liver - will turn Americans, and eventually of course Britons, to the nation’s food. In an interview with CNN, he called the food “ascendant”, "underrated” and, patronisingly, a “work in progress”.

While entirely well-meaning, Bourdain’s comments are the latest from a Western (usually white) celebrity chef or food critic to take a once scoffed at cuisine, legitimise it and call it a trend. It all ties into race and colonialism. It’s why French or German food is never called "ethnic", but almost always Indian, Chinese and Thai. It’s why snails are seen as sophisticated, by Filipino balut, a boiled developing bird embryo, is baulked at.

This is a phenomenon documented by Krishendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University and the author of The Ethnic Restauranter. Since the 1950s, the term “ethnic” has equated to “foreign” but more importantly that which has less value. Studying the restaurants of the US, he found owners selling cuisine regarded as ethnic, and therefore not Western European, were unable to charge the same rates as their Western counterparts despite their dishes involving comparative levels of skill - as anyone who has tried to make an Indian curry from scratch will know.

"The history of global capitalism is a largely European phenomenon, which is why whiteness is important. It gives you cultural capital," explains Ray. “In the last quarter of the twentieth century, a global hierarchy of ‘good taste’ has emerged. The label ‘ethnic’ is a burden.

“What is considered ethnic is in relation to domination, and cultures that in the US and UK we see as different and inferior.” They are largely foods introduced to a country by poor, working class immigrants.

Lloyd Ramos, who runs the Milagrosa supermarket in Walthamstow, London, which imports and manufactures Filipino and East Asian foods, says it’s frustrating when certain foods become fashionable only when Western celebrity chefs and food critics decide they are acceptable.

“I suppose that it’s an identity thing, since a country’s cuisine is so indelibly linked to its people as a whole," he says. "Food is like a calling card for a culture, it’s how immigrants begin to settle and eventually assimilate into a community - take Indian food for example. For decades Filipinos have had to accept that they’d be grouped with the Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Thai. Now that Filipino food is being seen as the next big thing, it means that Filipino people and culture and take up its own distinct niche in the mindshare of the West. It’s a ‘now you finally see!’ kind of moment.”

More interesting still and further emphasising how race and class play into the foods we appreciate, is why attitudes can transform. In the US in the 1930s, Japanese food was regarded as unhealthy and strange. But following the economic boom of the 1980s, the country’s food enjoys as high a mark-up in cities like New York and London as French haute cuisine. And as the economies of India, China and Brazil have grown in the last century, Krishnendu has already noticed their cuisine is more valued and can be sold at higher prices.

"It's part of a matrix of cultural domination. You can make a living from your food but not according to your own terms," says Ray.

So what's the answer? Stop eating foods from different nations for fear we might be criticised? Krishnendu stresses that is not the way forwards, particularly as selling food has been a vital means for survival for many immigrants. It's about being sensitive.

And as society has become more multicultural and food culture more mainstream, attitudes have changed for the better, argues Tilesh Chudasam, the founder of the Indian street food restaurant Chai Naasto in London.

“Historically, there has been more emphasis on some cuisines over others. This has influenced the way we perceive certain cuisines, which in turn, has directly impacted prices. After all, how many ‘French’ all-you-can-eat buffets have you seen around?"

“However, in recent times, we have also seen a large shift in opinions. Where once, the edible wonders of Great Britain were scoffed at, it is now home to some of the top chefs and restaurants in the world. There is much more emphasis placed on presentation, the dining experience, sourcing quality ingredients, using home-grown produce, procuring from sustainable farms and the list goes on," he adds.

“There will always be some who just cannot fathom paying more than buffet price for an Indian but there are many people who will indiscriminately pay for quality food and a great experience, irrespective of the origins of the cuisine,“ says Chudasam.

"Generally, I think eating and exposing yourself to other cultures is essential to democracy in the modern world, and familiarity with racial and cultural differences is crucial," concludes Ray. "But we should love people as much as we love their food."

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