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Why Chinese Food is ‘Cheap, Ethnic Food’ and Japanese Food is ‘Fancy, Foreign Food’

Dan Pashman of The Sporkful podcast is at it again with his second installment of what will now be the five-part series, Other People’s Food. In yesterday’s episode, Pashman asks the questions “How does what we think about different people affect what we think about their food? When other people have stereotypes about our food, how does that change the way we feel about ourselves? And, how does all this affect what we actually end up eating?”

 

Photo Credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher

Photo Credit: Scott Gordon Bleicher

 

A lot of times, we don’t think about what we’re eating, who makes it, and where it comes from, but even if it’s subconscious, food is directly tied to our identities. The way we see other people’s food is tied with how we think about them, stereotypes and all. Nicole Taylor, author of The Up South Cookbook grew up in the South and spent a lot of her early life trying to distance herself from the foods her family grew up eating. “Old school neck bones and rice, stuff now that all these fancy chefs are doing in their restaurants, I just thought…it’s like poor people’s food,” she says. “The truth is, those judgements about what foods are for what type of people,” Pashman explains, “we all do that in one way or another.”

Professor Krishnendu Ray, chair of the food studies program at NYU explains, “most Americans would hesitate to pay $30 for Chinese food.” But, when was the last time you went for Japanese food and spent less than $30? Dinner for two at Masa in New York City will soon cost upwards of $1,300. Expensive Japanese food is just what’s out there, but no one wants to pay up for Chinese dishes. Why?  The truth is, food has very little to do with it. It’s about the way we see the people behind the food. “Most of the Japanese we are familiar with are business folks, are executives, but right now most Americans associate Chinese food with relatively impoverished Chinese immigrants.” That dictates, as Professor Ray says, whether we see food as “cheap ethnic food” or “expensive foreign food.” And the “hierarchy of taste” will change. Chinese immigration will eventually slow down, and our opinion of their food will change.

This is nothing new. It happened with European immigrants as well. Some of our fanciest and most expensive restaurants today are Italian, but “generations ago, Italian people were made fun of for smelling like garlic, and their food was considered low class,” Pashman pointed out. Spices, especially garlic, were supposedly “bad for you” and people were advised against eating Italian food.

On a positive note, the United States is more open-minded than most in terms of food than other nations. Still, it’s not easy for “other” food to go mainstream. New food must go through translations before we’ll eat it. When you start eating Chinese food, you don’t dive in with spicy Szechuan dishes. The food is watered down and made more friendly, like Sesame Chicken, or Chicken Tikka Masala at an Indian restaurant, or a California Roll as a gateway to sushi. Then, the authentic versions of these foods come back into style. Growing up, General Tso’s chicken was always on my table on Sunday nights. Now, give me spicy fish stews or give me nothing at all.

How is it determined which cultures’ foods do better than others? In 2016, it has a lot to do with the way it looks. #Foodporn and the media are incredibly important.

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Certain cultures have food that, while delicious, doesn’t look beautiful on a plate. Pashman says that this is what gives “chicken tandoori a leg up over dal, and blintzes an advantage over borscht.” “Uglier” foods are a harder sell. Some cultures have more dishes that resemble beef stew than others.

The people behind these “other” foods can face difficulty as well. Chitra Agarwal and Nicole Taylor discussed their experiences trying to get their books published. Agarwal wanted to write a book about South Indian home cooking, something that’s not well understood. We have a basic understanding of the differences between Northern and Southern Italian food, but all Indian food is often all lumped together into one category. When Agarwal pitched her book, publishers would turn her away because they “already had an Indian author,” even though her book had totally different content than other books. She also felt that unless she wrote an Indian cookbook, she wouldn’t be able to publish anything at all. Even though she’s a lifelong vegetarian, most publishers would not want to publish a book by her unless it was Indian recipes. Taylor recounted publishers wanting to pigeonhole her. They would ask, “is it a soul food book?” If not, it might be too hard of a sell, regardless of the content.

This discussion certainly resonates. I like to think that I’ll try anything, but despite the fact that beets are one of my favorite vegetables, I’ve never tried borscht. It’s probably because my Instagram feed is full of avocado toast, sushi and deli sandwiches that I feel I need to get to first.

Listen to the Podcast Here:

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