The ethics of ‘ethnic’

Stroll your cart down the Caucasian foods aisle


Can you tell me which aisle has the Anglo foods?” I asked the clerk at a Boulder supermarket information desk.

“I want to cook some Caucasian food for my family tonight. We want to enjoy the familiar flavors, aromas and brands of food from our native culture,” I said. The clerk wrinkled her nose at me and said, “I’ll have to check with my manager.”

That’s how my totally imaginary supermarket conversation went. In real life, nobody shopping in Boulder has to ask that question. The whole supermarket is filled with “Caucasian” food. Nobody ever says: “Let’s go grab a cheap meal at that Caucasian place on 28th Street.” There are no cookbook shelves labelled “Anglo” at Barnes & Noble.   

What is true is that you’ll find an “Ethnic Foods” aisle or maybe “Global Flavors” or “International Fare” at Boulder supermarkets and natural food stores. There you will find the Asian essentials like toasted sesame oil, Indian curries and Middle Eastern ingredients like couscous. Usually there is a quasi-religious separation between the “Jewish” food, including matzoh and short candles, and the larger “Latino/Hispanic/Mexican” shelves with dried chilies and tall Catholic-themed candles.

What does putting the word “ethnic” in front of “restaurant,” “market” or “recipe” really mean? “Ethnic” is food eaten by people who may not look like “us.” Their skin may be darker. Their names might be less Anglo. “Ethnic” means we expect lots of food that costs less.

You won’t find French, Dutch, English or real Italian food and ingredients in that part of the store. More likely you’ll need to visit the “Gourmet Foods” area or the general vicinity of the upscale cheeses. Gourmet foods are expensive and in small portions.

What you won’t typically find in the ethnic food aisle are hot dogs, spaghetti or even bagels shelved with the white bread and pita pockets. Successful waves of immigrants arrived at the shores of Ellis Island with exotic fare that initially was found in certain communities in small stores. Eventually, certain foods, like the current favorite, hummus, get homogenized in the U.S. food blender and come out just “food” and part of the American menu.

At local “ethnic food stores,” the items on the shelf are usually organized by country except for rice, which everyone buys. H Mart, the huge Asian supermarket in Broomfield, has an aisle offering “Korean Snack, American Snack, Euro Snack, Chinese Snack.” Ethnic is in the eye of the beholder.

Our collective cultural chutzpah is so severe that we sell Starbucks espresso to Italians, McDonald’s French fries to the French and Taco Bell burritos to Mexicans in Mexico. Our cringe-worthy mispronunciations and inappropriate use of chopsticks are legendary among “ethnic” people. We do such bizarre things to foreign dishes when we Americanize them — see “sweet and sour pork” — that the original cultures now consider them “ethnic” foods from America.

On U.S. restaurant menus you still see “Oriental Dressing” on an “Asian Salad.” What nation do these Asians and Orientals hail from? Either way, the American-devised salad includes mandarin orange segments and crispy fried noodles.   

Whether by immigration or invasion, the process has gone on for thousands of years around the globe. Critics have harshly criticized white chefs and food experts who have made a living from other cultures’ food, but Oklahoma-born chef Rick Bayless has done the most to introduce most of America to real regional Mexican dishes through his eateries, books and TV shows. Anglo writer Diana Kennedy is among the best known experts on regional Mexican (non-Taco Bell) fare. Are we better or worse off for their efforts?

Surveys show that U.S. consumers — especially millennials — are rapidly developing a taste for tikka masala, poblano chilies, fish sauce and lapsang souchong tea. Other less familiar dishes and ingredients like galangal, mole negro and mammee may be next to show up on non-ethnic menus. Increasingly popular Muslim-approved “Halal” meats are showing up next to Jewish-approved “Kosher” meats in meat counters.

Is it appreciation or cultural appropriation and exploitation? Our appetite for culinary assimilation remains unabated. I can certainly be accused of international dabbling, but what better way is there to bridge cultural and religious divides than through food and breaking bread?

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On the Boulder menu, circa 1914

“Japanese Salad: Cut large selected bananas in halves crosswise and cut section from skins leaving the cases in good shape. Remove bananas, cut in slices then cut slices in cubes. To cubes, add an equal quantity of canned pears and marinate with a French dressing. Fill skin with mixture, arrange each on a lettuce leaf, and garnish with three slices of banana overlapping each other. Nut on top.” — From The Hostess (A practical and useful book of menus and receipts especially arranged for afternoon and evening parties),” published in 1914 by Eva Tanner, 1309 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder.

Local food news

The Pupusa Festival Saturday, Nov. 11 at the Village Exchange in Aurora offers a taste of El Salvadoran cuisine including diverse pupusas with salsa and curtido, a spicy cabbage slaw. … Aloy Thai Cuisine in Boulder and Denver will be featured on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17. … The Post Brewing Company is now open at 2027 13th St. in the space formerly home to Shine, Las Oasis, Boulder Draft House and Redfish. … Boulder’s Oasis Brewing, one of the first craft brewers in the area, will be reborn in an old church at 3257 N. Lowell Blvd. in Denver next spring serving classics like Oasis Red Scarab Ale.

Taste of the week

I was pleased to rediscover Denver’s Taste of Thailand at its new location, 2120 Broadway, and thrilled to find the fare as excellent and exciting as it was years ago when I reviewed it for the Rocky Mountain News. The Flu Shot Soup is still invigorating and the menu includes specials using Pueblo chilies and Palisade peaches. I loved the grilled northern Thai sausage lettuce wraps with strips of jalapeno, ginger and red onion with a sweet dipping sauce, as well as the spicy yum salad with salmon. 

Words to chew on

“In Denver 10 years ago, people weren’t quite ready for squid guts and different types of chicken such as skin and heart. They said they wanted to have it, but when you offered it, they wouldn’t order it. We did the market research. People said they were ready, but they weren’t.” — Yasu Kizaki, owner of Denver’s Sushi Den in Nation’s Restaurant News.

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles, 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, Podcasts: