For decades, burger-bored Americans have loved to indulge in what is widely known as “ethnic food.” While many corners of the internet debate endlessly on what exactly folks mean when they talk about ethnic food, most will agree that it has come to describe any noteworthy cuisine that can trace its origins to beyond the borders of the United States.
Distinguishing diners will often rate ethnic food not just by taste and price, but by the far more nebulous category of “authenticity.” People like to boast about how their favorite spot has dishes that will transport you to that cuisine’s origin country—"This is the best ramen outside of Japan … one bite of this pasta will whisk you to Sicily."
While it can be fun to treat your local ethnic restaurants as a kind of culinary Epcot World Showcase, there is far more nuance in America’s ethnic food preparation than most realize.
Don’t Read The Comments
Diana Dávila is a chef whose reputation is as hot as the Sonoran Desert in July. Since opening her new restaurant Mi Tocaya Antojeria in Chicago in early 2017, she has been written about in the Chicago Tribune and Bon Appétit and was named Eater’s 2018 Chef to Watch. Despite all the accolades, and her resilient personality, Dávila could not help but feel somewhat wounded by some pointed comments that appeared beneath a recent Thrillist video profile of her restaurant.
The video shared some of Dávila’s most popular menu items, such as the
espaghetti con crema poblana and beer can chicken, and it was met by a barrage of keyboard critics who claimed the items were not authentic Mexican dishes.
“It was really disheartening,” says Dávila, who faced criticism from all sides over whether or not her dishes could be found in pueblos south of the border. “I feel like it was a combination of haters being haters and also ignorance: people just not knowing.”
It’s Mexican-American, because that’s who I am.
Dávila's strong reaction likely comes from the fact that she takes great joy in studying ingredients and recipes on her frequent visits to Mexico, and that she’s been in enough kitchens to know that authenticity verdicts miss the mark: “Just because you live in Mexico doesn’t mean you know everything … I meet Mexicans here who have never heard of some dishes. They’re like, 'I don't know what that is, is that Mexican?' They only see what was in their pueblo.”
As someone of Mexican heritage who was born in the United States, Dávila gets to the very heart of the debate over ethnic food authenticity when describing her background: “I’m Mexican-American … I have this fantasy of being like, ‘Oh yeah, it’s just Mexican food,’ but it’s just not real. It’s Mexican-American, because that’s who I am.”
Such statements reveal that any debate over ethnic food can be futile without also considering the chefs and the people behind these beloved dishes. To better understand some of those stories requires rethinking some of America’s most popular ethnic cuisines.
"Fake" Chinese Food
As Dávila’s comment-reading experience makes clear, tempers can flare when it comes to discussing food and heritage. One blog post, for example, provides a warning to diners with "Ways to Spot a Fake Chinese Restaurant" and lists "red flags" like egg rolls, crab rangoon, mu shu pork, and bottles of soy sauce as items you couldn't find in a real Chinese restaurant. And while it may be true that many, if not all, of these items might never be spotted in a restaurant in Beijing—does that mean the Chinese restaurants that serve these items are a bunch of food frauds and culinary con men?
Sitting as a deputy chair and associate curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—and as the son of Chinese immigrants—Cedric Yeh has a lot to say about Chinese food in America, though he endeavors to steer clear of labeling certain dishes authentic or not.
No one is ever going to say, "Oh, that’s not real Italian pizza."
“I had, in the past, tried to stay away from authenticity because that always felt like I don’t actually know anything about cuisine. I’m a historian, so I’m trying to use popular dishes to describe boring [historical] topics.”
Yeh prefers to understand ethnic food, especially Chinese food, as a particularly delicious chapter in the story of immigration in America.
When coerced to discuss the question of fake or Americanized Chinese food, Yeh like to counter with a discussion of another kind of ethnic food: pizza. Immigrants from the south of Italy brought a variety of food items that eventually worked their way into the American mainstream. Pizza was among them.
Yeh explains that Chinese food is comparable as it is the second most popular type of ethnic food restaurant in the ten most populated American cities after Italian. But Yeh points out a notable difference: “No one is ever going to say, ‘Oh, that’s not real Italian pizza.’”
It’s usually Chinese food, or other kinds of ethnic food, where people will look for the authentic distinction. Invariably, someone will lay claim to insider knowledge of a place where they serve up the “real” Chinese food, whereas most folks easily accept pizza as…just pizza.
“It’s kind of fascinating how that exists,” says Yeh.
... one might argue that Mexican cuisine has always been part of the American food landscape.
Differences often stem from what ingredients are available stateside. Ruben Lozano, executive chef at Cantina Laredo—which specializes in "Modern Mexican"—explains the biggest difference in cooking meals in America vs. Mexico: “In the U.S., we work with more expensive meat cuts. In Mexico, we work with other cuts, such as tripe or knuckle. U.S. appetites are converging with Mexican tastes though, as more U.S. restaurants add menu features such as menudo or caldo de res.”
When getting into the “authenticity” debate, Lozano—who grew up in Mexico working on his father’s ranch in Santa Rosa—likes to highlight the historical overlap between the two countries: “Much of Texas, Arizona, California, and New Mexico were once part of Mexico. So one might argue that Mexican cuisine has always been part of the American food landscape.”
Enchiladas and Egg Rolls as an Economic Necessity
Those who want to draw harsh lines between what ethnic food is authentic or not may fail to realize that most ethnic restaurants do have one undeniable connection to the homeland: the people who run them.
For generations, immigrants who have come to America have not always found a hospitable welcome waiting for them. Italians, mostly from southern Italy, faced everything from intellectual skepticism to outright discrimination as they came to America looking for a better life. Their food, which would eventually be part of beloved neighborhood spots and fine dining establishments coast to coast, was initially viewed as uncivilized and offensive.
The Chinese experienced even harsher dismissals upon arrival (and decades after) and created a new version of native food staples for themselves in the new American environment. Yeh explores the question of “Americanized” Chinese food by asking people to consider how Chinese food got to this country in the first place.
“What was it like for those first immigrants who were coming here? Did people think that they came with all these ingredients?" he says. "How long would those ingredients have lasted? Did you think that those immigrant workers were all cooks?”
Yeh points out that many Chinese immigrants who came to America went to work on the transcontinental railroad—far from any port that might have anything close to native Chinese food items. “They were making do with what they had,” explains Yeh.
Dávila expresses a similar sentiment when discussing her parents, who were immigrants from Mexico. They weren’t trying to please a bunch of food critics, says Dávila: “My parents opened up restaurants not because they wanted to express themselves culinary-wise or because they wanted to be chefs … they opened them up because it gave them an opportunity to own their own business.”
This is a fundamental fact that many may not realize when considering the authenticity of an ethnic restaurant—the menu is often constructed based off of the realities of the owners and the customers they serve.
Italian-American spaghetti and meatballs became popular because tomatoes and meat were cheaper in the U.S. than in Italy. The origin of the chimichanga is still debated, but there is no question that American love of deep-fried fare allowed many Mexican-Americans to make a living selling the crispy burrito in their communities.
These imported and altered menu items often have a significant impact on the lives of the immigrant groups that created them. Such is the case with one well-know Chinese-American dish—chop suey.
When Food Fights Intolerance
Chop suey, that meal of meat, eggs, and vegetables, is not a commonly found dish in China. In fact, it is deeply rooted in the Chinese-American experience—supposedly originally concocted by the first wave of Chinese immigrants who found themselves laboring in the West and used their native cooking methods with local ingredients.
The dish became popular over the decades and, ironically, reached sensation status just as anti-Chinese immigration sentiment in America was near its zenith.
“The Chinese immigration experience is a bit different [from others]. Chinese immigrants are the only group that were officially excluded from the country,” says Yeh, referring to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted Chinese immigration for ten years and forbid Chinese naturalization until 1943.
During these years, Chinese-American communities were isolated from their homeland with no new waves of young Chinese men and women to help them grow. But even as the American government closed itself off to Chinese immigration, Yeh explains that the average American was enthusiastically supporting Chinese-American cuisine: “Chop suey appears. America seems to love it … its popularity explodes on the scene.”
While not the only factor, Yeh points out, the success of these chop suey restaurants from all over America allowed these ostracized communities to stay relevant and economically sustainable in a country that had turned its back on them. So while there can be debate over the exact origin of certain dishes and types of ethnic food, the impact that these foods can have is immeasurably significant.
Prejudice remains on the menu.
Those who think that this kind of cultural intolerance exists only in the past are in for a reckoning: the latest waves of ethnic restauranteurs deal with new brands of bigotry.
Consider Dávila, who grapples with Mexican food still being seen as a lower-tiered dining experience. She fervently defends Mexican cuisine, calling it “one of the best cuisines in the world and also most underrated cuisines in the world.”
She recounts one reviewer who said that, on principle, they never wanted to pay more than four dollars for a taco.
“Okay, so people will pay four dollars for a taco, that’s amazing, but have no problem paying twenty dollars for a piece of s*** tomato sauce and pasta because it has whatever Italian name on it. I’m sorry, but that’s just racist and ignorant. And I want to see it change.”
This brings up the earlier question of defining ethnic food, and the idea that many associate a certain inexpensiveness when considering ethnic dishes. Meanwhile, other cuisines enjoy more sophisticated monikers—have you ever heard anyone describe a French restaurant as “ethnic”?
This is not unique to Mexican cuisine. A recent Washington Post article revealed that Indian food has not caught on in the United States like one might expect specifically because the prices are too high. The article cited a professor at NYU, Krishnendu Ray, who argues that people don’t feel the same connection to Indian food as they do other cuisines, making more upscale iterations of Indian restaurants a harder sell.
One contemporary Indian spot in New York closed its doors in 2010 “after realizing that upscale Indian simply wasn't sustainable.” That said, Italian food was seen as “slumming it” decades ago; now an Italian spot in Chicago is a favorite of the 44th President of the United States.
Tastes change, but quality reigns.
For all the questions of how food changes when it is introduced in America, or even who “owns” a certain dish or kind of food, one of the best ways to make sense of differences in ethnic food is to look at who is making it, and why.
What perhaps causes tempers to flare more than anything is when certain ethnic food is presented and the provider seems not to know—or care—about the basic ingredients or composition of a beloved dish. This is something that Dávila does not let go unnoticed, especially for anyone who wants to open a Mexican restaurant.
“You don't have to be Mexican to do that. That’s ridiculous. But I do think you owe it to yourself and the culture to do your research to see why something is called something. I think some people are like ‘Who's going to know?’”
Her opinion is that anyone who wants to share a culture’s cuisine with the American public should be free to do so, regardless of their background, while discouraging willful ignorance when it comes to that cuisine. “Don’t call things something that they are just blatantly not,” insists Dávila.
These connections to the homeland are important, as Yeh discovered during one of his trips to his ancestral China. In America, his parents always cooked for him as a child, and when dining in China he came across a cook who prepared a dish “just like mom made it.” Yeh discovered the cook and his mother “were from the same province, and used the same spices, and cooked it the same way.” Such sensory memories no doubt provide insight into exactly why the debate over authentic ethnic food can be so heated.
Lozano says people should be free to argue about the quality of his Chile de arbol salsa, but that no one can dispute his “taste memory” of his recipe.
“Taste memories are authentic for me,” declares Lozano. “Happily, no one owns an authentic version of any recipe.”
It's a reminder that these dishes are more than just some stuff thrown together in a pan—recipes can be just as precious as a photo album or treasured keepsake. So any careless perversion of these dishes may be met with righteous anger.
It’s clear that versions of ethnic food can vary not only between America and the food’s country of origin but also within those countries across the globe. Dávila repeatedly stresses that people need to understand that Mexico is a country of many regions and variations, just like the United States—imagine telling a New Yorker or Chicagoan that the other city has the more “authentic” American pizza.
When searching for the best version of an ethnic dish, it is probably wise to worry less about it being an identical version of what would be in the home country and instead focus on the passion and dedication of the chef who prepared it. Does the establishment prepare its food with care? Are the proprietors first- or second-generation immigrants? Or has the chef studied the culture and the cuisine and seeks to add their own spin to it?
When reflecting on her own work, Dávila puts it simply: “What I’m trying to do is share my culture and my passion through the restaurant.”
Ultimately, whatever differences exist between ethnic food in America and from around the globe, the one constant diners can almost always count on is a delicious meal, a dedicated chef, and a hospitable introduction to another culture.