What do people mean when they say, “authentic ethnic food?”.
Technically, hot dogs and hamburgers are authentic ethnic food, seeing as they originated with the German immigrants who came to america in waves starting over a hundred years ago. Do we mean things that are spicy? Food the originates in another continent? Food that uses ingredients we may not be super familiar with? The kind of stuff someone’s grandma would make on a rainy day halfway across the world? The scope of the question is a little broad, and could have a multitude of answers, or in this case it could bring up even more questions. One thing I know for certain is, whatever “authentic,” “Ethnic” food is, people are interested. And If people are interested, I think I can write about it.
To me, ethnic food is real food. The food that real people around the world eat, made from obviously edible ingredients, consumed on a regular basis. It tends to be cheap, tasty, filling, and evocative of where it comes from. I personally grew up eating Jamaican and Haitian food, and to this day both cuisines remind of places I’ve never been and times I wasn’t there for. The tender green bitterness of callaloo conjures images of people foraging for amaranth in their gardens in between tossing out chicken feed and collecting dropped fruit. The gamey savoriness of well made goat makes me think of a family sitting down for a meal in a naturally cool house, holding their hands in anticipation of prayer. This is the power of ethnic food to me . The approachability, the community, the imagery bubbling out of the deep well of your mind. The smells, the coziness, the cool recognition of money well spent and a meal well enjoyed. Who wouldn’t want to be apart of that?
Of course, many of us would love to take part in the food-ways of other cultures, but it’s important to remember the first step of any journey- do some research. Not to be too much of a bummer about cultural appropriation, but it is kind of disrespectful to go bumbling into someone else’s cuisine without knowing the first thing about it. People are what they eat, after all, you you don’t want to inadvertently insult what they eat. And it’s generally a good idea to know what you’re getting into before you get into it. So, how does one do research for this kind of thing?
- YouTube is vital: People from all around the world would love to show you how they eat, and plenty of them speak your language (literally). Find food vloggers from around the world, listen to what they have to say, what they eat., when they eat it, and what that means to them. The answers might surprise you- there’s always more overlap between cultures than you think. Examples of good places to start: Pai’s kitchen, Strictly Dumpling, Alex French Guy Cooking
- International Social Media: Thanks to silicon valley, we now have 24 hour access to just about every meal anyone anywhere eats for whatever reason. As long as they take the time to put it on Instagram, twitter, or wherever else on the internet, you can see it. Which means, you can learn from it. Sometimes you might be following a foreign policy journalist on assignment to Serbia or something, and she mentions a dish called Kaputsnica. Now, you are aware of an obscure eastern European cabbage soup. So, if you ever end up in a Russian or Ukrainian restaurant, and maybe they have something like this, you won’t be so intimidated.
- Talk to Immigrants in real life: You would be surprised at how much you can learn if you dig into what your friends are into. I know I always love it when someone I know from another country tells me about some specific dish he remembers, or when I get to volunteer some information about a dish I’ve had or made. It’s these kinds of interactions that makes life in this country so edifying.
The next part of your research involves finding the local immigrant communities that have the food you’re looking for. You’re going to have to Google some stuff, look at travel guides, read comments on websites where locals might frequent (like Reddit,) perhaps even get involved in meatspace, where you might have to physically pick up a paper pamphlet, or even worse talk to another human being. It’s worth it. As a human being living among other human beings, you have to be cognizant of who lives around you and what their needs are, especially in America. If you do find out that there’s a Muslim community in your area, maybe that could drive you to some sort of pro-social political action, in addition to you having the opportunity to get some halal meats. I understand the impulse to maybe pretend like you’re the only real human being where you live, but if you can neutralize that impulse, I’m sure you won’t regret it.
- Time to make a trip
OK, now that you’ve done your preliminary research, maybe you have a specific establishment in mind, and you’re ready to do this. “This” means go outside and actually scope out the area where you want to eat. It is vitally important that you actually look around and take in the area when you make your move to actually go get the food you’ve been searching for. Remember, life is a journey, one in which we are always searching for more knowledge. Right now, you want to gather human intel on where you are. What type of income, class, which mix of countries do you see, what languages do you hear, are the street signs in another language, etc. You also want to see what businesses are there as well. If you make a mental note, you could come back and get a suit altered or cleaned, maybe get a sign made, and give back to the community.
One underrated trick for eating good, local, authentic food is just wandering around and looking in windows. Check menus, check to see if the front of the house is full or empty, smell around for quality. If the place looks good, Google it to see if others agree. I find that the review aggregator sites rarely do these hole in the wall places justice. They may have exclusively 5 star ratings, but too few to float to the top of the rankings. I’ve found some of my favorite local spots this way. Additionally, check and cross reference any flyers or posters you see around the neighborhood. If the same place shows up multiple times, it’s probably a fixture in the community, and that might be for a good reason.
If you’re having a hard time picturing any of the places I could be talking about, here are some examples: The Asian community in Flushing, Queens; The Vietnamese community In Orlando; the multitude Haitian and Jamaican communities In South Florida; or the Puerto Rican communities in Humboldt Park in Chicago.
- Now you can eat
OK, we’ve done all the preliminaries, now we’re all actually equipped to have a genuine culinary experience form some county that isn’t our own. The first thing I’d recommend is for you to check the clientele, then check back of house. If everyone looks and sounds like the kind of person who would eat the kind of food you’re trying to eat, then you should be fine. In terms of what to order, that’s kind of up to you. Food is subjective everywhere on this planet. However, I would recommend you try to find the dishes that are emblematic of the culture you’re experiencing, and then work your way into some of the less popular stuff. For example, if you’re at an Ethiopian restaurant, maybe get some Doro Wot with injera, because it is delicious. If you have the extra money and stomach capacity, get some interesting looking sides to go with it as well. Get stuff recommended to you. And for god’s sake, if the food is supposed to be spicy, eat it spicy. Spicy food is good for you, and it gives you a little head rush. If at all possible, be confident with the server when you say how spicy you want the thing to be, because they will often dumb it down for you.
And at this point, I hope you are aware of some of the “weird” ingredients or preparations you might come across. Don’t be to freaked out by something if there’s millions of people who eat it every day. Fermented foods, slimy or slippery things, bitter stuff, Smelly sauces, these are all things that you really want, if you’re going to try to branch out. Don’t be afraid to eat an animal you might think you shouldn’t, or a vegetable you’ve never heard of. It’s almost certainly legal wherever you are, and if it’s not, you have plausible deniability :-).
Now you keep learning, eating, traveling, and cooking. It almost always pays to get into something new, if only to impress coworkers and potential dates. I linked to hot Thai kitchen earlier in the article, and if it wasn’t for her, I’d have no idea how Thai food works. Because of Pai, I can now impress any non Asian with my knowledge of different curries and stir fries. And because I cook some of this stuff at home, I actually have a pretty good idea of whether or not I’m getting ripped off at a Thai place. That’s the power of knowledge. And it extends way past impressing people – You could learn about the geopolitical origins of a certain dish, or a particular ethnic minority that cooked a different way from the majority and was either disparaged or valorized. You could learn about what different people eat and when, and What that says about them. Food brings people back to their childhoods, to different places in their life, to celebrations, maybe even back to a funeral they went to. Once you unlock the food part of the grand equation that is the human experience, there’s a lot of insight to be gained. So don’t miss out on that because you don’t like the concept of fish sauce.