"Ethnic food" is a phrase most of us have heard, possibly even recently. But what does it mean, specifically? If "ethnic" means to come from a certain national or cultural tradition, then literally all food would be ethnic food. But Tara O'Brady, the award-winning cookbook author, food writer, and proprietor of the popular blog Seven Spoons, explains that's not the way people tend to use the phrase "ethnic food," and she says it's time to retire it. Because in practice what people mean when they talk about "ethnic food" is the food of non-white people, and that usage contributes to power differences and hierarchies in the food world that it's past time to do away with.
O'Brady writes in a Tweet pinned to the top of her Twitter feed, "Let's stop using 'ethnic' to mean 'non-white-people's' food. (See also: music, dress, traditions …)."
Let's stop using "ethnic" to mean "non-white-people's" food. (See also: music, dress, traditions ...)— Tara O'Brady (@taraobrady) September 26, 2016
In an interview with Chatelaine's Amy Grief, O'Brady says she feels fortunate to have grown up in a family that "never put borders on food" or treated certain dishes as theirs and other dishes as "different" or "weird."
"When we start putting food into categories of difference — that's often when we start investing things with power and I think that's something that a lot of food writers and people within the industry are dealing with right now," she explains. "It's an important conversation we're having."
People have been debating the phrase "ethnic food" for a while now, and it does appear to have fallen out of favor lately in discussions of food and food culture.
Rick Wilk, professor of anthropology and director of the Food Studies program at Indiana University, says he finds the term "ethnic food" problematic because while ultimately all food is ethnic food, it usually seems to mean food of non-white people.
"That's not to say that people mean to use 'ethnic food' in an insulting way," he says. "And in fact they often use it to denote food that is better than the ordinary, or at least more interesting. But using it in this way still makes assumptions about who are the real Americans, and who are the ethnic ones."
Wilk points out that when a person says "ethnic food" that way, it assumes that there is something else that is not ethnic. But if ethnic food exists, then what is "not ethnic" food?
"I mean, isn't all food ethnic, if you really think about it?" writes Spoon University's Jonathan Chan. "By definition, it's an adjective that describes pretty much anything related to culture, so why do Western European or traditionally American dishes get a pass on the label?"
Western European cuisines have distinct cultural characteristics and ingredients too, but nobody calls coq au vin "ethnic food."
"It's not the phrase itself, really," writes Lavanya Ramanathan in the Washington Post. "It's the way it's applied: selectively, to cuisines that seem the most foreign, often cooked by people with the brownest skin."
Ramanathan points out that, "Neapolitan pizza, steak frites, tapas, and trendy, leaf-strewn Nordic cod evade the label, even though citizens of European countries are every bit as connected by ethnicity as those from elsewhere, and even though their ingredients are often just as foreign. We simply give Western European cuisine a pass."
But if the term "ethnic food" is clumsy and inaccurate, then what should a person say? O'Brady suggests being specific.
"If you're talking about a culinary history, then name the country or name the region," she says. "If we can talk about the difference between Southern American food versus East Coast food — if we can recognize that level of regionality — we should be able to talk the same way about food from other countries, rather than having to put these great big labels [such as "African food" or "Asian food"] across it."