Category Archives: ethnicity

What FoodAnthropology Is Reading Now, March 7, 2017

David Beriss

A brief digest of food and nutrition-related items that caught our attention recently. Got items you think we should include? Send links and brief descriptions to dberiss@gmail.com or hunterjo@gmail.com.

Here in New Orleans, we have just finished the Carnival season and have entered into the austere period of Lent. But in the rest of the United States, people are apparently still struggling to sort out the difference between serious stuff and the Carnivalesque. Witness, first, this very serious New York Times column by Frank Bruni, which asserts that people should stop criticizing President Trump’s desire for well-done steak with ketchup. In case you think that Bruni is desperate for something to write about, it seems that concerns over the President’s steak are part of a broader cultural critique, as this article by the editor of Eater.com makes clear. I wonder if we could interest President Trump in some Gulf seafood instead of steak, at least until Easter.

Of course, at FoodAnthropology we are in no position to criticize anyone who takes food seriously. Yet we do have to wonder what we might be missing while thinking about President Trump’s well-done steak and ketchup. For instance, there is this article, by Brian Barth, that looks into the deeper ambiguities of farm labor in the United States. Why is food cheap? One major factor is that food is grown, harvested, and processed by poorly paid and deeply exploited workers. Many of them are the undocumented migrants the new administration wants to deport. Certainly, the plan to deport people seems unjust, but as this article suggests, questions of justice—about wages, working conditions, and more—are far deeper than debates about immigration status would suggest (as we have noted before here on the blog, of course).

The most recent episode of Evan Kleiman’s KCRW radio program “Good Food” is devoted to immigration issues across the food industry, including immigrant restaurants, slaughterhouses, farms, farmers markets, and more. And there are points of view from across the political spectrum as well. Get your students to listen and start a discussion.

In the context of a new administration that wants to emphasize building and buying American, should we reevaluate the food movement’s obsession with the local? Read, for instance, this fascinating article about efforts to make the food provided on University of California campuses sustainable. In this version, “sustainability” is apparently defined by being produced in California. There is quite a lot of food produced in that state, but some things, like coffee, are generally not grown there. Is it more “sustainable” to find a way to grow coffee in California? Or are there arguments for some kinds of globalization worth considering?

Where you get seated in a restaurant matters. Ruth Reichl noted this in her famous review of Le Cirque in 1993, when her experience of dining in disguise and dining as the New York Times food critic led to rather different experiences. But the politics of the dining room can be complicated by any number of factors, including race and gender, and not only in the most famous fine dining establishments. Read, for instance, this brief, but ethnographically detailed piece by Osayi Endolyn on her experiences as a hostess in various restaurants. You will never look at restaurant dining rooms innocently again.

After the recent elections, many pundits suggested that the Democrats paid insufficient attention to suffering in rural America. This dovetails with many of the critiques leveled by food activists in recent years, who argue that failing to pay attention to who produces our food—and in what kind of conditions—is a major problem. This critique is also shared by James Rebanks, an English sheep farmer, who has traveled through rural America and suggests that the industrialized model of farming is problematic at many levels. His critique is similar to the analyses documented by Susan Carol Rogers in her article about the relationship between French agriculture and the French nation.

On a related note, there are also presidential elections in France, coming up in just a few weeks. In an obligatory effort to avoid being accused of neglecting rural France, the candidates make a point of showing up for the enormous agricultural exposition in Paris. This article from NPR examines the thinking of French farmers on the upcoming election…and if you read the Rogers article we cite above, this whole thing makes complete sense.

France is often the example we turn to when we want to point out a country that has not abandoned all the good things—meat, dairy, bread—in favor of one or another fad diet. Indeed, according to one study, only 37% of French people exclude some item (like meat or gluten) from their diet, compared to 64% of people worldwide (44% in Europe, 50% in North America, 84% in Africa and the Middle East). But this is changing, according to this fascinating article from Le Monde (which is where the statistics come from). It seems that the “individualization” of the French diet has led to all manner of interesting changes in what people will eat. Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this article is the fact that it never addresses religion, which is what probably motivates most people around the world to avoid particular foods and an area that has been especially fraught in France in recent years. This could be a great article for discussion with your students, but it is in French.

And while we are on the topic of fad diets, food scholar Emily Contois has recently published an article about food blogs that strive to create new ideas about nutrition, related to gender, class, and ethnicity. And food porn. She has written an extended description of the article on her blog, which you should read.

Here is a nice little piece by Amanda Yee on the African-American shoe box lunch. These were lunches packed for African-Americans traveling across the U.S. prior to the Civil Rights Act, when segregation meant that dining opportunities were rare. Nicely written, with a few good photos too.

It is fitting that we end this week more or less where we started, with some musings on the literary fate of restaurant criticism, by Navneet Alang. Alang riffs off of the work of Elijah Quashie, aka the Chicken Connoisseur, a London-based critic of fast-food fried chicken shops in the UK. Quashie’s reviews, which are available on YouTube, are wonderful in and of themselves, but for Alang, they represent a pivotal moment in the history of restaurant criticism. The tension between snobby elitism and populist fried chicken echoes certain themes in recent UK and US politics. Enjoy.

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Review: The Ethnic Restaurateur

Ray, Krishnendu. 2016. The Ethnic Restaurateur. London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Reviewed by Rafi Grosglik
Department of Sociology, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA

When we sit in a restaurant and food is served to the table, most of us very often do not look properly at the waiter or the waitress. We pay a lot of attention to the dish that is put in front of us, while overlooking and not really acknowledging the person who serves us (not to mention the cooks in the kitchen, dishwashers, cleaning staff, suppliers and restaurateurs). Ordinarily, the food itself draws most of our attention. Thus, properly recognizing the people who prepared and served our food, and thanking them for doing that, is not done very often. This is one of the common practices that makes the food industry workers invisible. They do things for others—they cultivate, bake, prepare, cook, sell or serve foods—but they are not fully acknowledged. They are unrecognized.

Thinkers such as Nancy Fraser, Axel Honneth, Charles Taylor and others [1] stress that recognition is a basic need of any human beings and an essential process in the social nature of subjectivity and in social interaction. This non-recognition, or invisibility, of food producers can be attributed also to academic writing and to trends in food studies and in sociology and anthropology of food. These fields are saturated with studies focusing on foodstuffs and culinary artifacts, on the “social life” (Appadurai, 1986) [2] of certain foodstuffs or nutritional ingredients, on “food systems” and “foodscapes” or on representations of foods and dishes in popular media. As Krishnendu Ray argues in “The Ethnic Restaurateur”, contemporary theory of the social aspects of culinary culture and taste is strongly shaped by empirical work that examines food consumption and consumers. That includes theories on the opening up of the American palate and the growing popularity in Western cities of dishes and restaurants that are staged as “ethnic” and “authentic”. This scholarship is often done while not paying full attention to food producers and distributers, and thus adding to their non-recognition. Ray directs our attention to the people who produce and distribute so-called ethnic foods, and illuminates the labor  behind contemporary changes in the American palate. In “The Ethnic Restaurateur”, he addresses the paradox that although the foreign-born have numerically dominated the feeding occupations in American cities, their role in the culinary field and their own perspective on the transaction of taste are lacking in the literature that deals with taste and culture-making (p.1). In this respect, “The Ethnic Restaurateur” is an important and unique work that calls for recognition.

Centering on the visible different immigrants, those who look different, sound different and prepare different food (p.1), as well as looking at the urban culinary field from the perspective of the ethnic restaurateurs – Ray attempts to grasp both the subordination and the power of immigrant restaurateurs. He provides a voice to ethnic restaurateurs and describes what they have to say about the city, the consumers’ taste and making a living within the constraints of those constructions (p.24). Doing so, he contributes to their struggle for recognition, to their efforts to move from inferiority to equality and changing their visibility as Others to their visibility as Selves. In theorizing encounters between immigrants and natives—as it is manifested in shops and restaurants on the streets of New York City; in culinary teaching and training institution (Culinary Institute of America) and in restaurant evaluations and surveys—Ray offers both macro and micro levels of study of contemporary relationships between the non-ethnic center and the ethnic others. He provides an ethnographic description that demonstrates a double movement between discourse and practice. In his analysis, he pays attention both to the representations that produce certain contingent subject positions (ethnics, immigrants, Anglos, natives, etc.) or objects (ethnic food, Indian food, American cuisine, haute cuisine etc.) and to the physical, habitual and professional practices, which are more open to subtle possibilities than representations (p.22).

Contrary to previous studies on “ethnic cuisine” that point to cultural appropriation, culinary colonialism or culinary imperialism, Ray is reluctant to use those sorts of explanatory accounts. He emphasizes that ethnicity is not a thing and therefore it cannot be appropriated. According to his view, the openness to “ethnic” dishes and tastes are the outcome of a “relationship of domination” (p.194). For Ray, ethnic entrepreneurs should be perceived as important actors in the aesthetic transaction. Their bodily presence in metropolitan spaces; their pre-reflective knowledge of everyday practices (such as cooking) (p. 192) and their labor that shifts between taste and toil (p.17)—all of these aspects played an essential and constitutive role in urban American culture and changed the ways people eat and think about food (p.192).

The first empirical chapter of the book, Dreams of Pakistani Grill and Vada Pao[3] in Manhattan: Immigrant Restaurateurs in a Global City, revolves around the story of two separate immigrants who tried to establish restaurants in New York City. It details their practices, their “being in the city”, and the ways they learned to deploy [their] hands and tongues (both for talk and taste) […as well as the ways they] brought their memories of things [they] had eaten (p.53). These practices are entwined with their education, economic capital, morals and motivation. Altogether, they form the basis for the design of their restaurants and their actions, and comprise their agency in the construction of an urban-cosmopolitan gastronomic discourse.

In chapter 3, Hierarchy of Taste and Ethnic Difference: American Gustatory imagination in Globalizing World, Ray steps out of the perspectives of the restaurateurs and points to the ways in which different kinds of restaurants and cuisines have been historically evaluated by American taste-makers. He describes how journalists and restaurant critics constructed certain “ethnic cuisines” in the lower stages of a hierarchical system of symbolic values and meanings. Within this system, the aesthetic values produced by immigrant restauranteurs have become invisible (to use again the terms of Axel Honneth[4]) and their product of labor and knowledge are discussed as a matter of necessity and toil. By contrast, those very taste-makers attributed high-status to other foreign foods, initially Continental and French cuisine and later Italian and Japanese. Ray exemplifies the formation of hierarchies of tastes and provides a convincing explanation to the question: Why aren’t Western consumers willing to pay the same prices they pay in Italian or French restaurants when they consume, say, dishes that are cast as Chinese, Vietnamese, or Indian?

In chapter 4, Extending Expertise: Men in White at the Culinary Institute of America, the author continues to discuss the reconfiguration of the American palate, as it is manifested in American haute cuisine. Based on ethnographic work in the premier cooking school in the United States, he portrays the strife between chefs (which are associated with characteristics of whiteness, masculinity and professionalism) and the ethnic restaurateurs (who are conceived as associated with otherness, femininity, toil and domestic skills).

In the last empirical chapter, Ray points to the tension between the categories of “chef” and “ethnic”, as indicated from his interviews with immigrant restaurateurs-chefs and his examination of the ways their experiences are reflected in restaurant criticism and cookbooks. Ray points to the barriers that ethnic cooks aspiring to be professional chefs face, and to their struggles when they already achieve this status, as they were required time and again to turn back to their heritage, to their allegedly authentic and natural skills (as subjects that were born to the category of ethnicity) – notwithstanding their professional skills. The chapter illuminates the boundary between ethnicity and expertise, but also suggests that the twining of ethnicity and expertise is actually “central to the fabrication of contemporary identities in urban settings such as Manhattan” (p. 183).

Ray contends that, on the one hand, public culinary culture in American cities is a domain of the social field where old elites (American native-born consumers, chefs and taste-makers) abject foreign-born cooks and restaurateurs (p. 190); but on the other hand, immigrants have the resources to turn the table on the dominant culture of taste (p.194). The latter statement is a derivative of his argument that the aesthetics of the dominant classes is no longer the dominant aesthetic in urban food consumption (as evident, for example, in the fact that a wide range of classes can afford non-expansive “ethnic” dishes) (p.189). However, in my view, the former statement—about the subordination of immigrants and their produce in the culinary field (which resonates a form of racial or ethnic hierarchy in American society in general) — is much more convincing, considering the empirical data presented thorough the book.

This book combines meticulous ethnographic descriptions with refined theoretical analysis of the social aspects of taste, culture and power relations. It provides an original thesis about the connection between food and ethnicity and between commerce and culture. It will be of great interest to scholars of food studies, sociology and anthropology of food, culture, taste and consumption; but also to anybody concerned with ethnicity, immigration and diasporic studies, urban studies and sociology and anthropology of the body.

[1] Fraser, N., & Honneth, A. (2003). Redistribution or recognition?: A political-philosophical exchange. Verso. ; Taylor, C. (1992). Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press.; Honneth, A. (1995). The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[2] Appadurai, A. (1986). The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Deep fried potato patty served in a bread bun.

[4] Honneth, A. (2001). Recognition: Invisibility: On the Epistemology of “Recognition”. Aristotelian Society Supplementary,75: 111–126.

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Interrogating the “Authentic” Local Ethnic Restaurant

M. Ruth Dike
University of Kentucky

I moved to Lexington, KY last August to start a PhD program in Cultural Anthropology. After a few months, I decided to ask my fellow graduate student Daniel, who grew up in Cholula near Mexico City, about where I could find “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington. I wanted to know because I thought it would be nice to take my fiancé, Mario (who grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico until moving to the US in the 4th grade), to a restaurant that could remind him vaguely of his mother’s cooking (however futile that may be). Daniel obliged and even drew me a map of “Mexington” (no joke, that’s what Lexington calls it) with three “authentic” restaurants on it.

It was awesome that Daniel was so willing to show me places of “authentic” Mexican restaurants in Lexington but thinking back on it now, this wasn’t the best way to ask where to find less-Americanized Mexican food, or any type of international cuisine for that matter.

A few weeks later, we did end up going to Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez with a few other friends late on a Tuesday night. Below is a picture of my meal:

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

Burrito de asada chico and tacos de cesos y pastor with a glass of horchata.

What even makes food authentic? Is it how long it’s been cooked in a certain way in a certain country? How far do we go back to look? 50 years? 1500 years? Are all the regional versions of couscous in Morocco just as valid as an imaginary “national” version of couscous? Is Neapolitan pizza more Italian than Sicilian pizza? Are we looking only at “authentic” Mexican food in Mexico or also in the US? Is Mexican food served in other parts of Latin America “authentic”?

When writing this post, I have to recognize my own privilege in being able to ask Daniel where “authentic” Mexican restaurants were in Lexington. Why don’t people ask me, “Where can we find “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis?” Am I any less knowledgeable of American food (having grown up in Memphis) than Daniel is of Mexican food? No, but we don’t expect Americans to make broad sweeping generalizations about a monolithic homogenous cuisine like we do for Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Moroccan, French, or other types of cuisine. We have regional varieties of American food but don’t realize that other countries are just as regionally diverse (thanks Olivia for this point). So maybe we should ask ourselves, would I ask that about American restaurants of my American friends?

And yes, I have had people ask me where to find good barbeque in Memphis (my choice), but the fact that they know to ask about barbeque because I’m from Memphis shows that they actually recognize America’s regional diversity. The way we use “authentic” in everyday life masks the regional variety of our local ethnic restaurants.

Why has no one ever asked my fiancé Mario (who has lived in Memphis since the 4th grade) about “authentic” American restaurants in Memphis? Is he less knowledgeable about American cuisine than I am? Nope. But sometimes I ask Mario to guide me through all of Mexican cuisine and culture. I realize now that it’s not fair to ask my international friends and family to represent an entire place and culture anymore than it’s fair for them to expect me to represent all of American culture.

There can be a complicated relationship between Americanized ethnic food and those from the culture that a restaurant might be trying to represent. Jiayang Fan, for instance, admits in The New Yorker that she loves General Tso’s chicken, but feels embarrassed about ordering it in Chinese restaurants. Mario loves Taco Bell. He doesn’t call it Mexican food but he does go there during the day.

Our friends and I thought the meal at Tortilleria y Taqueria Ramirez was delicious. I was impressed with the variety of meats offered and the distribution of ingredients in the burrito. Mario thought that his meal was tasty but that the carne asada in his burrito could have been a little fresher (we did go around 8 pm). I was reminded that Mario grew up having tasty carne asada at various weddings, quinceañeras, and baptisms throughout his life and had a much wider range of experiences with it than myself. Also that his mother is a cooking goddess.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

Mario’s meal: burrito de asada grande and sope de asada.

We need to stop using the word authentic in a way that homogenizes ethnic cuisine when we ask our local Cultural Tour Guide** (ahem, friend) about local international restaurants. Instead of using the word authentic, you could ask, “What region do you think this Chinese (or Italian or Mexican or French or Pakistani) restaurant most identifies with?” “Are there any restaurants here that serve food that reminds you of home?” “What local restaurant has the least-Americanized food from your culture?” or simply: “What do you recommend around here to eat?”

Or you can use asking about “authentic” cuisine as a starting point for a deeper conversation about other cuisines. I think all too often we use our knowledge about sushi or pho to show our cultural capital without actually knowing much about another culture.

Eater.com editor Joshua David Stein says that, “there’s nothing more authentically American than inauthenticity.” Perhaps instead of searching for authenticity in ethnic cuisine, we should be searching for the complicated lived experiences of our international friends.

I’d like to thank Daniel V., David B., and Olivia S. for their insightful comments about this blog. This blog was inspired by another awesome article about food cultures written by Amy S. Choi as well as graduate seminars in the Gastronomy program at Boston University and the Anthropology program at the University of Kentucky.

*By international I mean any immigrants/visitors from other countries.

**The term “Cultural Tour Guide” was introduced to me by Olivia Spradlin, who heard it in a Gender & Women’s Studies graduate class at the University of Kentucky.

Ruth Dike considers herself a food anthropologist and recently started her PhD in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can learn more about her here and reach her at mruthdike@gmail.com.

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Wandering Washington: Food Journeys

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Beer and Welding’s sandwich board outside Oasis grocery, Washington, DC.

Joel Denker
Washington D.C.

The country’s largest Ethiopian community. The second largest concentration of Salvadorans in the U.S. The demographic details about the Washington metro area don’t square with the popular image. Washington had always attracted immigrants, but in the past, the settlers were small in number, relatively select, and barely visible. Foreigners were mostly students, embassy retainers, and affluent professionals. Now, Washington has not only become an immigrant city, but also a distinctive one. Unlike old immigrant towns, such as New York and Chicago, with their neighborhoods of people from Southern and Eastern European backgrounds, Washington is strikingly a haven for Third World newcomers. Metro Washington may not have a Hungarian restaurant, but it does have a score of Peruvian ones.

When I first arrived in Washington in 1967, after a year teaching in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I was struck by the city’s small town qualities. Its sweltering summer heat and southern folkways were unsettling for this northeasterner. I soon realized how apt was John Kennedy’s barbed description of the capital as a “city of northern charm and southern efficiency.”

The food mirrored the atmosphere. A few swank, French outlets like the Sans Souci catered to Washington’s political and social classes. The sports crowd and city insiders congregated at the Connecticut Avenue restaurant, Duke Zeibert’s, which my father, an inveterate New Yorker, called a “poor man’s Toots Shor’s.” Baskets of onion rolls on the tables reflected the owner’s Jewish origins. The kitchen turned out chicken in the pot and, sometimes, matzoh ball soup. However, Washington could not boast a Lindy’s, Nathan’s, or a Luchow’s, culinary monuments of my father’s days in the Empire City.

More typical were southern-style lunchrooms and cafeterias. Sholl’s was a chain of cafeterias where ordinary government and office workers were offered breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals at rock bottom prices. The business, whose K Street location I frequented when I taught evening classes across the street, was founded by Evan H. Sholl, who grew up on a Pennsylvania farm. The entrepreneur, a man of strong religious conviction, established his first eatery in the late twenties, at the end of the Coolidge administration. Sholl’s shops served up hearty comfort food, daily specials like veal cutlet with tomato sauce and liver with onions. The dining tables were adorned with prayer cards. Its breakfasts were popular with Harry Truman, a country boy like Mr. Sholl.

In this “white bread” era, unusual ethnic restaurants stood out. Going with friends to the Omega, a Cuban restaurant on Columbia Road, had all the elements of an exotic excursion. The menu highlighted such Spanish specialties as paella and mariscada (seafood stew), along with such Cuban standards as ropa viella (“old clothes”), shredded beef. Like many such early Latin places, its dishes spanned the Americas. I hungered for their chicken enchiladas with a large helping of black beans and rice. The legend that the Bay of Pigs invasion was plotted there accentuated the Omega’s appeal.

The Omega was the first in a parade of Hispanic restaurants that opened their doors to curious Washingtonians. The El Caribe and El Dorado, both pan-Latin spots, also set up on Columbia Road. Not far away, in 1973, the Churreria Madrid began selling churros, Spain’s popular twisted crullers, and making gazpacho on weekends. Other Latin outposts are etched in my memory: Pancho’s, a Mount Pleasant night club with a rollicking mariachi band; Carlos Gardel, a bar owned by an Argentinian, where you ate empanadas in the balconies and reveled in the dance music pounded out by the band below. A nearby Cuban luncheonette, whose name I have forgotten, served media noche, the crusty sandwich of pork and melted cheese, and batidos, drinks made from soursop, mango, and other tropical fruits. A visit to the Calvert Café, a pioneering Middle Eastern eatery, was another adventure. Mama Ayesha, a Palestinian woman who was the room’s guiding spirit, prepared grape leaves at a corner table. Before it became a full-fledged restaurant, the café’s bar enticed drinkers with what were then unusual appetizers—hummus and baba ghanouj.

There were few ethnic food groceries in the early days. Skenderis, a Greek grocery near Dupont Circle, was a haunt of mine. In the cluttered upstairs space, Dino Skenderis started a gift shop which rode the Greek shoulder bag craze during the sixties. It blossomed into a purveyor of feta cheese, olives, nuts, dried fruit, and similar items. Dino carried what was then an unfamiliar product, Colombo Yogurt. I was to learn later and to write about the story of this product. Colombo, the country’s first commercial yogurt, was begun by an Armenian family in Massachusetts, the Colombosians.

As the years passed, I uncovered other hidden eateries. The Islander was one of the most memorable. The Trinidadian restaurant, then mostly a carryout near Georgia Avenue, was presided over by Addie Green, a proud, voluble woman. On special occasions, she wore a colorful turban. Addie initiated me into the culture and lore of her land and her food, a mixture of Indian, African, French, and Spanish influences. I tucked into many a curry with rice and peas and savored drinks like mauby, a slightly bitter drink made from the bark of a Caribbean tree. The Islander was one of the most colorful of the many Caribbean restaurants in the 1980s that the Washington Post Magazine highlighted in a cover article.

Salvadoran restaurants began to emerge as Central Americans flocked to Washington, lured by the magnet of the “capital” city and a host of laboring jobs in hotels, restaurants, and office buildings. Many of the early arrivals hailed from a single town, the small community of Intipuca, which flourished with funds sent back by the newcomers. Visitors to a Salvadoran restaurant encountered such revelations as the pupusa, the country’s variation on the tortilla, and marañon, a drink made from the cashew fruit.

Washington was gradually transforming from a sleepy southern town to a polyglot capital. I searched out novel eateries and wrote stories about my discoveries in a column for the Washington newspaper, The InTowner. One of the early pieces I did in my column, “The Ethnic Bazaar,” was about the Happy Inn, an Indonesian-Chinese eatery in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. It was owned by Eric C.C. Lin, a man of Chinese ancestry who grew up in Indonesia and studied atmospheric physics at Peking University. My wife Peggy and I spent many an evening there. Oseng-oseng, a dish of tiny shrimp stir fried with tempe and green beans in a heavy soy-based sauce ignited with chilis, was a passion of ours. I loved the ring of Indonesia’s culinary language, of words like nasi goreng, gado gado, and rendang.

Immigrant communities, which might have first arisen in the city, now began taking root in the suburbs. Restaurants serving these groups followed. My forays in quest of ethnic food soon required Metro rides from my home in the Adams-Morgan area to far-flung neighborhoods. I was excited by Jamaica Joe, a lunch room in a small Silver Spring, Maryland shopping center, which served up “curry goat,” one of the country’s national dishes. A long train ride to Ballston, an Arlington neighborhood, took me to the Pakistani café, Ravi Kabob, one of the many kebab joints that would mushroom in the suburbs. I was drawn by chicken tikka, nicely charred on the outside and moist on the inside and served with a spicy stew of chickpeas, nan, a piping hot thick bread, and coriander chutney. I washed the meal down with a creamy lassi, the traditional yogurt refreshment.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

The explosion of ethnic restaurants in the suburbs has rewarded Washingtonians with a wide

array of choices: Afghani, Persian, Yemeni, Egyptian, Guatemalan. Because of the large influx of Bolivians to northern Virginia, Washington can claim America’s largest enclave of these ethnics. Meanwhile, in the city, dining rooms have sprung up to serve once uncommon cuisines. Domku in the Petworth neighborhood near Georgia Avenue features Polish and Scandinavian dishes. A Czech bistro (Bistro Bohem) in the once unfashionable northwest Bloomingdale section has won a strong following.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Photo courtesy of Bistro Bohem, Washington, DC.

Near Dupont Circle, a long-standing convenience store, the Oasis, is now selling sandwiches created by the operators of a food truck. A young, very affable Salvadoran woman prepares the food in the back of the shop owned by a Persian gentleman. One sunny afternoon at an outside table I enjoyed an El Porco sandwich from the intriguingly named Beer and Welding operation. The sandwich brought together pork shoulder flavored with garlic aioli, pickled spring onions, and ramps with swiss cheese and mixed greens. A Brazilian woman, who worked at a salon next door, sat next to me. We compared notes. I savored the food and mused about Washington’s changing ethnic landscape.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Peppers grilling at Beer and Welding sandwich shop, Washington, DC.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest blog posting from Joel Denker, a historian of ethnic foodways in the United States who has lived in and written about the changing ethnic foods in Washington D.C. He is author of, among many other things, “The World on a Plate: A Tour through the History of America’s Ethnic Cuisine,” (2003, Westview). Denker’s food writings appear on his website, www.foodpassages.com. This is the first in what we hope is a series of postings about the foodways of the D.C. area in anticipation of the upcoming AAA annual meetings. We would love to hear from more scholars with reflections on food and the D.C. area in coming weeks.

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