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On The Hunt For 'Authentic Ethnic Food'? Be Careful Who You Ask

Nov 21, 2017
Originally published on November 21, 2017 6:18 am

We've all been hungry in a new place, scrolling indecisively through the results of a 'Google: food near me' search. You know you're not quite in the mood for a burger and fries, but unsure about which Pho restaurant is the best for a first timer.

So this week on Ask Code Switch, we're gonna whip up some wisdom for a reader who's in search of the best food from different cultures.

Here's Laura Epstein, from Magnolia, Del.:

Is it OK to ask someone where to get the best food of their culture? For example, can you ask an Indian person where the best Indian food is in the area, or a Chinese person where the best Chinese food is? I have a Mexican friend who finds it offensive when people ask him about Mexican restaurants, and I would not want to offend anyone.

Foodies take note:

Hey Laura!

It is great that you want to expand your palate, but you're tip-toeing on a julienned line. Your question is loaded like a baked potato. Asking this question of the right person could help you find your next favorite restaurant. But asking the wrong person could be a recipe for disaster.

In general, when you're asking someone a question related to their ethnic background, you'll want to err on the side of caution. It's nice to take an interest in someone else's culture, but let the laws of common sense guide you: If you wouldn't ask this person for a restaurant recommendation in general, don't ask for any specific cultural restaurant recommendations at all.

Ask yourself, "Why do I think this person, in particular, is a good authority on [insert ethnic food here]?"

And if you need a little more guidance, consider the who, what, whys of good inter-ethnic etiquette.

WHO

Who are you asking?

Esteban Castillo is the curator of Chicano Eats, a food blog that celebrates his bicultural Mexican-American heritage. He says in an email that he wouldn't be offended if someone asked him where to get the best Mexican food.

"I had the privilege of growing up in a predominantly 'Hispanic' community, and in a family where we were exposed to our culture and its many different regions and flavors—so I'd be more than happy to steer them the right way," he says.

But, Castillo adds, that won't be the case with everyone. In asking the question, he says, "You're making the assumption that [this person was] immersed in said culture as they were raised, so they're able to tell authentic from not, which is not always the case."

So, Laura, if you're asking for a restaurant recommendation from a close friend who talks about food all the time, and you know has strong feelings, then you're probably good to go. But the question should be tailored to that specific friend. Your Mexican friend made it clear that he would be offended if asked, and it's important to respect that. It's also important to acknowledge that there might be other people who would also be offended by the question, but won't voice that to you.

And while you're thinking about all this, take a moment to figure out: Are you asking this same question to a white person from France, Italy or Germany? If you're only asking "ethnic looking" brown people for recommendations, you risk spoiling their appetite.

WHAT

What other questions are you asking this person?

Krishnendu Ray is the chair of New York University's food studies department. He says he understands the impulse to ask about the best food from someone's culture. "If I am Indian, the presumption that I would know more than others about the range, nature, and depth of Indian food in the USA is reasonable."

But, Ray warns, it's important for people not to rely on their friends to act as "native informants" for "ethnic" cuisine.

"What mildly offends me [about this question] is that sometimes that is all I am considered good for," Ray says. "That is the ethnic trap. They never ask me about the best novel or film or art or music. I am only good to inform them about the best ethnic hole-in-the-wall. They do not usually seek a sophisticated knowledge about other refined things. That feels patronizing."

Ray's solution is to make sure that your interaction with the person in question isn't just based on getting a good recommendation from them. "Ask them about other things before you get to the restaurant question. We are good at other things, too. ... Find other things to talk about first."

WHY

Why is this person, in particular, the right person to ask about food from a particular culture?

Laura, no matter how good your intentions are in asking this question, you still need to make sure you're not assuming too much about the person. Don't check-mark their racial and ethnic box for them.

Diana Kuan is a cooking teacher, food blogger and the author of The Chinese Takeout Cookbook. She says that it makes sense when people who know her background and her profession ask her for food recommendations.

But, if she's talking to someone who doesn't know those things about her, the question can seem a bit presumptuous."The people being asked may have no interest in the food of their background, or even food in general," Kuan says. "I think the best way to gauge would be to ask what they ate growing up and what they like to eat on a daily basis. And if they start talking enthusiastically about the cuisine of whatever their culture is, that would be a good segue to asking about restaurants."

All in all, I hope this advice doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth. Remember, the goal is to eat great food!


What did you think of our advice? Email us at CodeSwitch@npr.org and let us know your thoughts (and your best food puns!)

And as always, if you have a racial conundrum of your own, fill out this form.

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