Ethnic Cuisine
SIAL explores

Success and perception of ethnic cuisine

by SIAL Paris

At a time of an ever larger brewing of populations in the Americas, ethnic food tends to be more and more essential in the food landscape of Canadians and Americans. In Canada, where immigration contributes for more than 50% of population growth, 16% of Canadians go shopping in ethnic supermarkets, 8% of food expenditure is incurred in 2013 and the ethnic food market knows a continued growth (+ 14% annually). * In the US, the ethnic food will generate $ 12.5 billion of revenue in 2018, driven primarily by Hispanic and Mexican food, followed by Asia and India’s.

However, ethnic cuisine is not unique and it is clear today that there are major disparities in terms of price and perception in food elsewhere, especially determined by its origin.

For instance, why are some 'ethnic' foods so expensive? Why is Japanese cuisine considered more high-end than Chinese cuisine? Joe Pinsker, editor at The Atlantic, explores these questions in his article, "The Future Is Expensive Chinese Food". The article discusses The Ethnic Restaurateur, a new book by Krishnendu Ray, associate professor at New York University. Ray puts forward an unusual theory in his book, claiming that there is a 'global hierarchy of taste'. Our perception of a country's cuisine is closely linked to that country's global economic standing. In other words, we're 'prisoners' of our perceptions. SIAL takes a closer look at the success and perception of ethnic seen from the other side of the Atlantic.

How a country's prestige affects prices 

People prefer focaccia over tortillas, says Krishnendu Ray, because Italy is wealthier and more powerful than Mexico. Italians living abroad also share their country's economic and political prestige, which drives up the price of Italian food. Likewise, Japanese food is seen throughout the world as relatively expensive and sophisticated, whereas people still associate Chinese food with inexpensive dishes served at small shops. Here, it's not the country's economic standing that counts so much as its cultural prestige. Or at least how other countries perceive that prestige.

Ethnic Cuisine

How a chef's ethnic origins affect prices

In the 1980s, Rick Bayless popularised a number of Mexican dishes in the United States. The Oklahoma-born chef has come to be seen, thanks to his cookbooks and restaurants, as an expert in high-end Mexican cuisine. But Ray believes many immigrant chefs are often confined to cooking only dishes that are 'native' to their home country.

How immigrants' success affects prices

The history of Italian cuisine in America is a prime example. Most people who emigrated from southern Italy between 1880 and 1924 were poor and were given derogatory nicknames such as 'garlic eaters'. But as their descendants began leaving the ghettos and moving up in society, Americans started to take a more favourable view of Italian cooking.

When foreign dishes become nationalised

Few today remember the German origins of American food. And yet, American culture was shaped in large part by its first German immigrants. German cuisine is now considered American, just like the descendants of those immigrants.

Advice from the author: "If you pay attention to any culture, you will find beautiful things in it, things to value, things to respect, things that are prestigious."