The Joys of Ethnic Food

iT’S AMAZING TO THINK THAT WHEN MY FATHER WAS GROWING UP, PASTA WAS EXOTIC. Just one generation prior, the experience of eating the cuisines of other nations was irregular, unusual, and infrequent. The nights my father had pasta were special “Italian nights”, and he didn’t eat Italian sausage (now his favorite food, something I was raised on) until his thirties. Now, thanks to the diversity of our cities, we’re able to enjoy foods from every corner of the globe. While New York may have us beat for sheer number and variety, Boston can offer a competitive array of eating choices. Just within one block of my apartment are two Thai restaurants and a sushi place, happily jostling for customers along with the slice-and-sub joints.

The joy of eating ethnic foods in the city falls into two categories for me. The first is the experience of localness; at least in the past, entering a different neighborhood of the city meant being able to enjoy a new country’s cuisine and culture. Most major cities across the United States have a Chinatown, of course, but there are smaller, more obscure pockets of ethnic food out there, waiting to be experienced. I happen to live in a Brazilian and Portuguese immigrant district, and have been able to enjoy a cuisine I’d never experienced before. The Portuguese restaurants also have some of the freshest fish in the city. There are odd and sometimes funny moments when you find yourself rubbing shoulders with your neighbors and their culture. When I went to get my ears pierced at the shockingly late age of twenty-five, I stood in a long line of small girls ages six and up, all of whom seemed calmer about the procedure than I was.

The second delight of ethnic food, in its most common city form, is the joy of delivery. The New Yorker just had a series on this very phenomenon, how convenient, how comforting, how cozy it really is. Now you can pick up a phone or go online and within an hour a hot plastic box of food as exotic or as familiar as you want will be at your door. I fondly remember the sticky thick sauce of the General Gao’s chicken we’d order on a regular basis when I was a kid, or the extra crunchy green beans. As many of us already know, this food probably bears little resemblance to what is actually being eaten in China. But that’s the delight of ethnic food in an American city as well — it continues to change and adapt, picking up a little of each culture it encounters as it goes along. American Chinese food is thick and sweet and sugary and comforting, and is a cuisine all its own.

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