on “ethnic” food

Most essentialist apron ever, yo.

Johanna over at Vegans of Color has been talking a lot about “exotification in discussions around vegan food.”

Here’s my take on the issue. It’s great that Johanna is pulling us along to a better place and making the vegan food world aware of what so many of us unthinkingly do so often. At the same time, historical perspective is necessary—I believe that things really are getting better, which is heartening.

Johanna points out that at times vegan cookbooks (as well as cookbooks generally) use ridiculously general and, when you start thinking about it, pretty damn offensive recipe titles like “Asian-Style Tofu.” But I see a whole hell less of that than there used to be—look at the Time Life Foods of the World Cookbooks: though they attempted to be open-minded explorations of non-American cultures (as well as non-white American cultures), this 1960s cookbook set is at times a hilarious/tragic primer in How Far We’ve Come—we’re inching along, in the food world generally, in the vegan food world, and in our culture at large.

I have my own struggles with this—I make an African Yam Stew, the example she uses to point out many Western vegans’ ignorance about other cultures (mine is called West African Groundnut Stew with Yams and Millet, but still). I also make Ethiopian Wat and Sudanese Mashed Eggplant, since we’re specifically talking about African dishes, and I’ll tell you something: many of my (NYC Upper West Sidey) clients are freaked out by both of those dudes. They can handle African Yam Stew, just barely, (and sometimes I have to reassure people that “groundnuts are just peanuts!”) but Ethiopian Wat is pushing it. I’m not saying this is right—it’s stupid, for sure—I’m just stating how things look from the perspective of someone who cooks for a living and thus has to think about how “regular people” think about food. We’re moving—slowly. I do truly believe that mainstream America is beginning to realize that Africa is indeed a giant continent, not a country.

It’s pathetic, but it’s progress.

“Ethnic food” is a personal peeve of mine (I have many). I stopped saying “ethnic” (and “exotic”) a few years ago because I’m no longer comfortable with its implications, but it’s a problem when I can’t think of another good word to replace it to describe dishes I personally didn’t grow up eating, seeing, or hearing about. Of course, there shouldn’t necessarily be a word to describe food that a white girl growing up in the Southwest in the ’80s wouldn’t have heard of. Thus, the problem with “ethnic” and “exotic.” One person’s “ethnic” is another person’s “home.” And, in that sense, maybe there is no problem, except that, of course, the playing field is not level—girls growing up in Oaxaca probably wouldn’t call hamburgers “ethnic,” but I would have seen mole negro as pretty damn exotic, and ethnic.

Sometimes Jacob and I are talking about where to go to dinner and all I can say to describe the sort of place I want to go is “I want ours to be the only white faces in the place.”*

Usually, when forced to describe my cooking philosophy I tell people that I cook the food of poor people around the world. Poor people have always come up with the best vegetarian dishes, and I’m of course super oppositional to the hierarchal mainstream celebrity chef industry.

I want to keep my ears close to the ground, keep learning, keep cooking with my mind and heart open. Isn’t that what we all want?

West African Groundnut stew with Yams and Millet

(Adapted from Bloodroot, not sure how much it makes, I scaled it waaaay down from the size I make, so hopefully nothing is weird…)


1 ts. red pepper flakes

1 ts. dried ground ginger root

1/4 ts. ground cardamom

1 ts. ground coriander

pinch ground nutmeg

pinch ground cloves

1/4 ts. ground cinnamon

pinch ground allspice

1/4 c lemon juice

1/4 c lime juice

2 Tb. grape seed oil


1 lb or so tempeh, cut into thin strips

grape seed oil for frying

3 medium parsnips, peeled, cut into 1” pieces

2 large onions, diced

1 c peanuts

8 or so cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

3 smallish sweet potatoes, peeled or not according to your taste, organic/local status and freshness, cut into 1” pieces

1 c creamy peanut butter (ah, but what kind??? Post coming up!), crunchy is fine too

1/3-1/2 c shoyu, to your taste

2 Tb. lemon juice

1 (28 oz.) can whole peeled tomatoes

2 c raw millet

  1. Combine marinade ingredients and pour over tempeh. Marinate for 1-3 days. Or just a few hours. Or, bake the tempeh in a 375°F oven for a bit (my trick when you forgot to marinate something).
  2. Drain tempeh, reserving marinating liquid. Fry tempeh in grape seed oil until nicely browned.
  3. In a large saucepot, heat oil to cover bottom of pan and sauté onion, then parsnips. Add yams, garlic and peanuts when onions and parsnips are browned. Add reserved marinating liquid.
  4. In blender, combine peanut butter, shoyu, and lemon juice, adding 1/2 cup water.
  5. Add contents of blender plus 1-3 c more water to pot, or enough to make a nice stewy consistency. Blend tomatoes for a few seconds, then add to pot. Add pan-fried tempeh. Bring to a boil, then turn to a simmer and cook 30 minutes, or until parsnips are soft but not mushy. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.
  6. Cook millet (like rice) and serve it alongside.

*I get so exhausted with white people’s interpretation of non-white people’s food in this town, I can’t even tell you. Everything should be in quotes. “Enchiladas.” “Tacos.” “Greek salad.” “Hummus.” “Italian Food.” Everything is  followed by an invisible “…as interpreted by white people who cook without quality authentic ingredients.”

Oh, but! Mew Paltzers! Did you know that Youko’s noodle shop recently started serving sushi? It’s really nice, with some great vegan options. I went there with my two bestest boyfriends tonight, and it was so lovely. The menu is helpfully highlighted according to veganosity now, too. What a pleasure, to go to an authentic Japanese noodle shop and drink real, quality tea and pretty good sake and soak up the beautiful atmosphere. I’m so proud of my pal Youko–she’s doing it!

10 Responses to “on “ethnic” food”

  1. Marla

    Oh, oh! I have thoughts about this, too! When I’ve been thinking about how poorly “locavore”-type restaurants serve vegans, as opposed to one’s typical Thai or Indian restaurant (despite the fact that these cultures have some or a strong vegetarian emphasis), I’ve realized that the more recent uptick of (gagging as I type this) snout-to-tail, locally-sourced food is extremely meat-centric. Most don’t even have an option you can fiddle with to veganize. I think that this is because they don’t have the Asian, Mediterranean, Latin influences and are more French or regionally influenced. You know what I mean? When people tell me that being vegan is expensive, I always say that the poorest people of the world are often vegan or vegetarian by default: animal products are used sparingly or considered luxury items. So I agree, the poor people of the world have created the best meatless dishes by far!

      • Stephanie

        This makes me so happy to live in Ithaca, where we have local tofu!! One of our newest “locavore” restaurants has more than one vegan option, featuring said tofu. Although I totally agree with the point you are making.

  2. Julia

    That’s why I never go out to eat! Been meaning to get to the noodle shop for months now. Nice to know they now do sushi, but I want that soup. Just started enjoying your blog, good work!

  3. zoe p.

    Let me get this right, you advertise your food as the food of the global poor, but you cannot share it with the local poor (aka upstaters)?!?

    • lagusta

      HA!!! Yep. Exactly. It’s not my fault that quality ingredients and from-scratch food just costs more. Sigh.

  4. Danielle Nierenberg

    Want to flag (feel free to re-post) an opinion-editorial I co-wrote visiting the World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania with their director Abdou Tenkouano published today in the Kansas City Star. I am currently in Madagascar, traveling across Africa for the Worldwatch Insitute and blogging everyday on a site called “Nourishing the Planet” [http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/]. I pasted the article below. All the best, Danielle Nierenberg (www.borderjumpers.org)

    Cultivating food security in Africa
    Kansas City Star

    By Danielle Nierenberg and Abdou Tenkouano

    As hunger and drought spread across Africa, a huge effort is underway to increase yields of staple crops, such as maize, wheat, cassava, and rice.

    While these crops are important for food security, providing much-needed calories, they don’t provide much protein, vitamin A, thiamin, niacin, and other important vitamins and micronutrients—or taste. Yet, none of the staple crops would be palatable without vegetables.

    Vegetables are less risk-prone to drought than staple crops that stay in the field for longer periods. Because vegetables typically have a shorter growing time, they can maximize scarce water supplies and soil nutrients better than crops such as maize, which need a lot of water and fertilizer.

    Unfortunately, no country in Africa has a big focus on vegetable production. But that’s where AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center steps in. Since the 1990s, the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (based in Taiwan) has been working in Africa, with offices in Tanzania, Mali, Cameroon, and Madagascar, to breed cultivars that best suit farmers’ needs.

    By listening to farmers and including them in breeding research, AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center is building a sustainable seed system in sub-Saharan Africa. The Center does this by breeding a variety of vegetables with different traits—including resistance to disease and longer shelf life—and by bringing the farmers to the Regional Center in Arusha and to other offices across Africa to find out what exactly those farmers need in the field and at market.

    Babel Isack, a tomato farmer from Tanzania, is just one of many farmers who visits the Center, advising staff about which vegetable varieties would be best suited for his particular needs—including varieties that depend on fewer chemical sprays and have a longer shelf life.

    The Center works with farmers to not only grow vegetables, but also to process and cook them. Often, vegetables are cooked for so long that they lose most of their nutrients. To solve that problem, Mel Oluoch, a Liaison Officer with the Center’s Vegetable Breeding and Seed System Program (vBSS), works with women to improve the nutritional value of cooked foods by helping them develop shorter cooking times.

    “Eating is believing,” says Oluoch, who adds that when people find out how much better the food tastes—and how much less fuel and time it takes to cook—they don’t need much convincing about the alternative methods.

    Oluoch also trains both urban and rural farmers on seed production. “The sustainability of seed,” says Oluoch, “is not yet there in Africa.” In other words, farmers don’t have access to a reliable source of seed for indigenous vegetables, such as amaranth, spider plant, cowpea, okra, moringa, and other crops.

    Although many of these vegetables are typically thought of as weeds, not food, they are a vital source of nutrients for millions of people and can help alleviate hunger. Despite their value, these “weeds” are typically neglected on the international agricultural research agenda. As food prices continue to rise in Africa—in some countries food is 50-80 percent higher than in 2007—indigenous vegetables are becoming an integral part of home gardens.

    The hardiness and drought-tolerance of traditional vegetables become increasingly important as climate change becomes more evident.

    Many indigenous vegetables use less water than hybrid varieties and some are resistant to pests and disease, advantages that will command greater attention from farmers and policymakers, and make the work of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center more urgent and necessary than ever before.

    Abdou Tenkouano is director of the Regional Center for Africa of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute blogging daily from Africa at http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/

  5. Stephanie

    I think I am partial to calling my cuisine “international” which to my ears puts those inspirations or adaptions from other cultures on a level playing field. You wouldn’t call Italian or French food “ethnic” (or maybe that’s my upstate bias because I have had to go to the “ethnic” aisle in southern Ohio supermarkets to find pasta…). At the same time, by eating food – peasant or not – from around the world, there is a global village mentality that we can share. I also tend to draw heavily on the experiences I have had travelling (Senegal, Bangladesh, Guatemala, Indonesia) but love when I can concoct recipes from places I’ve only traveled to by restaurant or travelogue (Ethiopia, Sri Lanka).


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