Monday, January 17, 2005


Kulcha wars

I live in a so-called "flyover state" in the middle of the country, in a smallish city which I love. But love means being honest, and the ethnic restaurant situation here is kind of bleak. People who have lived here a long time insist that the ethnic restaurant situation is really good, but when you press them, they admit that what they really mean is "much better than it used to be 15 years ago." Even then, I've learned to question their recommendations, and write off many of these recommendations as coming from "restaurant pod people." The reference is to the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers – they look like my friends and neighbors, but their bodies have been taken over by aliens who travel to earth in pods that resemble giant zucchinis and who, apparently, like really bad ethnic food.

There are a couple of good southeast asian places, but basically, my two favorite types of ethnic restaurants, Chinese and Indian, are pretty bad. At the most highly recommended Indian place, for instance, I was once served what I'm pretty sure was flour tortillas instead of nan. At a highly recommended Chinese place, they had a cute hand-lettered brochure on the table describing the secrets of Chinese cookery. One of the early pages listed "Ingredients of Chinese cookery." What was the first ingredient listed? MSG. I'm not kidding.

When I travel to large coastal cities, the first thing I do is run to a Chinese or Indian restaurant.

My town's basic idea of ethnic food is tons of pepper or tabasco sauce to make it really hot. If you go to the really popular places, like the Nepalese restaurant on Capital Ave., whose authenticity includes swarms of flies in the summer, spicy food means hot and tasteless at the same time, mouthburn followed soon by heartburn. Yum.

Before going further, I should acknowledge the lack of proper nomenclature here. We're talking about cuisine that is not traditional or new-wave American or European. "Ethnic" food is a funny term to use, because "ethnic" means: "Of or relating to a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage." So many regional American cuisines, from fried chicken to bratwurst, are "ethnic" in this sense. Maybe the implication is "ethnic minority," in the same way that the ethnicity of white people becomes invisible as the default culture, but that's not right either, since the term isn't usually used to include soul food. (Or is it?) Nor is "foreign food" right, because the ethnicities in question, while they did not perhaps come over on the Mayflower, have become integral parts of the American melting pot. And I'm guessing that most ethnic restauranteurs are U.S. citizens.

I wonder whether restaurants make a transition out of the "ethnic restaurant" category in a manner analogous to the gradual assimilation of immigrant groups into American culture and civil society. For example, I don't hear people call Italian or Jewish restaurants "ethnic," while Greek restaurants are called ethnic sometimes, but not consistently.

Interestingly, in connection with this last point, I saw Calvin Trillin give a reading here in town a couple of years ago. He's well known for zeroing in on the best local eateries wherever he goes, and was asked whether he liked any of our local ethnic restaurants. He replied with his theory that an ethnic group has to have a sufficient population base in a city to elect two alderman in order for there to be any good restaurants of that ethnic variety.

I have heard two other theories to explain why my city has so few good ethic restaurants. In contrast to Trillin's population supply theory, there's a population demand theory. Our people don't have enough collective good taste, according to this theory, to demand really good, tasty ethnic food. We can also call this the "tabasco sauce" theory.

And then there is the "cornerstone" theory. A friend of mine claims that a thriving culture of good ethnic restaurants can only be built upon a cornerstone of good Chinese restaurants. Since our Chinese restaurants are terrible, we are structurally doomed.

Last week, I was lured to an Indian place I hadn't previously tried. I found it surprisingly good. But I need to qualify that, and say that the jury is still out. First, my friend skillfully played the expectations game, telling me the place had terrible atmosphere; I pictured bright neon lights and Taco Bell-style tables, but I found it to have a pleasant ambience. Second, I brought some leftovers home to my friend, who wolfed them down and later than night reported getting diarrhea. There may or may not be a causal connection there.

Finally, I may have become a restaurant pod person. Desperation will do that to you.

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