I remember it so vividly. My mum had succumbed to my pleas to make halva, a soft, delicate Persian sweet made using rose water, saffron, sugar, flour and water, and so had packed some in my lunchbox so I could take it to school. Distracted by the contents of my school bag all day, come lunchtime I carefully peeled back the tin foil of the parcel to reveal the caramel-coloured halva, and hungrily tore off a section. I felt as hedonistic as an 11-year-old can as the floral notes of the saffron and rose water danced on my tongue.
“What the hell is that?! Is it poo?! Why are you eating that?” laughed one of my friends, as I offered them a square. They saw the brown colour and rejected it outright. Unable to articulate that, well, chocolate is brown but we eat that, it’s safe to say that I stuck with eating halva at home and didn’t really mention Persian food after that. Fast-forward a decade or so, and now Persian cookbooks are on the shelves of high street stores, and Middle Eastern food from falafels to humus are hugely popular. Although, of course, the attitudes of 11-year-olds aren’t a measure for food trends (and I know they were only joking) it’s a snapshot of a wider attitude we have in the West towards so-called “ethnic” food. It’s what you might call the gentrification of food when, like once “sketchy” and “undiscovered” neighbourhoods, certain cuisines are elevated almost overnight from gross to in vogue.
Most recently, Filipino food was declared the next big thing. Why? Because Anthony Bourdain says so. More specifically, pork sisig – a dish of crispy, sizzling meat using portions of the head and the liver – will turn Americans, and eventually of course Britons, to the nation’s food. In an interview with CNN, he called the food “ascendant”, “underrated” and, patronisingly, a “work in progress”.
This is a phenomenon documented by Krishendu Ray, associate professor of food studies at New York University and the author of The Ethnic Restauranter. Since the 1950s, the term “ethnic” has equated to “foreign” but more importantly that which has less value. Studying the restaurants of the US, he found owners selling cuisine regarded as ethnic, and therefore not Western European, were unable to charge the same rates as their Western counterparts despite their dishes involving comparative levels of skill – as anyone who has tried to make an Indian curry from scratch will know.
“What is considered ethnic is in relation to domination, and cultures that in the US and UK we see as different and inferior.” They are largely foods introduced to a country by poor, working class immigrants.
Lloyd Ramos, who runs the Milagrosa supermarket in Walthamstow, London, which imports and manufactures Filipino and East Asian foods, says it’s frustrating when certain foods become fashionable only when Western celebrity chefs and food critics decide they are acceptable.
“I suppose that it’s an identity thing, since a country’s cuisine is so indelibly linked to its people as a whole,” he says. “Food is like a calling card for a culture, it’s how immigrants begin to settle and eventually assimilate into a community – take Indian food for example. For decades Filipinos have had to accept that they’d be grouped with the Chinese, or Vietnamese, or Thai. Now that Filipino food is being seen as the next big thing, it means that Filipino people and culture and take up its own distinct niche in the mindshare of the West. It’s a ‘now you finally see!’ kind of moment.”