Book Finds Hierarchy of Ethnic Foods

Dr. Krishnendu Ray, the Chair of Steinhardt's Nutrition and Food Studies department sat down with WSN to talk about his new book "The Ethnic Restauranteur."

As the Chair of NYU’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, Dr. Krishnendu Ray spends much of the week teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses revolving around food. Ray channeled this passion for dining and restaurants into his latest book, “The Ethnic Restaurateur.”

A professor at NYU since 2005, Ray is the author of three books about the complex trends and diverse forms of American cuisine. “The Ethnic Restaurateur” tackles the sensitive issue of what exactly defines ethnic food, and our changing perceptions of it. It delves into exploring the various attitudes of the producers and creators of such food rather than the consumers, as many others have previously done. 

According to Ray, it is the impoverished immigrant classes who, after first settling in the United States, comprise as much as 90 percent of all restaurant businesses in America and still do today. The differing food prices between each cuisine is determined by a complicated hierarchy in which foods are considered more prestigious. For example, French and Japanese food generally have considerably higher prices than Mexican and Chinese cuisine. It was poor German immigrants who introduced hot dogs and hamburgers to this country, just as it was lower-class Italian immigrants who brought with them pizza; these foods, as we all know, while not the most prestigious, have become the three most globally renowned symbols of modern American cuisine.

Conducting extensive research mostly based in New York City over a period of roughly six years, Ray was able to slowly gather a considerable amount of data on the assorted ethnic groups that owned restaurants over generations. Essentially, Ray believes that we are presently undergoing the “Third Great Transformation in American taste,” with Asian, Latin American and Caribbean immigrants each successfully adding their own unique flavors to the ever-growing melting pot of American culinary tastes.

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Ray’s own personal experiences have been integral in formulating his own work and interests. He was born abroad and first came to the United States in 1989 for graduate school. Over time, he became homesick for the cuisine of his native country. Having virtually no first-hand training in cooking, he began yearning to learn more and more about the subject of food and the deeply fundamental role it always plays in one’s society.

Of course, there are some more unusual findings in Ray’s sociological research as well — for example, there are only around 7,000 to 8,000 people of Thai descent living in New York City, yet their restaurants are both numerous and relatively popular; on the contrary, Bangladeshi-Americans in the same area number at least 30,000, yet their restaurants are barely visible by comparison.

These statistics are what interest Ray the most, as he is trying to delve into how immigration affects
America’s cuisine and culture.

“My interest is on the sociology of immigration, and globalization, and transnational migration,” Ray said. “Immigration is not only about economic opportunity or loss of aspects of a culture but also comes with certain insights precisely because a body is leaving one and entering another cultural world.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 2 print edition. Email Milton You at [email protected]

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