Welcome to a new PacketOnline blog, NJ Spice, where we will explore the ethnic and casual food scene in central New Jersey (and occasionally beyond).
But for my first post, a question: What is ethnic food? Ah, you may say, that is the all the food that is not from where I am from. And, in some sense, you would be right, as ethnic food is strongly associated with a sense of “otherness” in the place it comes from, sometimes even if we are but one generation removed from that place ourself.
Being half Italian and half Armenian, I am hard-wired to like the foods of other countries. But now I have a lot of company, as we in the U.S. are experiencing a growing hunger for ethnic food. Of course, it comes in large part from having people from all over the world in our communities now, but still, you don’t see the Italians in Italy (for instance) going ga ga over the food of all their immigrant groups. They find their own food just fine, thank you, and most restaurants hew to the traditional, with only occasional forays into other cuisines.
But in the U.S. most of our dishes arrived with immigrant families. And we buy many cookbooks, which I think is, at least in part, due to not having a traditional cuisine of our own. If there is anything uniquely American in origin, it is commonly thought to be Creole and Cajun (still a blend of many cultures), and a few vestiges of Indian (Indians of the Americas). I also put in a vote for slow-cooked barbecue, as it is practiced in the South.
My own cupboards (see photo) are an international mélange of cuisines, with emphasis on Asia and Southeast Asia. When I moved a few years ago, a Chinese friend who helped me was quite amused by how many Chinese condiments and sauces I had. But she shortly presented me with one I didn’t have, a jar of the spicy sauce used to make mapo tofu, a popular dish in Chinese homes. This was basically convenience food, as are the many Indian simmer sauces I find in the market now. I am also wild for Mexican food (so elusive in New Jersey restaurants), but use mostly fresh ingredients when I prepare those dishes.
Some cultures have a special affinity for another’s foods, such as the Jewish love of Chinese food. I have long wondered about the reason for that, and in a recent book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” author Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, the numeral 8), takes a stab at it. Some of the reasons she found: Chinese food is more or less dairy free, a big plus for those who eat kosher; in New York, the Jewish and Chinese neighborhoods were just blocks apart; and to the Jews, Chinese food was seen as exotic and cosmopolitan. Maybe more important: to the Chinese, the Jews were just white people of no special note, and therefore treated like everyone else.
While I usually think the Irish “own” Italian food when it comes to loving another culture’s cuisine, Arthur Schwartz, aka The Food Maven, has been writing about Italian food for many years. But now he is returning to his own cultural roots, with a new book about Yiddish cooking. You can see him at Barnes & Noble in North Brunswick on May 4 at 2:00pm.
More soon, and do send me your ideas for NJ Spice!