Ethnic food? Is there such a thing?

Oh for goodness’ sake! Don’t we fight about enough things? Now do we have to argue about whether “ethnic” food is a real “concept” or a pejorative term?

This article in the Wall Street Journal got me all agitated. The writer says there’s no definition of “ethnic food” in the Oxford dictionary and that the term means food eaten by people poorer than we are. And apparently there was a debate on this topic at the London Restaurant Festival this year. Someone said the French coined the term to describe food that isn’t French or Italian cuisine in the Michelin guide. And another person said that the term “favors segregation over inspiration.” 

But someone else said that ethnic food describes foods that exist in one place that no one else eats.

And so on, blah blah blah.

The writer then concludes that because contemporary chefs are inspired by global influences, ethnic cuisine will soon be “redundant.”

In my opinion, that would be awful.

I have been a food writer for decades. I am fully aware of “modernist cuisine,” which has no ties to any particular culture. I love it if it’s done well and look forward to creative dining and lovely, delicious foods made with intriguing, multi-national ingredients and concepts. (Though I must say, there are far too many restaurants that make too many precious looking dishes with too many ingredients and think they are modernist but it’s really just a hodgepodge).

On the other hand, I also love foods that are particular to a region or culture. I want Egyptian food when I’m in Egypt, German specialties in Germany, Pennsyvania Dutch food in Pennsylvania. I am not insulted when people refer to my grandmother’s recipes as “ethnic” Jewish cooking. Frankly, I would hate it if “modernist” blintzes or “California-style” stuffed cabbage or “artisanal” challah, whatever that could mean, replaced my old favorites. 

I remember taking a trip many years ago with my husband and children to Quebec. I’d been there years before and enjoyed “Cuisine Quebecoise.” Good, “ethnic” cuisine. I looked forward to it again (OH for some of that Pain du Sucre: homestyle white bread with maple sugar and cream!! So simple. So wonderful!). Unfortunately, it was not to be. All the restaurants that were recommended had “modernist” Canadian. Huge disappointment. When you have a hunger for traditional Pain du Sucre, multigrain bread with cocoa-encrusted maple sugar with rambutan-scented mascarpone foam just doesn’t cut it.

I like “ethnic” food. And I actually don’t care if people want to create riffs on the old favorites. In fact, it’s what I do.

But I still would like to feast on those old favorites too. Russian Borscht. Cantonese Egg Rolls. Polish Potato Pierogi, Israeli Falafel, Irish Colcannon, Jewish Mandelbrot.

Please tell me they will not be “redundant.”


1/2 cup butter or margarine

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

2-1/2 to 3 cups all-purpose flour

2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon brandy or apple juice

1 teaspoon almond extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup chopped nuts

1/3 cup cut up candied cherries

1/3 cup chocolate chips

1/3 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a cookie sheet. Cream the butter and sugar together in the bowl of a mixer set at medium speed for about 2 minutes or until creamy and well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition. Add 2-1/2 cups of the flour, baking powder, brandy, almond extract and salt and beat at medium speed until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Blend in the remaining flour if the pastry is very sticky. Fold in the nuts, cherries, chocolate chips and raisins. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into thirds and shape each piece into an oval loaf about 1-1/2 to 2 inches thick. Place the loaves on the cookie sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the loaves are golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool. Serve sliced, as is, or toast the slices for extra crispness. Makes 3 loaves.