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Food Studies: An Immigrant Food Field Trip

Why are most Indian restaurants run by Pakistani families? Why is Chinese food cheaper than Japanese? An edible exploration of ethnic food in America.

Food Studies features the voices of volunteer student bloggers from a variety of different food- and agriculture-related programs at universities around the world. Don't miss Josh's last post, on the first grow-your-own pizza of spring.

Lately in my "History of Food and Cuisine" class we have been talking about the culinary impact of immigrant communities on the American food landscape, from the 19th century to the present.

It's a fascinating string of tales that hardly runs straight as we grapple with questions like: Why is it that many immigrant families have no problem eating toast and cereal for breakfast but definitively eat food of their own country for dinner? Why is it that most "Indian" restaurants in New York City are actually owned and operated by Pakistani or Bengali families? Why do we gladly empty our wallets for French, Japanese, and even Italian cuisine, when we feel the same is hardly appropriate for Chinese, Thai, or Middle Eastern food of the same caliber? And what does "ethnic" food mean in America, really?

To further explore these and other questions, my class took a field trip last Wednesday to a couple of majority immigrant neighborhoods of New York to meet people, have discussions, and of course, eat great food.

The first place we stopped off was in Jackson Heights, where we went to a Pakistani restaurant that is well-known as one of the best in the area. We were treated to a lunch feast (the samosas were some of the best I've had—pillowy, flaky, well-spiced, and full of veggies; the gulab jamun, a sort of syrup-soaked dumpling, were incredible), had some great discussion about the development of restaurant culture in immigrant populations with one of the NYU professors who was showing us around, and the owner even brought us back to the kitchen to teach us how to bake roti, their flatbread, in their huge clay ovens. Mine didn’t turn out exactly right, but the center drooped down to form a perfect heart shape, so as far as I was concerned it was at least an artistic success.

After lunch, we went around Jackson Heights in search of pa'an—traditionally, a post-meal ritual involving the chewing of betel leaves, areca nuts, slaked lime, and sometimes tobacco. Our version, however, was much tamer (and far less addictive): in sweet pa’an the betel leaf is stuffed with slaked lime paste, dried coconut and other fruits, candied fennel seeds, and then folded into a little pocket. It was a singular experience, and an incredible blend of flavors— sweet, sour, astringent, bitter, and herbaceous—and textures, from crunchy to chewy to crispy: much more potent and complex than your average breath mint. The taste lingered in my mouth for hours.

From there we took the 7 to the end of the line for the second half of the day. When we exited the metro station in Flushing, it felt like we had walked straight into Hong Kong: The air was full of exotic smells and sounds, there were people everywhere going about their business, and delectable morsels beckoned from every storefront. We tried Peking Duck buns, watched cooks make hand-pulled noodles in the Golden Mall, visited different Korean and Chinese grocers, and went to a Korean-French fusion bakery.

We finished the day with a multi-course Chinese meal, where we discussed our various impressions of "authenticity" and what it means to search for an experience of "the other" (our understanding of the "ethnic") as an "outsider."

That last sentence involved a lot of scare quotes, and our conversation was definitely pretty academic, but the day's eating and visiting really did help to ground all the theoretical issues we've been discussing in class. It could have hardly been more valuable—or delicious.

To be continued.

Josh is a student blogger for the Food Studies feature on GOOD's Food hub. If you enjoyed this, you should check out the rest of the Food Studies blogger gang here, including recent posts on food labels, papaya pollination, and farmer-activism.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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