I walked into the grocery store the other day, looking to replenish my stock of beloved sriracha. Without thinking, I headed to the ethnic food aisle where that deliciously sweet and spicy chili rested, neatly arrayed in rows upon rows of ruby glory. Standing in that aisle, I barely even noticed the giant sign dangling above my head that labeled the whole area as ‘ethnic.’
Ethnic. We find this word today in a variety of situations, some of which are so embedded into our daily lives that we don’t even think about them. One of the most common occurrences of this word happens when referring to food. It’s used as an umbrella term that covers a seemingly arbitrary selection of cuisines. Anything that isn’t western European fare (French, Italian, etc.) is considered ethnic, regardless of how prevalent it is in our society. Things like a steaming bowl of rare beef pho or creamy butter chicken are frequently consumed across Western society but remain labeled as ethnic.
I live in Canada, a country that prides itself on its multicultural identity. Our multiculturalism is something that we read about in our textbooks but upon entering the grocery store, I have to look for sriracha, by all means a widely used sauce, in one small section of the entire store. Tonkatsu sauce is almost always considered ethnic, but chutney is found amongst the marinades despite being of South Asian origin. What makes Korean food any more “ethnic” than Italian food, which is never found in the ethnic aisle? Who exactly is this food ethnic to? The division between ethnic and non-ethnic has become a meaningless distinction, as Chowhound says: either everything is ethnic or nothing is ethnic.
Even with this aisle in the supermarket dedicated specifically to “ethnic foods,” 63 % of visible-minority Canadians are still finding that there isn’t a great variety, according to Canadian Grocer. However, with the ever-growing demand for different kinds of foods, it might be more beneficial for supermarkets to stop separating “ethnic” foods from “non-ethnic” foods and begin distributing them on equal levels. After all, food is something we think about on a daily basis and if we can stop arbitrarily labelling certain foods as an “other,” maybe Western culture will cease to be the only standard for “normal.”