Monday, November 17, 2008

The Americanization of Ethnic Cuisines

“When it comes to foreign food, the less authentic the better.”( This is a quote by journalist Gerald Nachman of the San Francisco Chronicle. The idea of ethnic food being not so ethnic has been an all too common occurrence in American culture. The American way of life has forced many ethnic restaurant owners to “Americanize” their cuisine making it more palatable to western tastes.

Americanization (verb form Americanize, əˈmɛɹɪkəˌnаɪz (help•info)) is the term used for the influence the United States of America has on the culture of other countries, resulting in such phenomena as the substitution of a given culture with American culture. When encountered unwillingly or perforce, it has a negative connotation; when sought voluntarily, it has a positive connotation. Before the mid-twentieth century, however, Americanization referred to the process by which immigrants became American.

The main reason behind Americanizing ethnic foods is very simple. Americans will only consume what they know and like. In order to get people to eat foods that are new and foreign to them, Chinese and Mexican restaurants incorporate American tastes into their dishes. “Schmitt, who in his own household observed his friends respond to his mother’s ethnic dishes, says, ‘The closer to American cuisine that the food was, the more likely it was to be accepted.’ A familiar product, such as a peanut or barbecue sauce, can ease someone into trying a dish, then they may be ready to graduate to a mixture of hoisin sauce with some hot garlic chili paste. ‘Give a bit of the familiar with the unfamiliar and most people are willing to try,’ he says” (Food Product Design). The Americanization of ethnic foods is all about making people feel comfortable. By doing this, we are assimilating different ethnic groups into our culture while at the same time expanding our tastes.

Americanization of ethnic foods is not always beneficial and in fact can come at a cost. Many Americanized dishes are looked down upon and considered phony. It is believed, by many that Americanizing a dish takes away from that culture. “Michael Ngai, a manager at Szechuan Gourmet in New York (which was recently awarded two stars by The New York Times), said that although his restaurant specializes in traditional dishes, he serves General Tso’s to accommodate picky eaters. ‘General Tso’s is not authentic but it’s still a good dish,’ Ngai said. ‘I don’t look down on it. When you have a Chinese restaurant, you have to make everybody happy.’ (Ethnic Food). The marketing of Americanized ethnic food as traditional ethnic cuisine can be misleading to consumers. Many people believe when they eat nachos that they are eating an authentic Mexican dish. In truth the dish is part Mexican and part American. “Unfortunately, nachos are one of the reasons that Mexican food in America has a negative reputation of being unhealthy, greasy and unrefined” (Ethnic Food).

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