A case to stop the mainstreaming of ethnic food.

By Gloria Hong

What is Ethnic Food? This is an extremely loaded question. Some might say ethnic food is “foreign food”. But in the world’s most ethnically diverse city Toronto – it might be more accurate to say ethnic food is “food from home”.

Growing up, my own experiences with “ethnic food” involved Korean food. I never realized how great a cook my mom really was until my older years, when I could appreciate her deft hand at seasoning dishes with Korean flavours. She could transform a humble oxtail into a bowl of healing, comforting gomtang soup. Her famous white kimchi is asked for by all the ladies at church.

Fast forward to Toronto 2014. Ethnic foods are popping up on mainstream menus everywhere. I’m at a well-known chain restaurant that was recently renovated. It’s bright, open and has a great buzz of energy. And look – a new menu! I scan my way down and see the dreaded words – Korean Lettuce Wraps: Korean sautéed chicken breast, Asian coleslaw, onions, celery, peppers, garlic and sambal with crisp Boston leaf lettuce. Wrap your own!

Reading the description, I knew it wasn’t going to taste anything like Korean food – not even a little. None of the hallmark Korean ingredients or flavours are listed. Swap out the chicken with beef or pork and sambal for gochujang and then you’re cooking Korean. And that’s the problem. I’m Korean and I know these flavours. But for anyone not familiar with Korean food – this could be their misguided gateway into an ethnic cuisine. Yes, the format of lettuce wraps is Korean, but that’s not enough for me.

Toronto is blessed to be the most ethnically diverse city in the world. If you’d like to try ethnic foods, why not go to a local mom and pop and really go for it! You might hate it or you might LOVE it. Go with a friend who can guide you and reassure you that all the unusual ingredients cook up to something incredibly delicious.

Finally my plea to chefs mainstreaming ethnic food – please respect the authentic ingredients and flavours of the original dish. Be creative and daring, but also be true to the food we hold dear to our hearts.