Publication Details

Arvela, P. (2013). Ethnic food: the other in ourselves. In D. Sanderson and M. Crouch (Eds.), Food: Expressions and Impressions (pp. 45-56). Oxford, United Kingdom: Inter-Disciplinary Press.

Additional Publication Information

ISBN: 9781848882140


Food is a powerful cultural signifier. It can connote inclusiveness, belonging, attachment and be a symbolic expression of social binding. Similarly, food can signify exclusiveness, generate stereotypes and feelings of revulsion and disgust which demarcate boundaries between the us and the other. As Marcel Proust’s teasoaked sweet Madeleine illustrates, food can produce good memories as much as recall painful experiences. Food is as much a nutritional and physiological requirement as it is cultural, symbolic and meaningful. Multi-ethnic societies praise their food diversity and flag it as a marker of inclusiveness. Australian cuisine is supposed to be a representation of cultural and ethnic diversity underpinned by its culinary variety in foods and tastes. As the food writer Cherry Ripe claims, ‘… we have become some of the most eclectic eaters in the world.’1 Banning the ‘ethnicity factor’ from the Australian cuisine would be unthinkable. Yet this is not universally the case. For example, a 2009 article in the New York Times read, ‘A walled city in Tuscany clings to its ancient menu.’2 The article reflected on the Italian right-wing city council of Lucca and its controversial decision to ban ‘ethnic’ restaurants from its historical centre. Ethnic food was regarded as a malaise that destabilised the concept of Italian cuisine, its culinary roots and essential traditions. Ethnic food and the ‘other from within’ constituted a threat to Italian-ness. Based on these case studies, this chapter explores the concept of ethnic food as a site of struggle where the national is challenged, destabilised and re-invented. It examines how representations of ethnic food are contextual and evaluates the meanings of a national cuisine by asking: does what is on your plate change who you think you are?