It is the tendency of North Americans to lump all non-French, non-Japanese foreign cuisines into the umbrella term “ethnic.” This doesn’t help anyone’s cause. As a blanket term it devalues the cooking of most of the world as lacking the historical backbone and complexity of the “refined traditions” of the world. Just think about how gross it to have the gall to lump all Asian cuisines together, the same as with African cuisines, into some blanket category defined by a broad geographical proximity, as if either of these were pretty small places with no history. Nevermind the Chinese harnessed gas cooking in the B.C. era, and that fish sauce is the world’s oldest condiment.
Before you start thinking that this is just a chance to hate on white people, it’s not. We live in a pretty strange time in history, wherein for the first time possibly ever widespread cultural cosmopolitanism is a norm on the streets. You don’t have to be of white European heritage to find yourself in proximity to people from a part of the world you don’t know anything about, speaking languages you don’t understand, with whacky new customs and rituals.
The world’s gotten smaller, yo: environmental, economic, and geopolitical crises have moved people from everywhere to wherever would take them. Southern Ontario has communities of Serbians and Bosnians living beside Vietnamese, Thai and Laotians, on the same block as Somalians and Ethiopians, Indians, Pakistanis, Afghanis, going to the same schools as Iraqis, Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Turks, riding the bus with El Salvadorians and Mexicans, Belizians and Columbians. Probably the only people that really get whats going on in this human tapestry are the children of multiculturalism.
The student of grammar sees the misplaced comma, and so it is with much of our ability to read and understand the world. If I haven’t been taught how to do a certain kind of math problem, I probably won’t be able to solve it and I might not be able to tell it from a different kind of math problem. People are willing to spend more time (and money) on something they understand, and are willing to explore the complexities of it once they are shown they are there.
With all of that said, it’s not out of the spirit of nationalistic pride that our exploration of Lao food and culture starts. It’s about explaining what it is, what makes it different, what to look for when eating it, so that it can be understood as being different. Its got its own set of complex traditions that are different from its neighboring countries. This blog is about writing against the blanket terms “ethnic food” and “Asian food” and stepping into the house of respected global cuisines, dressed fresh, and ready to party. Everyone should be afforded the dignity of being understood and not marginalized by cliche, misinformation, and misunderstanding. So lets explore, understand, educate, and move on up.