Crossing culinary bordersby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
As the saying goes, you are what you eat. Commentator Nikki Tundel says that makes Americans voracious multiculturalists.
St. Paul, Minn. — I don't know if a guest worker program is a good idea. And I'm not sure if our national anthem should be sung in Spanish.
But I am certain of one thing -- immigrants have done wonders for the country's cuisine.
We Americans might be conflicted about the changing cultural landscape. But we seem incapable of resisting an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. Even supporters of increased border control can appreciate warm, sugar-covered churros.
Ethnic food, as it's collectively called, has never been more popular.
International fare used to be limited to one shelf in a dark corner of the grocery store. Today, you can find microwaveable taquitos right next to the chicken pot pies in the freezer case.
Salsa has surpassed ketchup as America's top-selling condiment. And there are now more Chinese restaurants in the United States than McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger Kings combined.
Ethnic cuisine is not only popular; it's also a barometer of cool. The all-American hot dog might be acceptable nourishment at a baseball game or nephew's birthday party. But a hot dog is certainly not hip.
Hip is an Ethiopian combo platter, with its dollops of lentils and chickpeas. Hip is couscous. Hip is ceviche.
Hip is saying, "I discovered the best kimchi at some hole-in-the-wall Korean joint," not, "I went to Perkins for the meatloaf special."
I speak just enough Greek to successfully order spinach pie and flaming cheese at a Mediterranean cafe. But because my language skills don't take me much farther than translating the dinner menu, it's hard to tell what the waiters, cooks and cashiers at ethic restaurants think of me and my dining partners.
I like to assume they see us as forward-thinking Americans, people who are trying to broaden our minds as well as our palates. They know we could have had frozen pizza at home and must be impressed we made the effort to seek out chana masala.
I always go out of my way to make conversation with the Indian chefs. "Where are you from? Do you like America? What's your favorite tandori dish?"
I say, "I went to the Taj Mahal once and it was very beautiful." Then I go back to my garlic naan and mango lassi.
Of course, immigration isn't all nachos, egg rolls and tiramisu. Sometimes it's spiced duck tongue or boiled sea slugs or burnt goat head.
It's easy to embrace quesadillas and fried ice cream. But the idea of fermented squid intestines can be a bit unsettling.
And I have a hunch that says something about how we Americans view immigration, too. A lot of the time it's great. But, like a big bowl of mudfish soup, it can make you a little uneasy -- especially when you've grown up on Jell-O salad and SpaghettiOs.
- All Things Considered, 05/15/2006, 6:25 p.m.