The Future Is Expensive Chinese Food

A comprehensive theory of why some cuisines command higher prices than others

As various immigrant groups have arrived in significant numbers on American shores, one of two fates has tended to befall the culinary knowledge they’ve brought with them: Their recipes have either been granted admission to high-end, white-tablecloth establishments or relegated to lower-status eateries, often taking on the label of “ethnic” food.

Consider the cases of steak frites and carne asada. They both involve cooking a fairly high-quality cut of meat over high heat, and they’re both dishes whose origins are foreign to America. But they’re often listed on American menus at vastly different prices. Why?

“The shortest answer would be cultural prestige, some notion of an evaluation of another culture's reputation,” says Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University. In a book published earlier this year, The Ethnic Restaurateur, Ray expands on this idea, sketching the tiers of what he calls a “global hierarchy of taste.” This hierarchy, which privileges paninis over tortas, is almost completely shaped by a simple rule: The more capital or military power a nation wields and the richer its emigrants are, the more likely its cuisine will command high menu prices.

Consider the divergent trajectories of Japanese and Chinese cuisines in America. In the past few decades, Japanese cooking has become something to emulate in haute cuisine, with elite Western chefs frequently visiting Japan to observe how chefs there are preparing and plating their work. “Japanese is doing very well in terms of prestige, and that is about … the rise of Japan as a major economic power,” Ray says. Meanwhile, he argues, the status of Chinese food remains held back by many Americans’ perceptions of the country and its economy. “With China, [Americans] are still filled with this funny disdain, that it is about cheap and crappy stuff, including about cheap and crappy food,” he says.

Ray’s analysis in The Ethnic Restaurateur is not just based on subjective assessments of a cuisine’s influence and reputation. To great effect, he draws on data from Zagat, whose reviewers collect check prices for meals at the restaurants it lists (which tend to range from middlebrow to the lower end of high-end); in New York in 2015, the average check at a Zagat-listed Japanese restaurant for a meal for one (including a glass of wine and a tip) was $68.94, while the average price for the same thing at Zagat-listed Chinese restaurants was $35.76.

Data: Krishnendu Ray; Zagat

In 1985, the earliest year for which Zagat data is available, Japanese food had the sixth-highest average check price in New York. Last year, it ranked first. During that time, Greek and Korean have also seen their lots improve, while Chinese has remained at the lower end of the check-price spectrum, along with Thai, Indian, and Mexican.

Data: Krishnendu Ray; Zagat

The theory Ray outlines in The Ethnic Restaurateur is more complicated than just loosely extrapolating from a country’s financial and military might. Some more-granular data does support that approach—many cuisines’ Zagat check averages correlate closely with the per-capita income of the corresponding cultural group—but Ray believes that other variables must matter a lot too, considering that nearly all the cuisines with the highest check prices are ones generally associated with whiteness.

And even when a country’s food makes the jump to haute cuisine, the process of deciding who will be its public face can still bleed into issues of race and class. In the ‘80s, Rick Bayless popularized regional Mexican fare in the U.S., in cookbooks and at his restaurants, and because he’s a white man from Oklahoma, his de facto stewardship of higher-end Mexican cooking is controversial, even despite his fluency in Mexican culture. Ray’s book provides a number of examples of immigrant chefs who feel they’re confined to cooking only dishes from their home country, while they see their white peers given the latitude to dabble in other cuisines.

In The Ethnic Restaurateur, Ray also discusses David Chang, an Asian American whose empire of white-tablecloth-free restaurants are often viewed as a rare subversion of traditional fine dining by a nonwhite chef. But Ray pushes back on the notion that Chang is truly an “outsider”—he was trained at a French culinary school and worked under the accomplished French chef Daniel Boulud. Ray writes that Chang’s food “is extraordinarily original, but his career path has been the standard route of the new American chef since the late 1980s.” This is not a knock on Chang, but an observation about who is permitted to ascend to the upper echelons of the food world.

Similarly, it is who the American mainstream considers foreign—and when—that can go a long way in explaining why the prestige of a cuisine surges or plunges over time; perhaps the most important variable in determining “foreign-ness” is how large an immigrant group is, and their socioeconomic status upon arrival. “Most of the Japanese we are familiar with are business folks, are executives,” Ray recently told the podcast The Sporkful. “But right now, most Americans associate Chinese food with relatively impoverished Chinese immigrants.” (A cuisine need not even be foreign to experience such bad luck: Poverty probably plays a role in why Native American food, which has all the trappings of a trendy cuisine, has failed to accrue cultural capital.)

The cuisines of France and Italy, Ray argues, have had very different histories in the U.S. precisely because those two countries have sent different volumes of people, of varying levels of wealth, to American shores. The fact that large numbers of poor French immigrants never settled in large portions of the U.S., along with the country’s reputation for sophistication (and fussiness), helped propel French food to becoming the standard against which other cuisines were measured.

The history of Italian food in America, meanwhile, offers a wonderful case study of how a cuisine’s status is dictated by immigration patterns. As Ray details in The Ethnic Restaurateur, Italian food was first popularized in the U.S. in the 19th century. Thomas Jefferson had a high opinion of macaroni (and pasta in general), which at the time was not associated with cardboard boxes and bright orange powder, but rather with more refined cuisines, such as France’s.

“Italian food would be dislodged,” Ray writes in his book, “by the entry of new southern Italian immigrants between 1880 and 1924 who were numerous and mostly poor, hence derided by the taste-making elite.” Italians were scorned as “garlic eaters,” and by 1955, the status of their country’s cuisine had fallen so far that the legendary cookbook author and food columnist James Beard wrote, “My opinion of Italian cookery was not too high.” Technically speaking, Beard did, like those in Jefferson’s time, compare it to French food, but unlike 19th-century gourmands, he compared it (unfavorably, no less) to the food the French served on trains.

It was only after the descendants of these relatively poor Italian immigrants began rising in American society that the nation’s cuisine started accumulating prestige. “When American Italians climbed out of the ghetto and into sports arenas, corporate offices, governor’s mansions, city halls, and movie studios, Italian food was re-assessed in the American imagination,” Ray writes. As Italian Americans’ associations with poverty faded gradually over the 20th century, the cuisine they brought with them was restored to the heights it had occupied in the 19th. Macaroni and cheese does come packaged in cardboard boxes these days, but it’s also common to find it topped with lobster meat or truffle oil in high-end restaurants.

The waxing-waning nature of Italian food demonstrates the capriciousness of national palates, and history is rife with similar examples. In the 1930s, Ray told me, emigrants from Japan found that their children would return home from their new schools parroting their teachers, who had given them the idea that “American” food—dairy, cheese, and meat, mostly—was instrumental to growing up big and strong. Many parents embraced that notion. “Now, it's completely flipped,” Ray says. “Now we think, of course, the Japanese live the longest, eat the best food."

The gradual upward revision of Japanese and Italian cuisines may hint at what’s to come for some cuisines that today sit in the middle of the pack when it comes to check-price averages. “Twenty years from now Chinese food may be able to climb in American estimation,” Ray writes, “but that depends on a lot, including the continuing economic rise of China and the decline in the flow of poor Chinese immigrants into the United States.” He added in an interview that he thinks Korean cuisine is also “going to do pretty well.”

When immigrant food is brought into the American fold, another big question, aside from whether it will be thought of as high- or low-end, is how long it will be considered exotic; food can be a useful entry point to thinking about how immigrant cultures are absorbed into the American mainstream, and what “mainstream” might look like in just a few decades. Only 80 or so years ago, The New York Times published an article that, to make a point about how radically Americans’ eating habits were changing, imagined a “hodge-podge” of “strange dishes” that a family at the time could plausibly plop on the dinner table next to each other, no matter how objectionable such a spread may have seemed. Those strange dishes? Spaghetti, meatballs, corn on the cob, sauerkraut, fruit salad, and apple pie. Yesterday’s strange hodgepodge is today’s boring dinner.

For quite a while, in fact, “foreign” food was simply shorthand for German food. That’s what writers in the Times meant virtually anytime they referred to foreign food between the 1850s, when the paper was founded, and around the 1920s. In the mid- to late 1800s, when relatively poor German immigrants were first arriving in the U.S. en masse, their sauerkraut and sausages were denied incorporation into the American culinary canon. Decades later, only after generations of Germans built wealth and social capital, the hot dog’s American-ness does not require elaboration.

As someone who has spent half his life in India, Ray at first was surprised after moving to America to see just how German it was. Before recent waves of Latin American immigration, Germans represented the largest historical influx of newcomers to America, and they deeply shaped the country’s culture; until World War II, German was among the most commonly taught languages in schools (much like Spanish is today). But German influences, Ray says, have been “scrubbed out of the script,” partly because they are so pervasive as to convince people they don’t need documenting, and partly because anti-German sentiment after the two world wars allowed little room for overt praise.

After inflows of Germans and other Northern Europeans tapered off at the end of the 19th century, most American immigrants were coming from Mediterranean countries. Those patterns died down, too, and those immigrants’ cuisines were gradually folded into a growing definition of American food. More recently, after the 1965 Immigration Act scrapped quotas that had been giving priority to white migrants, America’s dominant immigrant groups have been those coming from Latin America and Asia. (The writer Calvin Trillin was himself puzzled that such quotas existed in the first place: “I guess the idea was that people who like bland food make good citizens,” he once said.) As Germans became Americans, German food became American food. And when Latin American and Asian food also become American food, it will be a signal that the country has at last embraced a new generation of Americans.

Ultimately, Ray’s theory is addressing not just the construction of opinions about food, but about culture more generally. "The aperture through which we look at a culture, we see a more fine-grained, nuanced culture if it is richer and powerful than if it is poor,” Ray says. The global hierarchy of cultural taste is, in Ray’s eyes, arranged according to capital flows more than it is to any inherent beauty or virtue a culture may possess. This seems like a reasonable explanation for why today, so many Americans look to the French for their parenting advice, the Japanese for their tidying wisdom, and the Scandinavians for everything else. “If you pay attention to any culture,” Ray says, “you will find beautiful things in it, things to value, things to respect, things that are prestigious.”