Only Immigration Foodways can Make Our Food Great

February 9, 2017

By: Rafael Tonon

Banning refugees and immigrants can leave us with a poorer diet – wherever we are 

Immigrant flows have dramatically changed the food we eat. If you live in a big city as I do, you should note the richness of its blended heritage – and how this ends up influencing your every day meals. In São Paulo, where I am based, I can’t imagine how life would be without the Italian pizzas, the Japanese sushis or the Middle Eastern sfihas. They are part of the city heritage such as the Modernist buildings, the intense traffic and the cultural movements.

As many cities that received lots of immigrants from all over the world, São Paulo is a melting pot of food references that draws from its Portuguese heritage to an Italian accent (present in thousands of cantinas and trattorias around the city), from the biggest Japanese colony outside Japan to Arabian immigrants and refugees (who keep coming in search of a new life). Brazil has always been a recipient of immigrants, since immigration has been a very important demographic factor in the composition, structure and history of human population in the country.

This was key to the gastronomic richness of the city, one of the most diverse in the world, I should say. As it was, actually, to many other cities around the globe: how would food be in cities like New Orleans, London, San Antonio and Melbourne – to mention only a few – without the immigrant flows? Without the French beignets, the Indian seasonings, the Mexican tacos or the Asian accent? To walk along their streets without the offering of sashimi, tacos, pizza and noodles?

We might consider that some of this food comes from chain restaurants with global domination, but for the most part it is the product of small restaurants run by generations of immigrant families – without them we would probably never taste flavors different from the ones we are used to in our daily meals. It is something we should celebrate, not avoid.

With the recent agenda of some countries banning immigrants, today’s exquisite feast may be tasteless in a near future. If these current immigration policies had been adopted a hundred years ago, we would had a much poorer culinary heritage. And our food scenario would be way different from today.

Not by chance, many chefs and food enthusiats are raging against these anti-immigration policies: Jose Andrés, the celebrated Washington D.C. chef (and who ironically is Spanish), called for people to stand up against some of the changes he expects to hit food and immigration policy under the new administration.“That is going to make America hungry. On what doors do we have to knock to make sure that doesn’t happen?”, he asked.

brisket immigration

When Jewish immigrants came to the United States, they brought their love of brisket with them.

Andrés mentioned how Trump’s anti-immigration stance could also put a strain American farms. Of the 1.5 to 2 million people working in agriculture today, at least 50% to 70% of farm workers are undocumented, according to a recent report by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). If the agriculture sector were to eliminate all undocumented workers, the US would be left with a $30 to $60 billion food production loss, the researchers write. This is one more collateral effect of these stances in our food.

In Argentina, a country known for its Spanish, French and Armenian heritages, to name just a few, president Maurício Macri (son of an immigrant) announced measures to deport immigrants and restrict their entry to the country, igniting a fierce debate over immigration – and its role for the Argentinian cultural heritage. In France, right-wing politician Marine Le Pen gave a much-anticipated speech launching her presidential campaign by running on a xenophobic, nationalistic agenda that calls for France to crack down on immigration.

Now, imagine some anti-immigration stances adopted or aclaimed in some speeches of politicians around the world and think about how they are able to affect the food our sons and grandsons will eat in the next hundred years if these policies are passed.

If the laws (and even walls) ban the immigration flows around the world and we keep people tied to the lands they were born in, this will have a huge effect not only in our politics and social matters, but also in our tables and pantries.

If it depended on me, I would not be interested in going out for dinner with less options than I have today or in cooking in a kitchen that doesn’t include ingredients from other cuisines. At home, I can cook an Italian pasta with some Chinese glaised pork belly and season it with Aleppo pepper and some thyme – everything bought just around the corner. Or, to celebrate a special date, I can choose to eat a Kimchi Bokumbap, a uni teishoku, a duck confit or even a Sujok (a Syrian pita bread with hot spiced ground beef, tomatos and garlic sauce), all of them no further than 5 km from home.

Around my table all immigrants are welcome. As is their food.

Rafael Tonon

+ posts by Rafael

Rafael Tonon is a journalist and food writer. He writes about food, drinks and trends in gastronomy. He contributes to many media outlets, such as Eater, Vice, Slate and more. He maintains the trend food blog What the Fork.

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