Ghareeb Nawaz and Todoroki: A Comparative Look at Class in Asian/American Food

The consumption of Asian/American food in the United States is significant in terms of the performance of identity and the way in which the audience interacts with and engages in the discourse of Asian identity through food. By comparing and contrasting two Asian American restaurants on the north side of Chicago it is possible to see how transnational Asian food can reflect different aspects of Asian American identity. Ghareeb Nawaz and Todoroki, two restaurants only four miles away from each other, highlight the particular significance of class in considering the performance of “Asian-ness”. By exploring these two restaurants, it is possible to better see the creation of identity in relation to those who create, serve, and consume food. The act of making, supplying, and eating food is not free from hegemonic powers; therefore the dynamics of class and transnationalism in food speak to those who prepare and consume food in a critical way so as to consider the creation of cultural citizenship and who is included or excluded.

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Despite the relatively short distance between Ghareeb Nawaz and Todoroki, these two restaurants exist in very different neighborhoods that represent very different expressions of transnationalism as a result. Ghareeb Nawaz is an Indian/Pakistani restaurant located on the bustling, working class Devon Avenue. The large avenue is known as Chicago’s home to a number of immigrant and ethnic groups, including a prominent Desi community. The geographic location of Ghareeb Nawaz is thereby asserted as a sign of authenticity, thus allowing for an audience to see the restaurant as an escape from the, “increasing homogeneity of the global marketplace,” as a Chicago Mag author said of the well-known street. Ghareeb Nawaz thus provides a parallel to the ideas of essentialized Asian identity in chefs that was brought up by Oren in their exploration of Asian/Americans in competitive cooking shows. Todoroki  on the other hand is located in the pre-dominantly white neighborhood of Evanston. Todoroki splits itself into two parts, one side serving meals made on a Hibachi and the other side serving sushi. Despite both serving what may be called Asian/American cuisine, each is consumed and interpreted very differently as part of Asian/American culture.

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Ghareeb Nawaz participates in the creation of a cultural citizenship through a degree of simplicity. This comes from the ordering style in which consumers go up the register and order and pick up the food for themselves. In addition to having fewer interactions with those working at the restaurant, the food is also much cheaper than at Todoroki, or most other restaurants for that matter. The chicken biryani, a massive dish that can be turned into three meals costs a total of four dollars. This is compared to the more expensive Todoroki in which patrons are seated by a host, served by at least one member of the wait staff and perhaps also partake in watching the visual spectacle of the food being created by either watching someone use the hibachi or make food at the sushi bar. At Ghareeb Nawaz the food is an affordable means to get the food one wants and less of a theatrical performance. This connection is important in terms of the racial and class differences at Todoroki; the largely white, wealthy audience expects flare and performance by Asian/Americans.

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Ghareeb Nawaz features a very simplistic model of simply ordering and receiving food that is performed by and for working class people of color at Ghareeb Nawaz. The power balance thus seems more equal perhaps at Ghareeb Nawaz as a result of the performances and expectations of both the servers and consumers as seen in relation to race, ethnicity, and class. Cultural citizenship is thereby shared by both those who prepare and consume at Ghareeb Nawaz. Meanwhile at Todoroki, cultural citizenship is divided in terms of those who claim Japanese culture and those who simply consume Japanese culture. Todoroki thereby appears to reinforce hegemonic powers in which white upper class people dictate power.

Another notable difference was seen when Todoroki played basketball games on a few spread out TV screens throughout the restaurant, while Ghareeb Nawaz had a small TV playing cricket, a game far less popular in the United States and much more popular in Southeast Asia. Clearly both restaurants seek to engage very different audiences. While Ghareeb Nawaz speaks to the residents of a working class, ethnic enclave, Todoroki speaks to an Americanized crowd that wants to be entertained and engaged in the act of eating food that is not their own while still feeling a sense of American comfort. By keeping this degree of comfort, patrons are able to participate in “culinary tourism” albeit not through blogging (Lopez), but still in attempting to engage in ideas about authenticity through the performance of food.

The experiences of diners in both restaurants speak to very different crowds that come from different socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and national identities as they navigate ideas of authenticity and cultural citizenship. The class dynamics, along with other key intersecting identities, highlight the use of food to create ideas of authenticity and inauthenticity while also answering to the comforts and expectations of the intended audience. Ultimately both restaurants are a part of identity dynamics that exemplify how these two restaurants are experienced and reflect different ways of imagining Asian culture in an American context.

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