Paolo Boccagni: “Ethnic” restaurants and the reproduction of home in the public, or from afar: fieldnotes from Madrid

“Ethnic” restaurants and the reproduction of home in the public, or from afar: fieldnotes from Madrid

by Paolo Boccagni


Talking about home and studying homemaking, in people’s everyday life, may be a matter of very mundane and unexotic topics. One of them is certainly food. There is much true, and little new, in the idea that “ethnic” food evokes a sense of home for many immigrant newcomers, or even for long-settled minorities and their descendants. Consuming particular kinds of food enables to articulate distinctive tastes, emotions, alignments, and social statuses. It has also a sensorial dimension that facilitates connections with – literally, incorporation of – pleasant aspects of everyday life from other places, and from previous steps of one’s life course. For migrants, in particularly, food and the ways of having it facilitate connectedness with what used to be home in the past.

Less obvious is how the power of food to recreate a sense of home, both mnemonically and sensorially, operates in the specific setting of so-called ethnic restaurants. So much has been written on them, and so little on the possibility that they be also homes-away-from-home, in a semi-public space, for a number of migrants. Out of this research curiosity, Alejandro Miranda and I have explored the interplay between the experience and the production of a sense of home in the public, through ethnic restaurants; more specifically, how the Ecuadorian ones in Madrid try to operate as home-like spaces for a more or less diverse and extended arena of clients.

Restaurants that call themselves Ecuadorian, most of them relatively small and cheap, abound in a city like Madrid, where Ecuadorians and Ecuador-borns have settled by the hundreds of thousands. While evoking Ecuador in very visible and often stereotypical ways, as is probably the case for most “ethnic” restaurants with a predominantly immigrant client targets, these places have been peripheral to academic research. They are hidden in plain sight – at least for migration scholars – unless as entry points to find out informants or interviewees. One could think that they just don’t deserve much attention. After all, they talk of a Latino immigrant minority with high rates of naturalization and nowadays far less “contentious”, i.e. less publicly visible, than in the past.

Thinking that these places matter only to those who eat (or work) there, however, would be misleading. There is much more to Ecuadorian restaurants in Madrid than folklore, nostalgia, or more or less palatable food. Discussing about home, and the ways of constructing it in the public and from afar, opens up a new and fascinating research window into them.

As we found out, Ecuadorian restaurants can operate as especially meaningful, even home-like social spaces through the collective identities they evoke, the forms of familiarity they facilitate, and the hybridization between the private (past) life of the migrants who run them and their own semi-public and commercial life.

While observing them from within, in what is still a work in progress, we gained some preliminary insights about the first point – evoking, and playing with, collective identities such as the Ecuadorian one. Whatever the food they serve, which in many cases – and not incidentally – is pretty much the same, Ecuadorian restaurants are also settings which embody and articulate different ways of representing Ecuador, through different means, for different client targets. And as long as Ecuador means “home” for a number of migrants, whether in moral, emotional or very practical terms, such restaurants are also a privileged research setting for any Hominger.

In a nutshell, and against the question How is it that a restaurant claims, displays and uses its being Ecuadorian, our fieldwork suggests four ways of reproducing “Ecuadorianness”. All of them are idealtypical ones – the analytical fruit of our own categorization. I’ll only sketch them out briefly here. More will come soon.

A first mode of claiming Ecuadorianness, through ethnic food and beyond, is an Identitarian one (pic. 1). This is typical of those restaurants that put strong emphasis on the symbols, colours and common sense atmospheres of Ecuador – most notably, through national symbols such as the flag, the shield upon it, the Andean condor, or even the national anthem. They seem to embody a claim for recognition of Ecuador and affiliation to it, towards an arena of clients expected to appreciate this national(istic) ambience no less than the food in itself. Ethnicity, here, matters less than asserting an enduring national or patriotic identity through food, and using it as a marketing device. The restaurants we categorize as identitarian, though, are typically the less pretentious and more popular ones.


Pic. 1 – An Identitarian Ecuadorian restaurant

Another mode of playing with, and displaying, the “Ecuador” label is what we called the Liminal one (pic. 2).  This category illuminates those restaurants in which the “typicality” of Ecuadorian cuisine is less emphasized, although still visible in the everyday dishes and in much of the clientele. The liminal lies somewhere in between an ethnic place and a broadly working class one. It calls for some degree of social mimetism.  There seems to be a pragmatic arrangement, here, with a view to attracting clients from the local community with a cheap and reliable menu, rather than targeting “real Ecuadorians” only. Going liminal may actually be a matter of survival, wherever a truly “ethnic” clientele does not suffice and “native” low-cost restaurants are the real competitors in the local community. A more or less nostalgic Ecuadorian client will no doubt distinguish the national dishes consumed here, and hopefully enjoy them. Yet, non-Ecuadorians are equally welcome as clients – which is exactly the reason why the identitarian trait is downplayed or hybridized with different national or cultural references, including Spanish ones.


Pic. 2 – A Liminal Ecuadorian restaurant

Yet another mode of employing “Ecuadorianness” through restaurants is a Touristic one (pic. 3). This is typical of places that seem to be selling something more than food, to an arena of clients that need not overlap with Ecuadorians or Latinos only. Some of the restaurants we visited – opposite to those in the first two categories – make large use of clean or embellished pictures of tourist places from throughout Ecuador. They complement the distinctivity of food with that of the lived environments in which the food was originally produced and consumed, or so the claim goes. Large tourist-style pictures of Quito, Cuenca or Guayaquil, together with some reference to the Ecuadorian lush wildlife, abound in these restaurants. Some of these places are actually parts of commercial chains by now. Once again, while the Ecuadorian adjective is the same, the ways of representing the country – and consequently its meaning as a homeplace – are remarkably diverse.

Not much of a surprise in a tourist variation of the ethnic brand, at first sight. Yet, this is by no means obvious for a label, such as the Ecuadorian, with little of the fashionable associated with many other ethnic cousines, including the Peruvian one.


Pic. 3 – A Touristic Ecuadorian restaurant

Still less obvious, and far more selective and incipient, is another mode of producing and diffusing Ecuadorianness which we found in Madrid. This is the Distinctive one (pic. 4) – those places, very few to our knowledge, in which the label Ecuadorian is used less as a source of nostalgia, allegiance or exotic fascination, than as an embodiment of cultural capital in its own right. Against the predominant view of Ecuador as a poor place, and of Ecuadorians as low-skilled manual workers at best, these restaurants display works of art, literature and poetry that bear witness to the original contribution of Ecuadorian culture(s). Having, as it seems, a middle-class and ethnically diverse client target, these places reframe “Ecuadorianness” as a positive legacy to share, rather than a loss, or something to be fictitiously recreated anew.


Pic. 4 – A Distinctive Ecuadorian restaurant

All of these remarks could seem of little interest, out of the perimeter of assiduous or even obsessive customers. They are however of high interest, I think, to whomever sees that ethnic restaurants are more than restaurants – they are built environments and infrastructures which articulate more or less reified or open views of ethnicity, national identity, and belonging. In this sense, they say less about food as such, than of the views and practices of majority-minority relations that coalesce around it. Having food there can be a major form of homemaking, but the restaurants themselves, as semi-public homes, say much of the ways in which what used to be home writ large – i.e. the country of origin – is recollected, re-evoked, reproduced.

More writing, and hopefully more debate (in and out of HOMInG), to come!