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As classes wind down for the semester and Harvard students prepare to head home or travel over J-term, we have gained the opportunity to eat out—and to reflect on the multitude of ethnic food in Boston.
After all, part of Harvard’s appeal is its location. And the city of Boston has much more to offer than 100,000 college students and picturesque views of the Public Garden. Boston has become increasingly diverse in the last 20 years, and its vibrant immigrant communities have sparked both culturally diverse neighborhoods and a hugely varied range of culinary options. Venturing into Boston to experience the ethnic food scene of various neighborhoods is an excellent way for both Harvard students and other Boston residents to gain quite literally a taste of many different cultures and experience an easily accessible and highly rewarding sample of Boston’s diversity.
In recent years, an increasing global awareness and respect for different cultures and ethnicities has led to a heightened esteem for immigrants in the United States. After centuries of pressure on immigrant communities to assimilate into an “American” way of life, most recent immigrants to the United States feel more comfortable than ever continuing their own cultural practices as they integrate to life stateside. For example, as anyone walking through a major city like Boston will quickly see, the reality of many immigrants speaking languages other than English or wearing attire representing their cultures creates a vibrant and diverse urban community. For us, food is one of the most important cultural experiences to have flourished as a result of growing immigrant communities, across the United States and especially in Boston.
The demographics of Boston are indeed changing rapidly. According to a report on the demographics of Boston available through the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians, Boston’s immigrant population grew rapidly in the last two decades. Although the most common ancestries of Boston residents remain Irish and Italian, the number of Irish and Italian people in Boston has decreased recently, while the number of people with Puerto Rican, Chinese, and Salvadoran ancestries increased dramatically. The majority of new immigrants to Boston since 1990 are from Asia and Latin America, especially Brazil, and Boston’s population also now includes lots of Haitians, Cape Verdeans, and Vietnamese.
Boston’s many neighborhoods each feature different populations. The community most famous to Boston tourists, the North End, has long sported a wide variety of Italian restaurants. However, the quality of the North End’s restaurants has suffered as the neighborhood caters increasingly to tourists attracted by the fame of Boston’s “Little Italy.” This unfortunate deterioration makes it even more important for Bostonians searching for ethnic food to look to other neighborhoods.
Indeed, many other neighborhoods and neighboring towns have witnessed the establishment of continuously growing immigrant communities. Chinatown, a historically Chinese community, has blocks full of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, and tea shops. Brookline boasts rows of Kosher restaurants, catering to its sizable Jewish population, including many residents of Russian and Israeli immigrant backgrounds. East Boston, traditionally Italian, now has a predominantly Latino population; it boasts a number of Salvadoran as well as Mexican and general Hispanic restaurants. Dorchester holds dozens of Vietnamese, Jamaican, and Haitian restaurants owned by its own immigrant populations. Closer to home, Allston and Brighton, North Cambridge, and Somerville each have multifarious immigrant communities and excellent restaurants of their own. A good variety and quality of Middle Eastern food can be found a short walk down Massachusetts Avenue to Central Square.
No matter where we travel in Boston, we find hugely diverse and multicultural communities. As hungry college students, we believe that one of the best ways to experience Boston’s vibrant immigrant cultures comes through food. Venturing out of Harvard Square and experimenting beyond forays to the North End to eat provides an important—and delicious—perspective on the city of Boston.
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