What role does the increasing popularity of foreign food play in the larger trend of status-striving over the past 30 or so years?
The usual view, which I had bought into without giving much thought to it, is that it has to do with signaling how esoteric your tastes are, and by extension how erudite you are in the foodie world. Everybody knows about "Mexican food," but do you know what the "cuisine of Oaxaca" is like?
In this view, the players in the status contest are trying to one-up each other by discovering, obsessing over, and then abandoning one exotic cuisine after another. Each cuisine goes through a fashion cycle, and the larger contest is jumping from one to another, each cuisine less obvious than the last.
And yet, after three decades of fashionable foodie-ism, Asian restaurants are still basically Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. Japanese has not fragmented into increasingly esoteric sub-cuisines -- Okinawa, Hokkaido, Tokyo vs. Osaka, etc. Thai-mania has not led to obsessions over Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese, Laotian, Malaysian, or other Southeast Asian food.
North African is still Moroccan and Ethiopian, leaving out giants like Egypt as well as tiny places like Eritrea.
Caribbean food is still Cuban and Jamaican, leaving out dozens of smaller and more obscure islands.
South American food is still Brazilian. Central American is still Mexican, and still catch-all Mexican rather than dozens of sub-cuisines finding their own success.
Middle Eastern is still Lebanese and Persian.
"Indian" is still northern and western Indian, not Tamil, Bengali, or Nepali.
Eastern Europe is still totally avoided and unexplored, outside of the Mediterranean food of Greece, which has not led to a trend-hopping chain to Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian, etc., after the initial novelty of Greek wore off.
This is not to overlook the occasional exception that finds a niche audience, like Mongolian barbeque. The point is that if the goal of the contest were to burn through ever more exotic and esoteric cuisines, Thai food should have been done by the end of the '80s, and Tibetan restaurants should have enjoyed a burst of success at some point along the way. Its no-show status is even more puzzling when you look at how much the elite likes to show its sympathy to the culture of Tibet.
If it's not a case of trend-hopping, how does the foodie phenomenon tie into the status-striving climate after all?
It looks more like it ties into the switch from cultural identities being ascribed status to achieved status, to use some sociological concepts. When some aspect of cultural identity is acquired by being ascribed, it's beyond the individual's choice and is usually inherited from parents or community upbringing. Your parents were Baptists, so you're brought up Baptist, and you remain Baptist in adulthood. If that piece of cultural identity were achieved, it's through a more effortful choice from the individual. For example, if your parents were Catholic and raised you that way, but you convert to Baptism as an adult.
An earlier post explored the link between the status-striving climate and identity as achieved status, as opposed to identities as ascribed status in an anti-striving or accommodating climate.
In short, if the impulse is to climb up the status ladder, to reside wherever you need to do so, to behave however you need to, then the norms must favor identity as something that you can choose and craft to suit your needs and preferences. If the impulse is to rein in the competitive war of all against all, then the norms must make identity something that is beyond the individual's ability to mess around with, and keep people more or less where they already are.
Thus, dynamism is supported by norms of laissez-faire, with collectively destructive competition as the side effect, while stasis is supported by norms of reining-it-in, with collective harmony as the side effect (or rather the intended goal).
Food has been part of ethnic identity forever, seen most clearly in food taboos that distinguish Us from Them. Incorporating foreign food into your regular diet tells others that your cultural identity is constructed rather than handed down. That signal lets them know that you're a serious contestant in the status-striving competition. Once you've identified one another, you get to feel a status boost over those who are not eating foreign food on a regular basis. It also lets you identify who your micro-competitors are -- everyone who is into Indian food can now begin the contest over who knows the best Indian places.
The broader importance of signaling your diet of exotic food, though, seems to be telling or reminding others that they shouldn't try to regulate anything you do. In a climate of greater regulation, a white person seen eating Indian food every night would be looked at funny until they started to eat what is normal for someone of their cultural descent. In an anything-goes climate, there are few ways to more convincingly flout the norms about regulating the self on behalf of group cohesion.
Even better, it's not a very flagrant, aggressive, or offensive way to let others know not to bother trying to regulate your behavior, unlike punk-y clothing and hairstyles that are unabashedly giving society the middle finger. Indian food isn't inherently anti-social, unlike shredded clothing, tongue piercings, green mohawks, etc. It doesn't offend us at the most basic gut level, as though we saw someone eating bugs (notice that the inherently gross stuff in exotic cuisines is strongly avoided). Bug-eating is offensive no matter whether that's native to their culture or a foreign adoption.
But what's so gross about palak paneer, an Indian dish of spinach and cheese? Nothing, and it wouldn't seem so out of place in European cuisine, except for its distinctly Indian flavor. Making it a regular part of your diet is not designed to offend the norms that regulate us away from eating inherently gross things, but those that steer us toward what our culture does and away from what a foreign culture does.
Broadcasting your taste for exotic cuisine makes your message of "don't try to regulate my behavior" a bit more palatable, as it were, since it requires conscious thought to construe your behavior as rule-breaking, rather than a gut reflex to see so. It's one of the most pro-social ways you could go about signaling your lack of social constraints.
That probably explains why the phenomenon is biased toward the elites, who want to appear superficially polite and civilized, whereas the bird-flippers at the lower-middle-class level will just buy some obviously offensive t-shirts, chains, and piercings from Hot Topic.