Local Meets Global Flavor
After working in Michelin-star restaurants and experimenting with food all week, Aleem Syed, a Toronto-based chef, would want to come home and eat the Indian cuisine that he had as a child. “Running around as a chef, you have the worst hours,” he says. “On your day off, you tend to eat things that are familiar.”
That was some of the motivation for the February 2015 launch of his The Holy Grill food truck. He’s known for his tacos, burgers, and steaks, but the menu also includes items like Mom’s Butter Chicken Poutine, which is literally his mother’s recipe put on top of a Canadian specialty of fried potatoes and cheese curds. “It’s my version of East meets West,” Syed explains. “Being Indian, I grew up on butter chicken. That’s normal for us.”
Syed’s food is just one example of chefs taking ethnic and global flavors and combining them with local fare. Food trucks, in particular, have been a trendy way to take on this fusion idea and dole it out on a daily basis to hungry lunch-goers. The lower overhead of a mobile venue gives more room to experiment with different styles and more autonomy outside of a restaurant.
Ghezal Raouf, who runs the Kabob Trolley in California, was born and raised in the Bay Area but has roots in Afghanistan. When she saw how popular the Halal Guys and their gyros and meat platters were in New York, she wanted to bring the concept to the West coast. “I blended my rich cultural flavors […] with the traditional American twist, cheesesteaks,” she says. The food truck model also serves her well for blending cultures because, as Raouf explains, Afghan meals are not necessarily healthy and can be time-consuming to make. This way, her customers get a taste of Afghanistan in an easily consumable and cost-efficient way.
Syed and Raouf agree that with the world shrinking and different types of menus readily available, customers are yearning to try new cuisine. “People like ethnic, different foods but want to eat something familiar at the same time,” states Raouf. “By mixing global ingredients (East spices) into a local food concept (gyros and cheesesteaks), it creates an appeal to customers.”
Omar Anani, owner of three food trucks in the Detroit area, including his flagship Qais Truck that serves Mediterranean farm-to-table dishes, says the fusion aspect also gives him room to test items that Muslims may not be able to eat in other venues. For example, he loves experimenting with charcuterie, or prepared meat products, but that often includes pork in a traditional restaurant setting. Anani compensates by making bacon out of lamb and finding alternatives to pork sausage. Syed also uses the flavors that would go into a chorizo sausage and uses beef as the main element instead.
This sampling of cultures isn’t limited to just the chefs’ specific ethnic backgrounds; because they are exposed to so many different types of food in their work, their menus can easily reflect different areas of the world. Anani touches on Turkish and Moroccan specialties and also owns the Fat Panda Truck, which specializes in pho and ramen, as well as Grill Billies that serves up barbecue. Syed includes tastes from Mexico, Japan, and Spain, among others, in his cooking.
Because this intermingling also means that there’s an element of an American or Canadian base, it offers Anani, Syed, and Raouf a chance to source local products. For Anani, the motivation is his hometown. Detroit has been going through a tough financial period, and he felt a responsibility to boost the economy by buying items like local jams, mushrooms, cheese, and vinegar. “The more money we can keep locally, stimulate jobs, the better off everyone can be,” he adds.
For Syed, it’s about being proud to be Canadian and using what is readily available to him. Cheese curds are a staple in poutine, and the specialty is in turn native to Canada. It made sense to Syed to use cheese curds strictly from Quebec, where poutine was invented.
Of course, this joining of global and local flavors isn’t limited to professional chefs and restaurants. Home cooks have been doing this for years, sometimes for the ease of replacing specific ingredients and sometimes because they’ve found certain tastes complement others.
Lisa Y. Kherwish, a resident of Bridgeview, Illinois, has a mixed ethnic background, and that’s often reflected in the meals she makes for herself. Taking direction from her mother, who grew up in Puerto Rico, she often mixes in sofrito – a blend of herbs and vegetables – in with her daily fare.
Kherwish says her mother would use a bottle of name-brand pasta sauce when making spaghetti and then make her own version of sofrito and add it in. That tradition was also carried with the annual Thanksgiving turkey, which is rubbed in olive oil, garlic, sofrito, adobo, and sazon, a seasoning blend often used in Puerto Rican and other Latin cooking. That would be served alongside arroz con gandules, or rice with pigeon peas.
However, because Kherwish’s heritage also includes a Palestinian side, her family’s maqluba – a traditional Arab rice and meat dish – also includes adobo and sazon. “A lot of my aunts [on the Palestinian side] changed the way they cooked because they saw us using these spices,” Kherwish adds.
Because of her cultural background, she says she often prefers the tastes that she grew up on compared to those found in restaurants. However, the big motivation for mixing native spices, meat, and vegetables in home cooking is simply convenience. “Our pantries are stocked with adobo,” she explains. “If we’re following a recipe and it calls for something else, it’s easier to put in what we have.”
The bottom line for Syed, though, is that this combination isn’t really about mixing flavors together: it’s about making a new essence that’s also recognizable.
“[My cuisine is] very straightforward,” he expands. “You won’t be able to determine what the flavor is until you try it.”
Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations.