How to draw culinary inspiration from other cultures — the right way

The easiest thing to cook is whatever you love to cook. But what if the food you love is from another culture? Simple: make sure you do it well, and with respect.

By Ari Bendersky

Y

ou can stroll the taco stalls throughout Mexico City, browse the hawker markets for satay or Zhen Zhen porridge in Singapore, grab jerk chicken off a street-side grill in Jamaica, buy a hot dog off a cart in New York, nab elote from a table in Chicago or pick up a cup of frites with mayonnaise in Amsterdam. In cities all over the world, people set up stands or stalls and sell food they have passionately cooked for years, sometimes generations, to offer folks on the go a quick, delicious and inexpensive meal. Most cultures contribute to street food and the environments in which their wares are sold can range from a single stand set up on a street corner in a busy neighborhood or a bustling market offering dozens of dining options.

But what if you fall in love with a specific type of food during a vacation, or get introduced to something from a friend at a truly authentic place in your city, and you now want to cook that food for others? How do you take the idea of a food cart and turn it into an actual restaurant or food truck? It’s not as easy as you may think.

In November, TV chef Andrew Zimmern had to apologize for comments he made about bringing his new Chinese concept, Lucky Cricket, to the Midwest in an interview with Fast Company. “I think I’m saving the souls of all the people from having to dine at these … restaurants masquerading as Chinese food that are in the Midwest,” he said. The implication was that Zimmern, a white American man, would single-handedly be able to bring authentic Chinese food to the region.

“Even as [high-profile cooks and food writers] draw on the wealth of material and food heritage that their neighbors possess, they must simultaneously engage with those communities in ways that respect the communication process as established by that culture, and they must provide opportunities for the communities to learn to metaphorically fish for themselves and participate directly in the booming food scene,” Michael W. Twitty, chef and culinary historian, wrote in a piece for Eater.

Making your own take on a dish that doesn’t originate from your own heritage can be done, and certainly doesn’t have to be difficult. What it does take, however, is passion, patience and the desire to know everything you can about whatever it is you plan to cook, according to Eldridge Williams, owner of the Delta in Chicago.

owner-EldridgeWilliams
Eldridge Williams, owner of The Delta

“Make sure you’re obsessed with your idea and what you’re trying to do,” Williams says. “Have a cohesive idea and stick to it, be true to it and represent it well.”

Williams, whose father worked in a tamale factory, grew up in Memphis eating Mississippi red hot tamales. He moved to Chicago and spent years working front-of-house jobs at various restaurants, gaining enough experience to eventually open his own place. Williams knew he wanted to focus on Southern cuisine and something from his roots, and when the idea of red hot tamales came to him, he knew he had his hook.

Red-Hot-Tamales
Red Hot tamales at The Delta

Eldridge visited the Mississippi Delta to do research and found a wealth of information from locals at a variety of tamale shacks. While many of the lifelong cooks wouldn’t necessarily share secret ingredients, he and his crew were able to discern enough of the ingredients to create something that became a recipe for their own red hot tamale street food: spicy beef brisket wrapped in cornmeal cush, then enveloped in corn husks and simmered in spicy red broth for hours. They’re served in bundles of three with Saltines, which is something every tamale seller in the Delta offers. He also offers a vegan version with spicy wild mushrooms. Now his version has created a following, but he wouldn’t have achieved that without heading south.

“Get first-hand experience of what you’re trying to replicate,” Eldridge says. “Talk to the locals and whatever time you spend in that city or country, live like a local. Get a sense of the food, but more of the people, environment and atmosphere.”

Indonesian Pork Jerky
Indonesian pork jerky at Proxi

Research by dining out

You don’t necessarily have to visit a place to create your own style of street food. Andrew Zimmerman, the Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-nominated chef/partner of Chicago’s Proxi, never had enough time or money to travel when he was a young chef coming up in New York and Chicago. He loved exploring small, independent restaurants of various cultures — Indian, Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese and more. Today, that food he loved back in the day shows up in various forms at Proxi. While he may not have visited those far-flung locales, he ate at enough authentic restaurants, researched by reading cookbooks and scouring the internet and sought out the best possible ingredients to create flavors he felt represented the dishes as best as possible.

“We try to find as much in terms of authentic or traditional ingredients we can,” Zimmerman says. “If I want to make lamb shank rogan josh, I seek out Kashmiri chiles instead of substituting others. Or finding nettle leaves for when we do miang kham, which is not always an easy task. But being too concerned with hyper-authenticity seems like a losing proposition to me. We’re not in Southeast Asia, India or Mexico. We’ll do the best food we can using those foods as a guideline to have it taste as good as possible.”

nunu_chicken yakitori_photo credit samantha chong
Chicken yakitori at nunu, photo by Samantha Chong

Cook what you love

Often when someone decides to open a restaurant inspired by any sort of street food it’s usually because they love to eat that food. This was the case when childhood friends Ben Puchowitz and Shawn Darragh opened nunu, a Japanese izakaya- and street food-inspired restaurant in Philadelphia. For this concept, unlike their first — Cheu Noodle Bar — the pair traveled to Japan to research, first hand, to discover yakitori, katsu and other popular dishes. They admit they didn’t know much about Asian cooking or cuisine when they first started, but one thing they did know was how much they love to eat that food and that was as good a place to start as any.

“I create Asian-influenced food out of love for Asian food,” says Puchowitz, who is executive chef of their restaurant group. “The way I create menus, it starts with the traditional as inspiration and then veers off. We like to bring some of our personality into the dishes so we’re not just doing an exact copy of what they’re doing in Asia. It’s not fun to copy. It’s more fun to come up with your own things.”

Piada_Summer Avocado Piada
Summer avocado piada at Piada Italian Street Food

Inspiration lurks around every corner

You never know where you’ll get inspired to open a restaurant, but sometimes it happens in the most unlikely places. During a trip to Northern Italy, Chris Doody, a former co-founder of the Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, gravitated toward the numerous kiosks selling piada, an ancient Italian flatbread filled with fresh ingredients like prosciutto, basil and olive oil and folded in half. An idea sparked and Doody wanted to introduce this portable food to American diners. Piada Italian Street Food opened its first store in Columbus, Ohio, and now has 41 restaurants across seven states. As the company grew, diners wanted more and the company added items like pastas, salads and grain bowls to the menu. Today, however, it’s veering back toward its roots and experimenting with more hand-held items, according to Matt Eisenacher, chief concept officer at Piada.

“When we opened, it was meant to bring rise to this idea of really fresh simple food,” Eisenacher says. “Now with the growth in fast casual and delivery, we’re testing ways to bring that street food experience back to our food.”

Piada added a porchetta sandwich, calamari and a piada stick, which is the piada dough filled with cheese and pepperoni and wrapped in foil, and is testing out a new arancini. Each item gets back to the original idea of portability. This returns to the original inspiration and the original story Doody wanted to bring to America.

“Street food has a story,” Eldridge says. “You need to find the story. You need something that’s still standing beyond the food and drink. What’s going to make you special? Understand what moves people and get to know that history, fall in love with it, become that.”

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