Culinary Curiosity

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This article originally appeared in The Culture Issue of APEX Experience.

As a little boy, I tried digging in my backyard until I got to China, because I wanted to taste the roast duck, pork and marinated squid I’d seen hanging in the windows of Chinese restaurants downtown. Even back then, my omnivorous curiosity was unsated and concerned with authenticity as much as taste. As an adult, some of the most interesting Vietnamese and Chinese cuisine I’ve tasted has been in New Orleans and Amsterdam. Despite regional differences in ingredients and the influence of local culinary traditions, it was as authentic and delicious as the street fare of Hanoi and Hong Kong.

With the continual evolution of air travel and global populations migrating to new outposts, the global culinary dialogue will increase and create new epicenters of traditional cuisine and unlikely regional combinations. Global diasporas have cross-pollinated culinary cultures to create surprising havens for displaced regional cuisines in Washington, DC, New Orleans and Montreal, creating a global culinary dialogue within North America easily accessible to travelers.

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BIG EASY PHO
Vietnamese immigrants began arriving in New Orleans in the 1970s to escape the ongoing war and political oppression of their home country. As Vietnam was formerly colonized by the French, there are shared traditions between Vietnamese and Cajun cuisine that one may notice while dining in the Big Easy. The traditional shrimp po’boy, one of the most recognizable street foods in New Orleans, is served on the same French buns as Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches at restaurants like Pho Tau Bay or Dong Phuong.

Pho Tau Bay was housed in a nondescript strip mall in the West Bank neighborhood that looks like a concrete bunker, but has recently moved to the Bio-District of New Orleans. I was informed by a local that culinary pilgrims drive in from out of state to sample its beef pho soup, which has a clean beef broth, rare, thinly sliced brisket and fresh Vietnamese herbs like Thai basil that make it both hearty and floral. Local celebrity chef and culinary god Emeril Lagasse has also given the restaurant his approval in Food & Wine magazine, though he recommends the chicken noodle pho.

A remnant of New Orleans’ mid-century Chinatown, yaka mein soup is a testament to the culinary influence of Chinese immigrants on the local African-American population. In the mid-19th century, Chinese workers came to New Orleans to work on the railroad and settled in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Yaka mein is essentially beef broth with chopped meat, noodles, soy sauce, Creole seasonings, Tabasco and Chinese hot sauce. It’s certainly not authentic to anywhere but New Orleans, but the combination of Asian and local spice blends results in a wholly original flavor, as endorsed by the chef Linda Green (also known as “the Yakamein Lady,” who caters many events around town with her take on the soup). Both the Cajun and Asian seasonings create a memorable umami flavor that makes the soup addictive and, by some accounts, medicinal, as it’s also known as “Old Sober” and popular as a hangover cure during the city’s boozy festivals.

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DORO WAT IN THE CAPITAL
A two-hour flight north of New Orleans brings you to the Ethiopian cuisine of Washington, DC. Since the influx of Ethiopian immigrants in the early 1990s, the Victorian-era buildings around Washington, DC’s U Street and Shaw neighborhood contain North America’s largest concentrations of Ethiopian restaurants. Demographically, Washington has the second-largest Ethiopian population in the world, as civil unrest and changes in immigration laws allowed an influx of asylum-seekers to the capital.

Restaurants such as Meskerem offer traditional versions of Ethiopian cuisine based in the communal eating tradition, serving its meals on large circular platters with injera, traditional Ethiopian bread, functioning as both starch and utensil for the meal. While the main floor of Meskerem looks like a typical restaurant, the upstairs dining room offers lowered tables and stools to enhance the communal aspect of the meal, usually consisting of platters of various meats (chicken, beef, lamb) and vegetables.

Etete Restaurant serves a memorable version of doro wat, a traditional Ethiopian-stewed chicken with eggs, onions and berbere seasoning, which is a mix of chili, coriander, ginger, fenugreek and cardamom, to start; it’s a combination of spices too long to list and distinct to this classic Ethiopian dish. I highly recommend it for lovers of spice, as berbere literally means “spicy” in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. DC Metro Food Tours offers a guided journey through the densely concentrated Ethiopian eateries in the Shaw neighborhood, a starting point for exploring the unique culinary traditions of East Africa in Washington.

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SHAWARMA DANS LA BELLE VILLE
After Vietnamese pho in New Orleans and doro wat in Washington, a 90-minute flight north of the American capital will bring you to Montreal, unlikely haven of Lebanese cuisine. As French is one of the languages spoken in Lebanon, Montreal is one of the epicenters for the Lebanese diaspora. The city’s Lebanese community has created stiff competition for Middle Eastern food in the city, the purveyors of which can be found on most street corners and open at all hours. To thousands of university students, the epitome of quick and cheap shawarma, chicken shish taouk and kibbeh (a mini-football-shaped croquette made from onions, bulgur wheat and ground beef) are found at Boustan, the perfect haunt given its late hours and club district location. The son of Boustan’s original owner, a veteran of the New York City culinary scene, has opened Dahlia’s Bistro down the street, which serves surprisingly fresh versions of these same staples – I can’t think of many fast-food restaurants that make their own mayonnaise.

For a more upscale version of authentic Lebanese cuisine, I’ll defer to Celine Dion’s culinary wisdom and recommend Restaurant Daou, which serves traditional Lebanese food amid pictures of the Canadian chanteuse on the restaurant’s walls. For a higher-end version of the aforementioned kibbeh in particular, try Restaurant Daou’s kibbeh nayeh, a lamb tartare minced to a fine consistency and mixed with crunchy ground bulgur wheat, a highly original take on the traditional tartare and served with mint, crunchy onions and pita. The filet mignon shish kabob gives the fine-dining treatment to a staple of Lebanese street food. Finish with a piece of textbook baklava, flaky and aromatic with fresh pistachio.

LOCAL GOES GLOBAL
Outside North America, there is memorable Chinese duck in Amsterdam’s New King restaurant, foie gras wontons in Hong Kong’s Parisian-inflected Le Dôme de Cristal and other delightful surprises for the curious omnivore who travels. And this cultural and culinary diaspora is not limited to the ground. On British Airways flights from the UK to India, passengers are offered local Indian cuisine options in addition to the airline’s traditional fare. Passengers flying with Qatar can choose between chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s renowned Japanese dishes, chef Ramzi Choueiri’s Lebanese cuisine, chef Vineet Bhatia’s pan-Indian options and head chef Tom Aiken’s British and French fusion dishes – making traveling anywhere a truly international affair.