News / USA

Melting Pot Cooks Up New American Cuisine

Street vendors experiment with fusion food

Kimchi fried rice
Kimchi fried rice

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Audio
Deena Prichep

You can find street food carts In most major American cities, where vendors sell meals from mobile vehicles.

Many end up cooking the foods of their childhood - whether it's new immigrants selling their native cuisine or entrepreneurs dipping back into grandmother's recipes.

But throughout the United States, a new breed of food cart is emerging. These mobile restaurants sell fusion food, bringing together several different ethnic dishes and ingredients to create a new American cuisine - like a Korean taco.

“It’s wrapped in a corn tortilla, Mexican. We have a spicy pork, which is very Korean,” says Kamala Saxton, who owns Marination Mobile, a food truck in Seattle, Washington. “We have put our own homemade pickled jalapenos, which is Korean or Hawaiian. And so there are a number of different ethnicities in one serving of the spicy pork taco.”

The Korean taco might be a new taste for a lot of diners. But Saxton feels like it’s a natural combination, especially given where she comes from.

Korean tofu taco
Korean tofu taco

“I’m Korean, Hawaiian, Filipino and Spanish," she says. "And given that, you have someone in your family that knows how to cook one of those ethnic dishes.”

But fusion doesn’t just happen for vendors with Saxton’s diverse culinary background. Historian Jane Ziegelman, who writes about New York street food, says that even in places which don't have multi-ethnic families, street carts have always been a place where people come together and find out what their neighbors eat.

“You had Irish kids eating Jewish pickles. You had Italian immigrants eating Jewish potato pancakes," says Ziegelman. "You had all kinds of people drinking seltzer, which was, in fact a street food. So people were eating each others’ food all the time.”

This exchange fueled the evolution of the street food itself. According to Ziegelman, knishes, egg rolls and hot dogs all underwent the same American transformation.

Street food menu featuring Japanese hotdogs
Street food menu featuring Japanese hotdogs

“Foods brought over by immigrants grew in size," she says. "This is like something that happens to a lot of foods once they come to the United States. They get bigger and they get blander.”

They also get portable. Ziegelman notes that the hot dog moved from a plate to a bun and the bagel became a vehicle for an on-the-go meal of smoked salmon and cream cheese.

In Portland, Oregon, Megan Walhood fuses this American grab-and-go attitude with the food of her European family. She and her fiancée Jeremy Daniels own a truck called Viking Soul Food.

“The sort of foundation product we serve is lefse, this Norwegian potato flatbread, and I grew up eating that every year at Christmastime," says Walhood. "And then it was Jeremy who kind of had the idea to start using it like a tortilla or a crepe, and just stuffing it with all manner of different things.”

Viking Soul Food’s most popular lefse is the meatball wrap, a recipe which comes from Walhood’s grandmother. It’s topped with pickled cabbage and a sauce of melted Scandinavian cheese. This wrap variety would never be seen in Norway, but Daniels and Walhood believe it appeals to the tastes of people of all backgrounds.

Viking Soul Food's lefse wraps, made with Norwegian potato flatbread
Viking Soul Food's lefse wraps, made with Norwegian potato flatbread

“People see pork and beef meatballs," says  Daniels, "and then they see cheese sauce, and they don’t look anything further.”

Others agree that fusing the familiar with the exotic helps people approach cart food.

“There’s something very familiar to eating a taco," says Kamala Saxton of Marination Mobile. "If you’ve never had Korean food, or if you’ve never had Hawaiian food, fair bet that you have had a taco.”

As a historian, Ziegelman appreciates how food cart fusion has evolved. But for customers, it's how the food tastes that keeps them coming back for more.

“I have had a Korean taco. It’s really, really good," says Ziegelman. "It’s really interesting the way these foods, which never grew up together and have no particular reason to harmonize, harmonize in this really gorgeous way.”

And if you don’t fancy Korean tacos, you might want to give Marination Mobile's kimchi quesadilla a try.

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