When Asian And Latin Food Collide: Spicy, Tasty Or Confused? Asian-Americans and Latinos trace their roots half a world away from each other — literally. But their cultures, and especially the foods they love, have more in common than you might think.
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When Asian And Latin Food Collide: Spicy, Tasty Or Confused?

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When Asian And Latin Food Collide: Spicy, Tasty Or Confused?

When Asian And Latin Food Collide: Spicy, Tasty Or Confused?

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CELESTE HEADLEE: I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Daymon Patterson has made an art out of reviewing food from the front seat of his car. His unconventional approach has taken him from a YouTube sensation to host of a new series on the Travel Channel. We'll talk to him in just a few minutes. But first, we want to serve up something a little different. It's unlikely you will find this food at any takeout restaurant. Asia and Latin America are half a world away, quite literally, but the cultures and especially the food are colliding in some very new and interesting ways here in the U.S.

That fusion is the subject of this week's Smithsonian's Asian Latino Festival in Washington, D.C. And here to tell us more are two of our own foodies who are taking part in the festivities. Anupy Singla is writer and author most recently of "Vegan Indian Cooking," and Pati Jinich, author of the cookbook "Pati's Mexican Table" and host of the PBS show by the same name. She's also the official chef at the Mexican Cultural Institute. We welcome you both.

ANUPY SINGLA: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: Anupy, begin us here. You're moderating this panel called "Gourmet Intersections." What are the similarities between Latino cuisine and Indian cuisine? You'd think they'd be very, very different.

SINGLA: It sounds very curious when you think about it and you look at it on paper, but when you start delving a little bit deeper, you see lots of amazing overlaps between the two cultures. And what's fascinating to me is when you see food, especially in the U.S., it's usually one note, right? So we have Japanese food. We've got Chinese food. You've got Indian food. You have Mexican food.

But when you go to those countries and you take a look at the populations, if you go to, say, Goa, which was colonized by the Portuguese, and you see the influence of the Spanish and some of the Mexican cuisines in those regions. Like, everyone eats vindaloo curry. Do even know what it is? Vin is from wine. Aloo is from the Portuguese word for garlic, and so combine the two and you have a vindaloo. And so these sorts of overlaps are very common, but it's just something that we haven't really talked about much yet in this country.

HEADLEE: That is amazing. I mean, luckily, in India, the Brits took their lessons from the Indians, rather than the other way around.

SINGLA: That's right.


SINGLA: I'm going to be careful about that one.

HEADLEE: But you know, Pati, in the United States, we're kind of used to cuisines at least - you know, you'll go to a Mexican restaurant and they'll have burgers...


HEADLEE: On the menu. You'll go to a food truck and they've got a Korean barbecue taco. I mean, we're used to those kind of things. But was there also what Anupy is talking about, the sort of Asian influence in Mexico itself?

JINICH: Absolutely, and I think it just hasn't been categorized or discussed much. When you see here in the U.S., you see the Korean, Mexican...


JINICH: ...You know, the Korean-Mexican fusion. Everybody is like, wow, it's so interesting. Well, in Mexico, it turns out that the influence of Asian people into Mexico started since the 1560s. You know, after the Spanish conquered Mexico - 1521 - and since they arrived, they were looking for what they called the Spice Islands, and they found the Philippines in...

HEADLEE: Well, they certainly found spice.

JINICH: They found spice and they took chilies over there, but there was a trading route that lasted 250 years. And so in Mexico, we have Chinese cafes and Chinese coffee shops and Chinese restaurants galore, and the funny thing is, as you're saying, if you go into a Chinese restaurant, you will find enchiladas along some chop suey and you will find forks.

Chopsticks are optional, which is great for me 'cause I have never learned to use chopsticks. I'm always too hungry, Celeste. I do not have the patience.


JINICH: And you can have coffee if you'd rather not have tea. So, you know, it turns out the history is long, and you wouldn't have the spicy Sichuan or Hunan foods that you have in China if it weren't from the chilies that were taken in that route to the East.

HEADLEE: So, Anupy, did it go the other way around?

SINGLA: It does. It's very fascinating, as I was doing more research about this panel, as well. The migration in the States is fascinating from India. So back in the early 1900s to about 1920, we saw a wave of single Sikh Punjabi men coming to the - to California, basically, and they were settling there.

There were rules they could not bring their family members over. So what they started to do was they started to marry the Mexican women there because they were so like themselves in terms of culture. They could actually inherit property, and thus it made sense to marry...

HEADLEE: Oh, interesting.

SINGLA: The locals. And I found - it was interesting reference on the Internet, as well, a couple of people talking about their families' Indian-Mexican restaurants back then. One was called Rasul's El Ranchero, where they would have these dishes, including roti, which is our homemade...


SINGLA: Indian bread, quesadilla. So you would stuff a roti, which makes complete sense. I do it anyway, intuitively...

JINICH: Of course.

SINGLA: For my kids because that's an easy dinner. But they would stuff it with cheese and with refried beans and it would have curry as the dipping sauce...

HEADLEE: Instead of salsa.

SINGLA: On the side. Yeah.


JINICH: It is actually fascinating when you think about the things we love doing, you know, Asians and Mexicans. We love wrapping foods.


JINICH: Think about the taco. Think about the wraps, the Peking duck wraps.

HEADLEE: Uh-huh.

JINICH: We love dipping things...


JINICH: You know, sauces. We have the salsas. You guys have the dipping sauces. And many people...

HEADLEE: And they're usually spicy.

JINICH: I have many friends from India who tell me the Mexican moles are so much like the Indian curries.

SINGLA: Oh, yes. Yeah.

HEADLEE: Let's talk about what you brought with you, Pati...


HEADLEE: 'Cause you brought an example. I mean, what we're talking about now, all this history, while fascinating, is not delicious.

JINICH: Right.

HEADLEE: So let's talk about how this then becomes delicious.

JINICH: That is what I love the most about doing so much research...

HEADLEE: I'm going to taste it...

JINICH: ...About the food.

HEADLEE: ...While you're talking.

JINICH: Yes, please.

SINGLA: That's right.

JINICH: Is that you get to taste the history, right? So this is just a green bean stir fry, and it has the peanuts that we, in Mexico, call cacahuate. But also, the peanuts are cooked in peanut oil, so it adds that double, toasty, nutty layer...

SINGLA: And then it has a kick.

JINICH: And then it has chile de arbol.

SINGLA: There you go.

JINICH: It has that kick which you find in many Chinese restaurants. But cacahuates, in Mexico, we say they're probably from, you know, our country.

HEADLEE: You know, but for a lot - I mean, a lot of people have become sort of amateur gourmets, right...


HEADLEE: ...From watching the Food Channel...


HEADLEE: And fusion is a little bit of a dirty word. I mean, you're supposed to know French cooking, right, and you're supposed to master the art of French cooking. And then when you muck it up with someone else's traditions, do you worry that using the word fusion is a bad thing?

SINGLA: You know, as a former Bloomberg reporter, we would always say, you have to learn the four 'graph lead. You have to write the four 'graph lead really well. Once you know how to write four paragraphs and you know how the story is constructed, you can then start working outside the box. So I always say, learn to work inside the box. Travel to those countries, learn, you know - you have to learn true Indian cuisine...

HEADLEE: You have to learn the rules before you can break them.

SINGLA: ...The rules, and then start breaking them. Certain spices, when I taste them, I know someone else that does not understand my cuisine has made a chai because it's too much with the cloves, too much with the cardamom. They're trying a little too hard. It's about subtlety.

HEADLEE: But then, how do you approach some of the bad American habits where we melt cheese on top of everything or we throw ketchup on it? I mean, to some people, fusion means Americanizing something.

SINGLA: Well, you know, we'll go the other route. And I, until I was maybe 15 at a sleepover, did not realize you don't eat French toast with ketchup. My father is a typical Indian Punjabi guy who eats ketchup with anything that has eggs on it. I was so embarrassed at a friend's house when they used syrup, and I said, what's that for? I need ketchup. So it could go the other route, as well. So I have to just say, go with what you like. If that's your preference, go for it, but know what the rules are first.

HEADLEE: And is this type of cuisine, when you say fusion, Asian-Latino fusion, is that too highbrow for kids? I mean, are kids going to buy into eating...

JINICH: No, they love it. I mean, think about sushi. In Mexico, we are wild about sushi and you know how we serve it? We serve it with soy sauce and we put fresh squeezed lime juice and then we char chilies and onions and chop them and put them in that. Somebody will say, well, that's not the way it is. I mean, I think that's the beauty of the kitchen.

HEADLEE: Pati Jinich, you just heard from, author of the cookbook "Pati's Mexican Table." She also hosts a PBS show by the same name. She's also official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute, so she knows whereof she speaks. And Anupy Singla is a writer and author as well, most recently of "Vegan Indian Cooking." Both joined me here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Gracias. And...

JINICH: Thank you.

HEADLEE: ...How do I say - in Punjabi?

SINGLA: Thank you or shukria.


HEADLEE: Shukria.

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