Throughout the Northwest, a new breed of food cart is emerging. These mobile restaurants sell fusion food, bringing together various ethnic dishes and ingredients to create a new American cuisine. This week, food journalist Deena Prichep brings us stories from food carts around the Northwest. And her series starts with a Korean taco.
"It's wrapped in a corn tortilla--Mexican, taco truck. We have a spicy pork, which is very Korean," says Kamala Saxton owner of Marination Mobile, a food truck in Seattle.
"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.
"It’s truly the mixed plate in Hawaii," Saxton explains. "For instance, I'm Korean, Hawaiian, Filipino and Spanish. 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.
Jane Ziegelman is a historian who writes about New York street food. She says that even in places that didn't have Hawaii's multi-ethnic families, street carts were still a place where you could come together, and find out what other people ate.
"You had Irish kids eating Jewish pickles. You had Italian immigrants eating Jewish potato pancakes. You had all kinds of people drinking seltzer, which was, in fact a street food," Ziegelman says.
"So people were eating each others' food all the time," she added.
And this exchange affected the street food itself. Ziegelman says knishes, egg rolls and hot dogs all underwent the same American transformation.
"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," she said.
And they also get portable. Ziegelman says that the hot dog moved from a plate to a bun, and the bagel became a vehicle for an on-the-go meal of lox and cream cheese.
In Portland, 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," Walhood says. "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 wrap is stuffed with meatballs -— the recipe comes from Walhood’s grandma. It's topped with pickled cabbage and a sauce of melted Scandinavian cheese.
Now, this wrap format would never be seen in Norway. But Daniels and Walhood say that it's pretty approachable, no matter what your background.
"Because it's meatballs with a melty cheese sauce over the top," Daniels quips.
"It's like a cheese gravy," adds Walhood.
Daniels continues, "Yeah, people see pork and beef meatballs, and then they see cheese sauce, and they don’t look anything further."
"It’s like everything shuts down at that point," says Walhood. "They can't look at anything else."
Kamala Saxton of Marination Mobile agrees that fusing the familiar with the exotic helps people approach cart food.
"There's something very familiar to eating a taco," Saxton says. "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, Jane Ziegelman appreciates how food cart fusion has evolved. But history aside -— for food to catch on, it's got to be tasty.
"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, Marination Mobile also serves a kimchi quesadilla.
Gjetost Cheese Sauce
-- Megan Walhood and Jeremy Daniels, Viking Soul Food
1/2 stick butter (4 Tbsp)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup chicken stock (or vegetable stock, for a vegetarian version)
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
4 ounces gjetost (Scandinavian whey cheese), grated or cubed
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 cup madeira
Melt he butter in a pot over a medium heat, and whisk in the flour to create a smooth paste (or roux). Allow to bubble, stirring gently, for a few minutes until it develops a toasted, nutty smell.
Whisk in the stock, milk and cream. Turn heat down to low-medium and allow to bubble gently for 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes to avoid burning on the bottom of the pan.
Add gjetost, nutmeg and madiera. Continue to simmer and stir for a few more minutes, until the gjetost has meltedfully incorporated itself into the mixture.
When it is smooth, rich and velvety, remove from heat.
Walhood & Daniels serve this with their meatball lefse, but also recommend it as a basic cheese sauce to put a Scandinavian spin on anything you want: nachos, hot dogs, mac & cheese, biscuits and gravy, etc.