Tacos Without Borders
Passports in hand, a few bold chefs are bringing tacos to Denmark, ramen to Italy, even barbecue to France.
Last summer, Rosio Sanchez opened Copenhagen's only taco stand, giving many Danes their very first taste of masa, habaneros and lime-sprinkled Oaxacan ants cooked on the plancha. Hija de Sanchez is a passion project for the former Noma pastry chef, who grew up in Chicago's Little Village, a Mexican-American enclave. So how are her new countrymen responding to a cuisine unlike anything they've ever experienced? "A lot of people don't know what a taco is, but they'll come up and say, ‘Give me whatever you're serving,'" Sanchez says. Consistently, her tacos sell out.
Sanchez, like other pioneering chefs, is part of a movement to popularize unfamiliar flavors around the globe. "All over the world, there's this incredible appetite to try something new," says Mark Rosati, the culinary director of Shake Shack. Rosati oversees the burger empire's international expansion, traveling nonstop and eating everywhere to get a handle on local tastes. "Travel and social media are big factors," he says, explaining the growing enthusiasm abroad for novel cuisines. "If you're on Instagram or Twitter, you're seeing people around the world sit down for dinner every night, whether it's to a stew in Brazil or ramen in Tokyo. It makes us all that much more curious."
Another witness to this change is the inexhaustible writer Bonjwing Lee of The Ulterior Epicure blog. In 2015 ("a thin year for me"), he ate 1,000 dishes at more than 200 places around the world. Lee says he's seen more openness to new flavors: "In past generations there was this—to call it xenophobia might be too extreme—apprehension to venture into 'the other.' That's broken down a lot in the last few decades in the US, and now internationally."
Still, it can come as a surprise when a completely incongruous cuisine takes off. "All my Danish friends are fascinated by tacos. Why is that?" Lee wonders. "Is it because of the Rosio Sanchez factor? That's pretty phenomenal if one woman could light an entire city on fire with tacos."
Sanchez, however, isn't the only taco believer in Scandinavia; her mentor, the superstar Danish chef René Redzepi, is also a fanatic, even penning the foreword to a 2015 book called Tacopedia. He writes about a revelatory taco experience: "The first thing I noticed was that the tortillas had a yellow hue to them that was so different from the white and dense variety….It was sweet and smoky, with a gentle chew to it, like a good sourdough bread."
When Sanchez launched her taco stand, she knew that a high-quality tortilla was essential. Even though her customers rarely even recognize it—"They often think it's a pancake"—she was determined to nail that toothsome texture. After unsuccessful experiments with European corn (the higher water content of Spanish corn, for example, made for mush), she decided to import corn from Oaxaca, grind it in Copenhagen and cut costs in other ways that won't compromise flavor. "Nobody wants to buy a $20 taco," she explains. She figured out how to make queso fresco from Danish milk, for example, but one ingredient has eluded her: tomatillos. The locally grown kind is far too sweet.
Parisian pit master Thomas Abramowicz confronted his own sourcing obstacle when he opened The Beast, France's first traditional Texas barbecue joint, in 2014. The problem was that European beef is much leaner than American. Cows are butchered differently in France, so standard American cuts, such as brisket, aren't available. Abramowicz now orders custom cuts from a butcher who imports US beef. He has the fervor of a convert, which, of course, is exactly what he is.
A Frenchman, Abramowicz was living in New York and working in spirits marketing for LVMH when he accompanied his roommate on a trip home to Blanco, Texas, and had a transformative meal. "The feeling I had when I first discovered barbecue was so intense that I felt that people in Paris should have it, too," he says. "It was a full experience—the smell, the texture, the meat flavors, the spice, the communal table." So he quit his job, drove to Texas and began apprenticing with third-generation pit master Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue. After several months, he figured it was time to bring barbecue home, but how? As far as he knew, Jamie Oliver was the only European chef to have attempted to import a Texas pit smoker when he opened Barbecoa in London. Nevertheless, he moved forward, shipping a 4,200-pound behemoth he dubbed "The Beast" across the ocean. The smoker took a long time to clear customs, and it wasn't cheap, but when it finally arrived in France, he was so happy to see it he named his restaurant for it.
The Beast has been a hit from the start, attracting praise both from Parisians and Americans in Paris, like expat blogger David Lebovitz. In his rave review, Lebovitz astutely notes one aspect of Texas barbecue culture that does not translate: The French pick up a fork and knife when presented with a rack of ribs. Abramowicz accepts this culture gap, even providing custom Opinel knives. Still, he admits, he delights most in seeing his countrymen put down their cutlery and lick their fingers.
Luca Catalfamo, who opened Milan's first ramen shop, Casa Ramen, aims for a similar eschewal of etiquette. "Do you know this noise?" he asks, demonstrating the loud slurp that accompanies a properly consumed bowl of ramen in Japan and then apologizing profusely for doing so. "It's really, really difficult for Italian people to make this noise. It's very impolite, but it's traditional, and it's important for tasting the dish." In five or six years, he predicts, Italians might feel comfortable slurping. After all, he argues, New Yorkers now slurp. For the time being, he's concentrating on convincing diners not to twirl their noodles, making small nests in their soup spoon as they would spaghetti.
Catalfamo first encountered ramen at Ippudo, in New York City. "Everything I needed in that moment was in that bowl," he now says, reverently. He followed his stomach to Japan, where he obsessively studied the craft, eating upward of five versions a day. He opened his 20-seat noodle shop in 2013; last year, he expanded to a second outpost in Japan's Shinyokohama ramen museum, where he is the only non-Japanese chef. The main difference between his restaurants in Italy and Japan, he says, is the turn time. "What's normal in Italy is to call and make a reservation and then arrive half an hour late and stay three hours. In Japan they wait two hours for their ramen and, if they're slow, eat for 15 minutes," he says. But there's one cultural tweak that plays well in both countries, which is the option to have the ramen cooked al dente. He says Japanese customers are especially enthusiastic about this variation. So it all comes full circle: An Italian chef making Japanese food is now changing the food culture in Japan. Therein lies the fun.
What's even more fun is what we know will happen next. Because, as we've seen time and again, from Peru's Chinese-inflected Chifa to American Tex-Mex, when regionally specific food is cooked far from home, the necessary adjustments lead to delicious adaptations, which become even more intriguing as ideas boomerang from their countries of origin. When Catalfamo began cooking his tonkotsu ramen in Japan, he gazed down at the red pepper noodles, green spinach and white bean sprouts in his signature doppio peperoncino and realized he was looking at the Italian flag. One Christmas, Thomas Abramowicz invited American expat culinary instructor Kate Hill to cook a traditional French cassoulet in his smoker while he turned out a Texan version.
And Rosio Sanchez in Copenhagen recently solved the problem of sourcing tomatillos with a Scandinavian substitution: green gooseberries. She adds tomatoes to make a salsa verde that's so sharp, it doesn't need lime juice. This is an idea all her own and one only a Mexican-American-Danish chef, of which she might be the first, would be likely to discover. Now there's a new cuisine entirely of her invention. I can't be the only one eager to try it.