Far from his native land, a father looked at his hungry child, took a deep breath and plundered his kitchen, seeking to approximate tastes from home with foreign ingredients. What resulted was something entirely different, with a familiar lineage but a new spin.
OK, so the father's name is Dwayne Chandler, and the old country is, erm, Detroit, Mich. Chandler, chef and owner of the Queen City food truck Lilly Macks, is known for incorporating unusual and surprising flavors, even in such bedrock dishes as roasted chicken and lasagna, in the culinary tradition known as fusion.
Food is one of those funny cultural foundations. Like the Seder plate, food can tell a people's history, or like greens and black eyed peas on New Year's Day, where they hope to go. Fusion cuisine in particular is most often born of transplants — people who've had to pick up and leave one part of the world to put down roots in another. The recipes they bring along serve as cultural shorthand, touchstones, worldviews, all of which change and are changed by their new homes.
Chandler grew up in Detroit's gastronomic melting pot, surrounded by cuisines from the American South, Lebanon, Mexico, China and Poland. Hundreds of Greek-owned Coney Islands dot the corners, and massive open-air markets make experimenting with spices easy and convenient. It's not quite as easy here in the Queen City, but it's getting better. "Charlotte's becoming more metropolitan, and I see the food culture growing rapidly," he says, "but it still has a ways to go."
Chandler says he developed his own fusion style simply by being a friendly guy. "I talk to people," he says, "from the Middle East to Latinos to Bosnians. It's how you learn little tips and tweaks on improving your cooking, from rinsing rice three times to get rid of starch to brightening your greens with ginger."
Another benefit, in addition to shaking up your taste buds, is that fusion's natural bent towards substitution allows dishes to be made healthier. Chandler explains that one of his tenets is to use fresh ingredients and herbs whenever possible. He cooks with peppers, onions and natural herbs from his backyard, a policy that's "good for the body and has a whole lot of flavor. A lot of people don't know how to make the move from unhealthy to healthy. But changing how you make your greens can spark you into a whole new way of life."
In addition to the aforementioned roasted chicken, Chandler's Lilly Macks truck has seen big hits with his signature Key lime barbecue, a sweet-tart barbecue that's as far from Carolina's vinegary staple as the moon. Chandler can be found volunteering at the kitchen of the United House of Prayer on Mint Street, in Uptown, or manning the food truck with his daughter Ivy on festival weekends like CIAA. If you're lucky enough to catch Lilly Macks around South End, don't hesitate to take a taste.
Other places to try fusion around town include Fu Lin, located on the east side at 5301 Independence Blvd., and Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar. Fu Lin is known for Indo-Chinese dishes, so its dishes have a spicier element than traditional Chinese food. Owner Francis Lin, whose parents moved from China to run a restaurant in Calcutta, India, grew up on such fare. Fu Lin serves no pork and offers halal meat, ideal for Islamic customers. The restaurant is also loved for its numerous vegetarian options, including Manchurian pakora, a dumpling-like delicacy. It starts off with balls of shredded vegetables coated in chickpea flour, which are fried light and crispy then drizzled in a spicy sauce and served with lime. The favorite has customers from every background coming back for more.
Cowfish, at 4310 Sharon Road in SouthPark, is a trendier take on fusion; its East/West clash of surf and turf is by its very nature an anomaly. The eatery, which serves burgers, sushi and something called "burgushi," has an extensive menu and innovative dishes. The hour-plus wait on weekends is a testament to its popularity in town.
If you're up for trying fusion at home, an easy rule of thumb is to experiment with sweet/savory flavors. Raisins and bacon, cumin and apricot, and wasabi and maple are all complex but approachable flavor combinations that can wake up your dishes. However you choose to try fusion, whether from a truck, a restaurant or in your own kitchen, be fearless, and allow your taste buds to take you where your feet cannot.