Bay Area melting pot comprised of exotic tastes

The sky was Maya blue with streaks of white. People were milling about, holding hands, peering at menu boards, pushing strollers and wheelchairs and sharing bites of culture. I was at the La Cocina Street Food Festival on a gorgeous Sunday morning, where the food stalls lined up colorfully in rows and columns. The delicious scent of spices swirled up and out, blending, mixing, melting.

Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina, which hosts the street festival yearly, explained his company’s philosophy by calling it an incubator for food entrepreneurship. “We found that women were writing business plans but not launching,” Zigas said.

So, La Cocina lowered the cost of entry to help food entrepreneurs transition from informal business settings to more formal ones — from street food carts to brick and mortar.

“We have had 104 businesses move through the incubator program since 2005, with 34 graduates (reaching economic or operational self-sufficiency),” Zigas said. “Ninety-three percent are women, 70 percent are immigrants, 85 percent are people of color and 100 percent begin as low-income or very low-income.”

I walked around the festival sampling food and listening to the stories behind the food. Here’s a snapshot of what stayed with me …

Alma Rodriguez, originally from Mexico City, said her food business, Mixiote, is really to honor her family history and antecedents: her grandma, her mom and the people who came before her. “And now I get to innovate their recipes here in San Francisco,” she added.

In Mexico, her grandmother would make mixiote traditionally, by wrapping it in agave leaves and burying it underground until it cooked.

In San Francisco, with the convenience of a conventional oven, Rodriguez fills her mixiote with all kinds of proteins, then wraps it with banana and avocado leaves and adds a pumpkin seed green salsa on top.

“The food cooks in its own juices without any oils,” she clarified.

Rodriguez doesn’t believe there are any restaurants in San Francisco serving mixiote. Not surprising, she said, since this is a dish that is traditionally presented at big parties, weddings and quinceaneras.

Heena Patel, owner of Rasoi, presents servings of French fries topped with chicken tikka masala. (Jaya Padmanabhan/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Heena Patel, owner of Rasoi, offered up a plate of French fries dressed in chicken tikka masala to sample as she explained that she wants to cook foods that she grew up with in Mumbai, India. But she also likes to experiment.

“The flavors are authentic, but the food that I present is a showcase of Bay Area produce,” she said.

Patel is not afraid to take risks, but said she often finds her innovations challenging to present.

“I’d like to make food other than tikka masala,” she admitted.

One item that she deemed a success is blue cheese naan, which she serves as an appetizer at her Indian tapas-style Rasoi.

Reem Assil, of Palestinian and Syrian origin, smiled delightfully when I asked her what brought her to this point in her life. “A dream, I’m living on a dream,” she exclaimed.

Assil has a restaurant called Reem’s, an Arabic street food bakery, in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, and a presence in four farmers markets in San Francisco and Oakland. As we talked, Arabic music played in the background.

Assil was born and raised in Boston and grew up eating Arabic food. As she got older, she longed to connect with her heritage and culture. So, she took a trip to the Middle East in 2010 and came back filled with her discoveries and a determination to launch a food service enterprise.

Assil’s Pali Cali dish represents the mix of where she is and where she came from.

“It’s a very traditional Palestinian dish with chicken and caramelized onions,” she said, “but we add arugula and you can add avocado and fresh cherry tomatoes.”

Assil considers her business Arab street food made with California love. “It embodies my whole personality and it’s a culmination of who I am,” she said.

Aileen Suzara, owner of Sariwa Kitchen, plated and served veggie ukoys — Filipino vegetable fritters made with leeks, carrots, red onions, pickles and achara — at her stall as she talked about the fascinating influences of food and culture that is part of her American story.

“I’ve always loved food. I started cooking when I was 8,” she said. “My family migrated from the Philippines, and I grew up with some aspects of the culture that they passed on but other pieces that I was always hungry for as a kid.”

As a child, Suzara found her mother’s cookbook that she’d migrated with and began asking questions about ingredients. She cooked for her family often while she was growing up in eastern Washington, since both her parents worked long hours, but there were challenges. “Trying to find sweet sticky rice in the Mojave Desert in the early ’90s was a totally different story than today,” she recalled.

Suzara was intrigued by the connection of food cultures to their underlying ecological history. “I wanted to understand why there are very few legumes in Filipino food compared to South Asian food,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with ecology, but I’m also fascinated to find food connections between our own ancient cultures starting way back.”

These women’s stories are part of the greater San Francisco narrative of blending tradition, innovation, perseverance and persistence. Suzara believes the place you live has a definite bearing on the foods you prepare. It’s all about community.

“I think food needs to be in service to community,” she said, “and to me, that’s the essence of being in the Bay Area.”

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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