When it comes to fusion food, you may think of novelty mash-ups such as Korean tacos served at food trucks or Southwestern egg rolls common at American chain restaurants. Or it could be the fare that chefs such as Wolfgang Puck prepare to demonstrate their well-traveled palates to critics and colleagues.
Or it could be dinner with the Reshamwalas.
In their Cary home near Bond Lake, Majid, a polymer chemist, and his wife, Alice, a cardiac nurse, combine their cultures at the table.
On a rainy Monday night, Majid, who is three-quarters Indian and one-quarter Lebanese, swings open his front door and greets me on the front porch as if we are old friends. Inside, Alice—her mother is from Japan; her father is German-American—is using chopsticks to poke the takoyaki machine. A small electric round pan, it is equipped with egg-shaped slots meant for making balls of traditional fried octopus popular at fairs in Japan. But Alice is using the takoyaki to sculpt the appetizers: shrimp and baby clam and scallion balls infused with curry spice.
The traditional soy sauce dip is replaced with cool green chutney made of cilantro, hot chilis, lemon and peanuts that one usually finds with samosas. The yaki, which means fried, is lightly charred on the outside with a doughy interior that dissolves quickly, leaving a fresh taste of shrimp that alerts the nostrils.
As they prepare Monday's meal, Alice and Majid talk about the difficulties of blending their kitchen. "Japanese and Indian foods are at opposite ends of the spectrum," Alice says. "You can fuse techniques together, but you can't really fuse Japanese with Indian food."
Compared with Indian cuisine, Japanese food is bland. That meant the eldest of the couple's three children, Saleem, now 31, grew up eating lots of Japanese snacks and Indian meals.
"If you want to eat the foods you like and you happen to have ingredients from the wrong country, you have to make fusion or you can't eat what you want," says Saleem, who came from Durham for dinner.
"The biggest fight was rice," Alice says. "No one would ever believe rice would be a fight, but it is. It got to the point where whoever got home first got to cook the rice."
Japanese rice is sticky and meant to be eaten with chopsticks. Indian rice is long grain, perfect for grabbing with bare hands. Eating Japanese rice with your hands results in "rice gloves," Saleem says, "and eating Indian rice with chopsticks means eating one grain at a time."
While we savor our appetizers, Majid prepares a turkey that has marinated in a pan of yogurt and lemon juice. Seeking an alternative to dry, tasteless bird, five Thanksgivings ago Majid began making it tandoori-style. (Breaking with turkey tradition was easy. Alice's mom already had made sushi for an appetizer.)
For this meal, Majid has coated the gobbler with his own blend of ground spices—cinnamon, clove, cardamom and garam masala—and soaked it in the yogurt and lemon juice. He lowers it carefully into an outdoor convection oven, a stand-in for the traditional clay oven, but one that cooks oil-free so as not to muddle the marinade.
On this soggy evening, we are drawn to the turkey's heat and smell, which warm us as it cooks in the garage.
The Reshamwalas share stories as novel as the food. Saleem talks about his time teaching English in Japan and eating octopus tentacles, which were still moving as they entered his mouth. Majid counters with a tale about consuming minnows that were still swimming in soy sauce.
Alice's childhood pantry near Fort Dix, N.J., contained black pepper, salt, ginger, garlic and soy. Her family ate mostly American food because Asian markets weren't popular yet. But today her counters are topped with jars of coriander and turmeric. Fresh curry leaf grows in the kitchen where mung beans sprout. And she's learned that cinnamon is not only a sweet spice but a hot one as well.
Majid grew up in Bhindi Bazaar, which translates to Okra Market, the first-born of 13 children who all ate off one large plate of rice topped with curry, which was eaten by hand. "We loved to share, eating on one plate," he says. "Once in awhile if mom wasn't around there would be a food fight."
He was fascinated by watching his grandmother cook. She would grind beef, pickle it, add turmeric powder and place it on the roof to dry for two weeks before jarring it. If it rained, she would make curry.
The Reshamwalas don't own a restaurant, although friends have encouraged them, but they do have repeat diners. Growing up, Saleem had friends who habitually knocked on the door around dinnertime, asking if he could come play. It was really just a ruse to get an invitation to the table, and it worked.
The turkey is done: Dipped in mango pickle, which is mango steeped in oil, it has a crispy skin with a yellow turmeric tinge, and teems with Indian aromatics and delectable drippings. The turkey is coupled with raita and vibrant sweet potatoes with mustard seeds, curry leaves, onion and long beans.
Majid combines his love of adventure with his knowledge of chemistry to transform ordinary leftovers into exotic dishes. For instance, leftover chicken curry is placed inside a tortilla, topped with bean sauce and cheese and made into a chicken curry enchilada. Other Indian dishes are thrown into a wok with Chinese cabbage and scallions for a novel stir-fry.
Curried vegetables and keema, a ground beef dish, can be added to soba for an Indian-Japanese spaghetti. Not all of the concoctions work as planned, but often the Reshamwalas stumble upon new dishes.
Majid discovered it's easier to make samosas using egg roll wrappers. Now he makes hundreds of them for a neighborhood party each year. Alice learned that tofu, if drained and pressed or frozen, can mimic paneer, an Indian curd cheese.
Other times Majid simply adds Indian spice to wake up a traditional meal. Linguini with white clam sauce is always made with red chilis; "various hot things and clam sauce," Saleem calls it.
It's time for dessert: kulfi, Indian ice cream made of whipped cream, half and half, condensed milk, saffron, pistachios and almonds—and solidified using, of all things, Pepperidge Farm bread.
The kulfi is topped with falooda, a Middle Eastern dessert usually made of rose water extract, flower strings and tukmaria, a type of basil that absorbs water and takes on a tadpole shape. But when the Reshamwalas were perfecting their recipe years ago, flower strings weren't in American grocery stores. So the couple experimented with wheat and rice noodles before finding the right texture using chilled potato pasta.
The kulfi is frozen in paper cups, then cut into discs placed in the bottom of the bowl. It's juxtaposed with the sweet slurp of pink noodles and small explosions as the tukmaria is crunched.
Completed with cardamom tea, it's a fitting ending to a meal you can't have anywhere else.
"Whenever food crosses a border, it always becomes different," Alice says.