When we go out to eat, we want something unusual -- something we can't make at home. Highly flavorful, intriguing ethnic foods are often just what our palates crave. These foods stimulate our senses and excite our taste buds. Spice, heat and flavor are essential elements of ethnic cuisine -- elements that are a contrast to blander American fare.
Ethnic eating establishments have blossomed as diners have become increasingly sophisticated about international foods. And if you want to travel without having to step foot outside your city or town, ethnic restaurants offer the multi-sensory experiences of foreign cultures, including authentic food, music and d & eacute;cor.
Here in the Inland Northwest, we are blessed with a diversity of ethnic restaurants. But it wasn't always so. Oh, you could find a few Italian, Chinese and Mexican restaurants scattered among the myriad American restaurants in the '60s and '70s. But Expo '74 changed all that. It brought the world to our doorstep. The World's Fair, held in Riverfront Park from May 4-November 3, 1974, set a tempting table of global cuisine.
"Since many of the nations participating in the fair are on the Pacific Rim, Oriental delicacies will abound," stated a release from the News Bureau of Expo '74. Chicken adobo, lumpia (egg roll) and camaron rebosado (jumbo shrimp stuffed with pork and beef) were featured Philippine delicacies. "The Japanese, one of the largest exhibitors at Expo '74, are well represented in the gastronomic competition, too," the release continued. They presented ginza pork and chicken, tempura, saimin noodles and teriyaki chicken.
"That was some of the best tempura I've ever tasted," remembers Nancy Compau, a historian at the downtown Spokane Public Library.
Fairgoers could also sample roghan josh (spiced lamb), mahanaja (chicken curry), keema (spiced beef), jhinga (seasoned prawns) and tandoori chicken at the India House. The Soviet pavilion offered visitors Russian and Ukrainian dishes, from the well-known beef stroganov and chicken Kiev to exotic lamb kabobs and fried sturgeon. Chinese cuisine was well represented, with egg rolls, chow mein, fried rice and sweet and sour ribs. The Chinese snack bar was reputed to have "authentic boiled or broiled meat dumplings as mouth-watering as any served in Hong Kong," according to Larry Young of the Spokesman-Review.
"Expo '74 gave a new dimension to Spokane's dining-out scene. And the improvement seems destined to remain," Young wrote in the daily newspaper the day the fair closed. "Exposure to a wide variety of international cuisine created a new group of sophisticated diners."
Some of the upscale ethnic restaurants that opened in downtown Spokane during the fair stayed to satisfy the demands for exotic fine dining. The popular Gasthaus zur Krone served gourmet German dishes at its chalet on West Pacific to the accompaniment of an oom-pah band. A first-class Italian restaurant on Spokane Falls Blvd., Pupo's Sicilian Restaurant, offered some of the best scampi and canno cannelloni around. In 1977, the Suki Yaki Inn on North Bernard was known as Spokane's most exotic ethnic restaurant. Diners were treated to Japanese hospitality and service while they sat on the floor.
The Suki Yaki Inn may be the only eatery that survived from Expo '74 to the present, but many more ethnic restaurants have since sprouted up to satisfy diners' longing for dishes that are out of the ordinary.
"Spokane diners are fortunate to have some very good choices of ethnic restaurants that use quality ingredients and creative preparations," says Donna Tikker, director of the Spokane Chapter of the Washington Restaurant Association. "Nearly 20 percent of our restaurants now are ethnic Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Mexican, Italian, German, Vietnamese, Greek and Middle Eastern, and are very good at what they do."
Some of the local owners and chefs who offer ethnic dining have brought their native cultures to our region. Here we open the kitchen door, so to speak, and give you the stories behind the ethnic food of the Inland Northwest.
Mediterranean Cuisine with a Post Falls Flair -- Raci Erdem, owner and chef of the White House Grill in Post Falls, was born in Istanbul, Turkey. This large city on the southwest shores of the Black Sea has a history of producing chefs who spent their entire careers perfecting select dishes for Turkey's sultans. With such a tradition in his native country, it's no wonder that Erdem's Mediterranean fare is popular with Inland Northwesterners.
"I've been in the restaurant business on and off for a long time," Erdem says. "In Turkey, it was a cultural thing, with family cooking. I have a good background in cooking, being self-taught and getting comments and feedback from my family. Then I went to New York and did everything in the restaurant business."
Erdem came to the Inland Northwest with his new bride, whom he met in New York City. "She was going to school in New York but she wanted to come back to Spokane where her family was," he reveals.
But living in Spokane was not easy, especially when Erdem didn't speak English well. "It was hard to adjust to Spokane because I had been living in large, cosmopolitan cities -- New York and Istanbul," he says. "But now you would have to pay me millions of dollars or offer me a cooking show in Hawaii, otherwise I would never go anywhere else. I'm in love with the Inland Northwest -- the four seasons, the lake, the quality of life," he proclaims.
Erdem worked as a server in several area restaurants before opening the White House Grill in November 1996. "We were fortunate to find this little place in Post Falls," he says. "We started small, we expanded and now we're moving one block up to a larger restaurant." The new White House Grill, slated to open late next month, will have a bar as well as seating for 120, up from 50 at the current restaurant.
"I call my food Mediterranean cooking with a Post Falls flair," Erdem says. "It's Turkish, Greek and Italian. It's really one region -- Mediterranean."
Food at the White House Grill, just like Mediterranean cuisine, is based on fresh seafood, meats, vegetables and fruits, as well as pasta, grains, olive oil, wine, cheeses and herbs. Oh, yes, and garlic. Lots of garlic. Erdem says he goes through about 70 pounds of garlic a week at his restaurant.
Erdem's Mediterranean cooking has had an influence on the way people in the Inland Northwest cook. "I do a cooking show on KXLY-TV on Sundays," Erdem says. "Some of the dishes I demonstrated recently used fresh basil -- a pesto sauce, chicken tortellini with fresh pesto, and a fou-fou pizza made with pita bread, pesto sauce and sun-dried tomato. The manager at Super One in Post Falls said sales on fresh basil just went through the roof after that show I did."
Freedom Fare -- The cuisine of multiple countries is also showcased by Tom Huynh at his two area restaurants featuring Japanese and Vietnamese food, Teriyaki House in the Valley and 3 Dishes on the North Side. Originally from Vietnam, Huynh is adept at making Japanese food as well.
"I learned how to cook from my mother," Huynh says. "Since I was the oldest in my family, I had to do the cooking when my mother and father went to work. I liked it."
Vietnam's location on the South China Sea allowed it to absorb influences from many other Asian countries, including China and Japan. French and Indian influences also play a part in Vietnamese cuisine, which is known as the nouvelle cuisine of Asia. It is characterized by an abundance of fresh vegetables and herbs, the treatment of meat as a condiment rather than a main course, and the use of spices and aromatics as flavorings. Presentation is as important in Vietnamese cooking as it is in Japanese cuisine, where the color, texture and shape of food play as much a role as its taste.
Huynh follows the principles of both Japanese and Vietnamese cooking in his area restaurants. The authentic, homemade teriyaki and tempura sauces at Teriyaki House, along with the crisp vegetables and moist meats, are a testimony to Huynh's mastery of Japanese cooking. At 3 Dishes, he utilizes the impressive wok system and creates Japanese and Vietnamese specialties, like traditional beef noodle soup. He'll be introducing more American fare at the restaurant when remodeling is completed early next month.
But why did Huynh leave Vietnam?
"I came to America for freedom," Huynh says. "After the war ended in 1975, it was hard to live and make any money in Vietnam. When my wife got a permit to come to America, we came straight to Spokane. But I couldn't get a job here because my English wasn't very good."
English courses at Spokane's Institute for Extended Learning helped Huynh master the language well enough to get a job at Fugazzi when it was just beginning.
"I learned a lot at Fugazzi," Huynh explains. "First I washed dishes, then I became a prep cook and graduated to line cook."
Huynh says he learned a lot about cooking from Michael Waliser, as well as other Fugazzi chefs, like Chet Geryl. Huynh's spring rolls and egg rolls were featured at Fugazzi at one time.
When Waliser became the executive chef at Huckleberry's Bistro, Huynh followed him there. He made sushi at the South Hill natural foods market as well as for Rosauers markets.
"I took over Teriyaki House in September of 2000," Huynh says. "Last summer, my partner and I bought what is now 3 Dishes."
Of his philosophy, Huynh says, "I want to make people happy with my cooking. I ask them to tell me if something is wrong with the food and then I change it."
Simply Subcontinental -- "When I came to Spokane, I saw there was only one Indian restaurant," says Manoj Kumar. "I thought if I offered something better, people would come to my restaurant."
Customers have been flocking to Kumar's Delhi Palace in the Valley. Though only three months old, the restaurant is frequently "slammed" (in Kumar's words) during the daily lunch buffet, which presents 23 rotating dishes for only $6.
"A lot of customers tell me they wanted another Indian restaurant," Kumar continues. "Most of the community of Indians here come to my restaurant to eat."
So what's all the buzz about?
Indian cooking is about as far from plain meat and potatoes as you can get. It incorporates a riot of sensory stimulation. Indian cuisine, always vibrant, is known for its intensive use of spices and unusual treatment of meats and vegetables that present a wide range of flavors.
Kumar and his partner and chef Gurdeep Singh hail from northern India, where the robust climate has contributed to a cuisine of full-bodied masalas (spices) and richly flavorful curries. And the menu at Delhi Palace presents just that. The Mulligatawny soup's blend of rich flavors of lentils, chicken, rice, vegetables and spices is one of the best I've tasted. Singh's sauces are as smooth as silk and more than savory.
But what brought Kumar and Singh from northern India to the Inland Northwest?
"When I was in India, I was in marketing and I had to travel a lot," Kumar reveals. "I got tired of it after awhile because there was no personal life. But I didn't think about opening a restaurant then."
"I had a good friend in Los Angeles. We tried to start an import/export business, but it didn't go well," Kumar says. "I went to Seattle where I met Gurdeep. A lot of his family is there."
Singh was working in an Indian restaurant in Seattle, where the owner taught him how to cook.
Singh and Kumar are enterprising young men. Though Kumar says it might be easier to make his fortune in India, where people eat out more often than Americans do, he and his partner are committed to making Delhi Palace a success.
To that end, they are having a grand opening celebration this Friday and Saturday night at their restaurant. The duo that is Sandalwood Music will play ragas on traditional Indian instruments from 6-8 pm each night during dinner.