Mombasa to Albuquerque: A journey across Seas with the Tikka

Mouthwatering flavours of tikka from my childhood still haunt my palette.

Evening family barbeques under a humid and salty night sky with the sound of the Indian Ocean lapping against the white, sandy beaches in the distant background.

The evening call to prayers silences the bustling streets and fruit markets, in a holy reminder of submission followed by the delightful laughter of children playing cricket as the aroma of a Ramadhan Ifthar or a concoction of spices, coffee and sweets fill the air.

Mombasa. My paradise on Earth. The city of my boyhood. A place of lofty hopes and dreams to sail the island on an Arab Dhow and conquer one of the grand beach hotels. The waters in which my siblings and I learned to swim competitively when my mum threw us from a boat into the harbor and shouted, “swim!”

The city of Sunday afternoon drives to the Light House for coconut water and cassava chips, endless mishkaki, kebobs and masala fries drizzled with raita and tamarind chutney. The city of countless milkshakes, faluda and kulfi. Ahhhh.

My brother’s tikka is my favorite to date. Taking full command of the charcoal pit most evenings he blended succulent marinades of yogurt, ginger, garlic, black pepper, turmeric and mixed spices with fresh chilies into a magical masala to coat tenderized meats and vegetables for grill with butter dripping naan.

Tikka in Mombasa reflects the long history of conquest and occupation along the east coast of Africa by the mighty seafaring nations of the time – the Portuguese, the Arabs and the British. Arabic and Indian influence, the latter from immigrants and traders who arrived on the coast bear the strongest influence on Swahili food.

The sailors carried tikka, meaning “little pieces” or “small chunks” of marinated meats with them on their journeys and as they settled along the Kenyan coast so did their most practical cuisine.

The mix of Persian, Indian, and Swahili tikka savours made it into my own kitchen in Albuquerque and more than forty years on, my children, their cousins and friends relish in hearty get-togethers around a flaming tikka barbeque. Different time. Different place. Same pleasure.

It is this distinct, unforgettable, perpetuating joy and deep connection we experience in these gatherings that inspired the introduction of Tikka Hut to complement the Urban Cocina ghost kitchen concept.

All my thoughts of innovation and transformation during these continued uncertain times for the food and beverage industry keep leading me to my one true passion, talent and relentless dream – food, the Islamic Mexican way.

The Tikka Taco and Chicken Tikka Burger are sensationally creative treats in authentic fusion, accompanies by either sweet or savoury lassi to drink. Cumin, common to both cuisines, is the perfect fusion spice to enhance the flavor of our salsa-chutneys. Our tikka varieties always take care of our vegetarians, vegans and healthy eaters too.

Delectable also are the Kulfi inclined gelatos in six refreshing tastes including Dulce de Leche, Mexican Vanilla and tropical staples Mango and Pineapple.

The memory of my birthplace brought forth the idea to honour her enchantment and serve her delicacies. The Mombasa tikka has traveled with me in mind and spirit across seas and is now available in my hometown, Albuquerque.

Journey into the Swahili – Latino fusion with Tikka Hut!

The Marriage of Wine to Mexican Food

Cold, crisp cerveza (beer) or classic fresh lime margarita are the obvious beverage choices for tacos overflowing with carne asada and chipotle mayo.
Perhaps mezcal if you are really daring. Or a palatable non-alcoholic agua de jamaica (caffeine-free hibiscus iced tea).

Would we venture to pair wine with Mexican food? Or is that a purely Michelin Star undertaking? We pair wine with other cultural culinary fusions so why not the Mexican-Persian? After all, the oldest grape in the world was born and raised in Persia, modern day Iran.  

You may wonder if offering wine goes against Islamic principles. It does. I have chosen not to confront the hypocritical frontier between business and religion. Instead I trust in each of us learning our own limits and finding our own balance.

While I may have grown up with an acquired taste for fine food, it wasn’t until I joined a prestigious, now Fairmont and Serena owned hotel chain in East Africa, that my eyes opened to the world of wine tasting, wine bars, wine clubs and wineries. An exposure surpassing my only encounter with wine to that point in Kenya – the highly consumed German Black Tower, more popular for its chique bottle than the taste of its excessively sweet content.

I started by waiting tables at the reputable Sweet Waters Tented Camp, home of the famous Jane Goodall chimpanzee sanctuary. I moved on to the esteemed Mount Kenya Safari Club where my mother once served as the Vegetarian Chef. I worked my way up to a management trainee position at the distinguished colonial Norfolk Hotel before heading to college.

I transitioned from excruciatingly uncomfortable clumsiness, spilling a bottle of red wine all over the expensive wool sweater of a refined English lady, ruining her posh, romantic evening, to gracefully serving the dignified likes of Isabella Rosalini, James Earl Jones, Mariah Carey and John Lithgow. 

The most decadent destination in the hotel chain belonged to a well-known Saudi, a former arms dealer. His home, where the VVIP guests had the luxury of staying, a rhino sanctuary, was a haven to Spanish wines, Tuscan wines, South African wines, Argentine wines and much more!

My connoisseur and sommelier friends dabbling in the wine and Mexican food conversation recommend pairing Pinot Noir or Merlot with hot, spicy Mexican food and Riesling or Gewürztraminer with non-spicy Mexican food.

I am neither a connoisseur nor sommelier. I do however enjoy a flavorful wine and along my journey have developed a good enough understanding of how to pair wine with a great experience at the Urban Taqueria Mexican restaurant.

Let me share a few secrets and tips I have uncovered. When pairing wine with spicy food, stay away from the bitter or acidic high tannin red and oaky wines. The Malbec, a medium tannin red wine, fuses beautifully with red meats.  A Sauvignon Blanc complements fish wonderfully.

At Urban Taqueria, if you are ready to walk down the aisle, marry a full-bodied Granache red wine with our signature Death by Taco, the spiciest taco plate in the world! If you are more inclined towards a fiery pre-marital fling, the Bad Hombre ‘chilied shrimp’ is always prepared. You could also indulge in a polite affair with the elegant, vegan Snowflake.

I also recommend hooking up a lush Gewürztraminer white wine with our Credible Sources fish taco or taking the rosé on a blind date with the politically inclined Libertarian, a die-hard vegetarian.

Unlikely marriages have always been common. We celebrate them all at Urban Taqueria just as we do the union of Wine and Mexican Food. We give special credit to our delightful tacos who bear the rings of enduring partnership.

Buen provecho!

An Invitation to the Gourmet Health Freak Fiesta!

I am not a health freak. I have never been a healthy eater. I have always tended towards the gourmet experience lifestyle for every meal and snack.

I relish waking up daily to the aroma of mixed spices and feeding my dreams nightly with colorful recipes. 

The Kenyan-Indian culture places a huge importance on food to demonstrate unity and affection. The quality of any gathering is measured by the quantity of food prepared and consumed. The lineage of strong women who raised me fed me with all the love they had.

As the youngest child, I was immune to scarcity. My plate servings overflowed with the finest array of home-cooked food; glorious varieties of curries wet and dry, pilaus, naan and sweets inspired by the Muslim Gujarat in India, from where my great grandparents had migrated.  

Finishing every bite and accepting seconds was a sign of gratitude and manhood.

My mother was so good at spreading love that feeding the entire neighborhood and community out of good will was her primary mission and favorite hobby. When she ran her own restaurant in a now-flourishing Kenyan town and a café at the National Museum, everyone knew that Mama Zarina would not let anyone go hungry.

Things are a little different from my childhood. With two kids of my own now, I recognize the importance of nutrients for a healthy lifestyle. While I am not the best role model, I have been inspired to conjure recipes that both tantalize and nourish my family and the Albuquerque community.

To create an authentic healthy fusion at the Urban Taqueria mex restaurant which remains true to our culture, I had to demystify my own stereotypes about healthy Mexican recipes and the Islamic Indian influence blended into its cuisine.

Few people think healthy when they think of Mexican food. The image of crema, queso loaded frijoles, guac and chorizo tacos combined with Tex-Mex, pub-style nachos and cerveza leave us craving comfort food or a junk treat over a nourishing meal.

Fewer people think healthy when they think of Indian food. Our minds flash visions of red-hot spice that set our tongues and bums on fire. We have come to treat this food as either an exotic, luxury Indian restaurant dining experience or a greasy order-in option.

The truth is that authentic Mexican and authentic Indian food is tasty and good for healthy eating. Primarily plant based in origin and predominantly gluten free, they are low calories nutritious and anything but boring.

Diet in the ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations comprised cactus, avocado, plantains, squash, corn, quinoa, beans, hibiscus water and of course hot chocolate. India cultivated a health wisdom culture (Ayurveda) for centuries, employing simple food like lentils for overall body functioning and spiritual healing.

The main influence Indian cuisine is Islamic Persian. It is this same influence that eventually made its way to Mexican cuisine. Well-prepared meals from either Mexican or Indian tradition are high in natural healing properties, amino acids, protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and necessary fats.

Coming from a man who puts his belly first, these revelations blew my mind!

I understand it’s not easy to associate healthy food with mouth-watering tastiness.

That’s why, to honour the culinary practices of pre-colonial Mexican foragers as well as my ancestors from the Muslim Gujarat, we have prepared an array of healthy options merging our signature Mexican and Islamic heritage. We use local, organic ingredients personalized to your taste buds, current diet plan and lifestyle. Our low calorie snacks and meals are deliberately high in nutritional value.

My personal favorite on our healthy lifestyle menu is grilled native beef with charro beans. The cattle are grass-fed free-range by Native Americans on their lands. The steak, tender with very little fat is steeped in our famous chipotle arbol marinade, accompanied by the plump beans and a fresh chimichuri sauce.

To clarify, the origin of chimichuri is Argentina and Uruguay, not Mexico.  

I also love our Echiladas.  Generally enchiladas are heavy laded with cheese. Our version is delicate and 100% vegan. We stuff our home-made corn tortillas with sautéed mushrooms and a vegan mole which as of today is over 100 days old.  Mole, from the South of Mexico, is a descendant of the lavishly complex curry – an intricate blend of spices, fruits and herbs. The longer Mole stays, the darker and more extravagant it tastes. We keep adding to our special mixture so it constantly evolves in richness.

I am still no health freak. I am surprised however at how quickly our lifestyle recipes convinced me that Healthy and Gourmet is the perfect match for any fiesta!   

Are we the Mexican restaurant near you? Come by for your healthy diet treat.

THE AFFAIR: a story of unbridled passion for Mexican Islamic cuisine

The past few weeks I have been troubled. The question I keep asking myself is if our Mexican restaurant should stay open or if I ought to start looking for a job. I don’t know what the future holds for me. I suppose nobody really does.

I feel bummed by the uncertainty and that it’s prompting me to give up on my dream.  We were starting to become a major player in the food and beverage service industry.

Opening an authentic Islamic inspired Mexican restaurant hasn’t been an easy dream to realize. I suppose no dream really is. If the controversial publicity we received is anything to go by, I have definitely taken a stand for self-expression and my passion to serve Mexican Islamic cuisine in America with honest humor and thought-provoking respect.

I won’t go down without a fight. I can’t. I owe it to everything and everyone that inspired me, a Kenyan Muslim of Indian descent cum USA immigrant to start an Islamic influenced Mexican restaurant in the first place.

I ate my first Tex-Mex Burrito in 1975 in Santa Monica, California. A big, fat flour tortilla wrap stuffed with ground refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes and red salsa smothering. The fire of spice and delight kissed my eager tongue and ignited my tummy in a way no chicken biryani ever had. I fell in love. I couldn’t figure out why. I suppose we don’t always figure out why. I was nine years when the aromatic affair began. I knew magic was cooking.

My father, a young, slick and handsome tennis player had just passed away. He had a penicillin allergy and that’s exactly what the doctors used to treat his condition. We inherited his daring zest for adventure and taste for foods of the world.  

My mother, a ferociously independent women, a smoker and whisky lover whose style, sex appeal and unanticipated directness made everyone around her uncomfortable, decided she would take me, her youngest child, to Santa Monica. As a single, un-intimidated mother of five children, she taught me to always do things my way, to consider the other and to always live free.   

The spicy fire of my first love stayed with me. When I migrated to the USA in 1992, seventeen years later, while I couldn’t get enough of Tex-Mex, I sought the authentic Mexican experience too. My belly swelled into a hot air balloon sized ‘panzon,’ feeding on fajita skillets, tortilla chips, mole, posole and guacamole. I didn’t care. My mouth danced in ecstasy with every bite.

In 2014, twenty-two years later, my mind caught up with my mouth and I transitioned my incessant dietary trance with Mexican food into an intellectual pursuit.

I heard a mind-awakening presentation in Alburquerque, New Mexico on Islamic influence in the Americas and met afterwards with the Director of the Hispanic Cultural Centre.

I understood then that the foundation of post-Aztec Mexican cuisine (which Fernando Cortés ‘introduced’ to the now Mexico City) is the aromatic Persian Islamic culinary tradition that had been influencing Spain.

At that point, the comestible jigsaw puzzle of my life formed a clear picture of identity and purpose; a Muslim man of Kenyan Indian descent, a now citizen of the USA, falls in love with Mexican cuisine and opens a Mexican Islamic restaurant to honor his appreciation of cultural heritage and integration.

Perhaps this mix of identity and purpose is the only certainty I will ever have about my dream. Perhaps the only certainty I will ever need.

I don’t know what the future holds for me. I suppose nobody really does. What I can commit to is authentic food and beverage service the Mexican- Islamic way.