Border Crossings

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Speaking off the toque: Youssef Nafaa is the chef and owner of two Houston restaurants, the Italian-style Mia Bella [320 Main, (713)237-0505] and the tapas-heavy Mi Luna [2441 University, (713)520-5025]. Nafaa, who arrived in the United States in 1988, was born in Morocco.

Q: Many have expressed a belief that only a native-born chef can properly interpret a national cuisine, that cooking a foreign cuisine well is as difficult as writing good poetry in a second language. As a native Moroccan who now has two successful restaurants, one serving Italian food and the other Spanish, what are your thoughts on the subject?

A: We're all cousins, in a way. People often don't remember when they are eating Spanish food that Spain was a colony of Morocco for 300 years. In southern Spain, you sometimes feel like you are in Morocco. Because of the time the two peoples spent together, they are similar in how they love, cry and understand family relations. An American joke may not make an Italian or a Spaniard laugh, but a Moroccan one will.

For example, in Mia Bella, we call our cuisine "Italian with a twist." I allow other flavors to influence the Italian cooking. Here in Mi Luna, we serve b'stilla, which is a Moroccan dish, but which can also be found in Spain. All three cuisines often use common ingredients, such as saffron, which is found frequently in Spanish and Moroccan dishes.

-- George Alexander

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