Reporting from the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium: Cultures Converging on the Houston Restaurant Scene

The Southern Foodways Alliance "Global South" symposium last weekend explored Southern culture and tradition beyond geographic boundaries. After Chingo Bling spoke about worlds colliding in Mexican American hop-hop, former Houston Press writer Robb Walsh (once again, he's my dad) spoke about frontiers converging on the Houston restaurant scene.

"When I first moved to Houston ten years ago, it was just a pleasure to go out and find all of these multi-ethnic spots. There's every rainbow of culinary adventure you could want to take here," Walsh said.

Walsh recounted what former Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Bill Addison said after he took him out to Catalan. Addison summed it up when he said Houston had "a bunch of ballsy chefs making bold, funky food with regional and ethnic ingredients."

Chef Kaiser Lashkari of Himalaya Restaurant, for example, fell in love with Tex-Mex when he moved to Houston from Pakistan. Now, he makes Pakistani fajitas or "Steak Tikka" with papain and a Tex-Mex masala. Flour tortillas, he points out, are an awful lot like chapati bread.

New and different foods aren't always welcome. Take the American hamburger and fries. While it met with resistance in some parts of the world (French farmer José Bové filled a McDonalds up with ducks in one memorable protest), in Houston the attitude is to adopt and transform new foods, not fight them.

During his time in Houston, Walsh recounted, he'd had a Cajun cheeseburger po-boy, a hamburguesa estilo Monterrey, a muffuletta burger with olive salad, a Korean bulgoki burger, Pakistani bun kabab, a Greek burger and a Vietnamese banh mi-style burger.

"There's another way to deal with hamburgers aside from protesting them," Walsh said.

John T. Edge, food writer and director of the SFA, suggested that what's happening in Houston is a new wave of creolization, much the way French, Haitian, Spanish and Native cultures combined in the old Creole city, New Orleans.

"Texas is this place where historically, cultures collided," Walsh said, drawing on the influences of Mexican and Southern cattle ranchers and the Tejano people of Native/Spanish heritage.

Today, Houston continues the tradition of cross-cultural creation -- and with products like flour tortilla samosas and goat curry croissants, it's something any adventurous food lover should celebrate.

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