The butter chicken is sweet, not spicy, making it a great option for palates new to Indian food.

The butter chicken is sweet, not spicy, making it a great option for palates new to Indian food.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki


International cuisines aren’t as scary as they seem

By: Tiffany Esshaki, Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published April 24, 2018

 The chicken kabob dish at Alexander’s Lebanese Cuisine in Warren, pictured in the front, is a tasty introduction to Lebanese food.

The chicken kabob dish at Alexander’s Lebanese Cuisine in Warren, pictured in the front, is a tasty introduction to Lebanese food.

Photo provided by Gus Younes

 The Paella Bolero is a signature dish at Bolero restaurant in Detroit, featuring a variety of seafood and other items atop rice, meant to be shared.

The Paella Bolero is a signature dish at Bolero restaurant in Detroit, featuring a variety of seafood and other items atop rice, meant to be shared.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

 Vegetable sushi options, like the asparagus roll, pictured at the bottom, are a great place to start for sushi newbies, followed by house favorites like the spicy salmon special and the Michigan roll, which features tuna, cucumber, avocado, lettuce and a spicy mayonnaise sauce.

Vegetable sushi options, like the asparagus roll, pictured at the bottom, are a great place to start for sushi newbies, followed by house favorites like the spicy salmon special and the Michigan roll, which features tuna, cucumber, avocado, lettuce and a spicy mayonnaise sauce.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki

 Pad Thai is a great entry dish for people who have never had Thai food, said Khom Fai owner Isaiah Sonjeow.

Pad Thai is a great entry dish for people who have never had Thai food, said Khom Fai owner Isaiah Sonjeow.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

METRO DETROIT — Do you remember what it was like when you took a big bite of hot, cheesy pizza for the first time? How about that first taco? 

Those delectable dishes are probably a staple of your diet now — or at least a worthy indulgence on a cheat day. But many of us, after a certain age, stopped being adventurous when it comes to trying new cuisine. Which is a shame, because who knows what we could be missing?

Luckily, here in metro Detroit there’s no shortage of new and interesting flavors to try. We asked around to find out what international cuisines people were most afraid to try, and then we pressed the experts for what menu selections are best to start with for newbies.

Fasten your seat belts, and make sure your forks are in an upright position. Our global taste trip starts now.

Japanese
Japanese steakhouses and their flair for the dramatic are popular for families who want a little entertainment along with their meal. The sweet and salty favorites like teriyaki aren’t as intimidating as the region’s other claim to fame: sushi.

Takayuki Sakaguchi has been the manager at Clawson’s Noble Fish sushi bar and store for more than 20 years. He said that in a country that stresses the need for meat to be cooked thoroughly to prevent foodborne illnesses, it makes sense that some people would be nervous to try raw fish. But if done correctly, Sakaguchi said, sushi can be as safe as any other entree.

“People are afraid of food poisoning, but when the vegetables are very fresh and the fish is very fresh and good quality, it’s safe,” he said. “The rice vinegar we use also keeps the sushi clean (of bacteria). Sushi goes back hundreds of years in Japan, and the history of that is a good thing to know.”

A good way to ease into sushi, which some may think has an unusual texture, is to start with vegetable-centered items, like rolls with avocado, sliced cucumber, steamed broccoli and asparagus. Sakaguchi said that if the traditional seaweed wrap is unpalatable for a beginner, they can request soy paper for their rolls.

Thai
Isaiah Sonjeow, owner of Khom Fai Thai Dining Experience in Shelby Township, knows that the discussion around Thai food usually starts with one question — how spicy is it?

Sonjeow opened Khom Fai with his brother in 2010 after being inspired by the food they grew up eating and recipes passed down through the generations. Sonjeow said he wants his customers to know what they are getting each time, spice-wise.

“What we didn’t really like about the current state of Thai food is the inconsistent spice levels, so we are strict with measuring to give the same spice experience,” Sonjeow said. “We try to take away the mystery of Thai food and the myth that it is all hot. We want people to discover new tastes and big, bold flavors.”

Pad Thai is the most popular and accessible dish for newcomers, Sonjeow said. It provides tastes that American palates are already used to and opens the door to the rest of the menu.

From there, the broccoli noodles dish is the next step up, he said, with more of a savory flavor, while drunken noodles is the first big stepping stone into the Thai cuisine.

Indian
If the mention of Indian food has you sweating, you’re not alone. Joe Ullah, the owner and manager of Moti Mahal restaurant in downtown Royal Oak, said lots of people are fearful that Indian food is just too spicy for them. But there are plenty of Indian favorites that have no heat at all and are still packed with tradition. 

“There are all kinds of flavors: sweet, sour, hot. I would tell someone to try something sweet first, and hot should be the last thing on their agenda,” Ullah said, suggesting butter chicken as a starter dish.

“The butter chicken is what we’re known for. It starts with tomatoes, curry and spices mixed together, and then we’re adding cardamom, anise seed, bay leaves, and once that sauce is done, we cook the chicken in that, and 20 minutes later, you’ve got butter chicken,” he explained.

Latin
Like Middle Eastern food, several regions in South America have their own spin on Latin cuisine, but the basics remain largely the same. Willie Linares, the executive chef of Bolero restaurant in Detroit, loves to combine favorites from countries like Peru, El Salvador, Argentina and Cuba into new fusion entrees with strong traditional ties.

And while Linares is always coming up with specials and new menu items, some dishes remain tried and true. The restaurant’s signature Paella Bolero falls into that category, with shrimp, calamari, fish, lobster, clams, chicken, chorizo and vegetables all cooked together in a flavorful saffron rice. 

If you’re not ready to step into the paella or traditional ceviche, Linares said to start with a few tapas, or appetizers. Latin cuisine is known for its small plates, which can be sampled and shared by everyone at the table. The deep-fried calamari with roasted peppers, capers and tomatoes will likely be familiar to many guests, and the yuca rellena tapas with pan-seared yuca mash — a vegetable similar to a potato — is a good place to begin.

Lebanese
Alexander’s Lebanese Cuisine has been around for a decade on 13 Mile Road in Warren, but when Gus Younes took over ownership last June, he wanted to bring his Lebanese heritage to the masses.

Younes said it’s only been about 10 years since Mediterranean food really started to become part of the food scene in metro Detroit, with Lebanese food being a big part of that. So there are still patrons coming in to Alexander’s on a daily basis who have never had his cuisine.

For one who has never had Lebanese food, Younes suggests starting with chicken kabobs and hummus. Falafel, garlic spread and babaganoush are other popular starting dishes at his restaurant, he said.

The healthy focus of Lebanese food has helped make it popular for diners, Younes said.

“It is healthy and fresh, and Lebanese food gives people everything they need, from protein to fiber,” he said. “I grew up eating this food from my mom and grandparents, and it is really well-balanced.”