Talking with Chef Ashley Amin about Fusion Food Truck
1. Tell us about Fusion Food Truck
Fusion is all about mixing together diverse cuisines. Fusion Food Truck features elements of Indian, Thai and Mediterranean cooking, which are my 3 favorites. We feature classic recipes from each cooking style but with a twist of our own.
2. Can you describe how you fuse these cuisines?
One example is with our Mediterranean Gyros. I prepare the Gyro the traditional way but then add a little mint chutney, which is an Indian sauce, to give it a unique burst of flavor.
3. Have you set your menu?
I’ll have a number of staples that will always be on the menu and then I’ll add daily specials. I have nearly 100 dishes I want to serve so I’ve got to rotate things in. But there will be about 5 staple items I’ll carry everyday.
4. How did you decide on the core menu?
I wanted to have a few Indian dishes that were popular but not overpowering for people who were new to Indian style cuisine. I wanted people to get a good taste of what Indian food is all about without being too spicy or having too strong of a curry flavor. The same was true for our Thai and Mediterranean offerings. I’ve noticed that there aren’t a lot of food trucks serving ethnic foods, so I thought there was a chance to serve something a little different but without overwhelming people.
5. Where did you get your recipes?
I made them up myself. My recipes start with doing the basic things really well. For example, I noticed that a lot of Indian restaurants use milk instead of cream, and it just doesn’t give that depth of flavor. A lot of places will cut back on the number of spices too or use prepared spices. I make my own spices. Garam masala is an Indian spice that’s a blend of about 50 different spices. It’s a lot of work but it makes a huge difference when you grind your own spices. Once I have the basic dish done how I want it then I’ll add in my fusion element.
6. Can you tell us about some of your recipes? What’s Tikka Masala?
Tikka Masala is a very popular north Indian curry dish. It’s typically based on a tomato curry sauce that has fresh cream and butter mixed in to give a wonderfully rich, creamy flavor. Tikka Masala is usually served with chicken that has been marinated and grilled. I make the the dish from scratch so I give people the option of having it with chicken or tofu. Later on I’ll add fish and shrimp as options. It’s one of my staple dishes and I make it with bell peppers and certain Indian spices that give it my own special taste. Interestingly, Tikka Masala was introduced, not by the Indians, but by the British. I grew up in England and there are a lot of Indian restaurants there.
7. What’s Panang Curry?
It’s a coconut based Thai curry. It’s made with kaffir leaf, which is one of the main ingredients that influence it’s flavor. It’s also got a red curry chili paste in it and I add a little Indian Masala to give it a slightly different taste.
8. Can you describe your Chana Masala?
Chana Masala is a garbanzo bean curry. It’s made with fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger and lots of cilantro.
9. What are Drunken Noodles?
It’s a Thai dish and one of my favorites. They’re wide, rice noodles that come with a combination of 3 different sauces - sweet, sour and spicy. The combination of all 3 sauces together gives the Drunken Noodles an interesting and unique flavor. I like to add Thai chili’s, but because a lot of people don’t eat spicy food I’ll ask before putting them in.
10. What are Yuca Fries?
It’s pronounced You-ca, although there are different names used, such as cassava and mogo, which is a Swahili word. It’s a root vegetable that looks like a potato and has that starch element to it. We decided to offer Yuca Fries instead of standard french fries because they’re different and I grew up eating them. I was born in east Africa and yuca fries are very popular there. Growing up my mom would make us yuca fries and yuca curry.
They’re a little fatter than a normal french fry and I serve them with a tamarind sauce, which is how I grew up eating them. Tamarind sauce is a sweet and sour sauce. The tamarind tree produces a fruit that looks like a nut that you boil and add sugar to so that it has that sweet element. You can eat our Yuca Fries with ketchup as well but the tamarind sauce is more authentic and a little different too.
11. Can you tell us about your vegetarian options?
I was vegetarian for almost 30 years and I know that a lot of people want to eat vegetarian, so we’ll always have those options. I currently offer tofu as a protein alternative in some of the dishes. I have another ingredient called mock duck that I’ll introduce later on. It looks like meat, but it isn’t, it’s soy based. Some of our vegetarian dishes, like the Panang Curry are also vegan and gluten free. Other of our vegetarian dishes use cream and butter so they’re vegetarian, but not necessarily vegan.
12. You describe your Mango Mousse as your signature dessert. Can you tell us about it and why it’s special?
I grew up in London and we used to have a dessert called Angel Delight. It was one of our favorite desserts. It came in a packet and you added milk to it and whisked it up to create different flavors of mousse. About 15 years ago I was cooking in one of our restaurants and started craving some mousse. I didn’t have any Angel Delight so I decided to make my own. I pureed some fresh mango and added some cream and a little sugar before blending it all up. It tasted really good! We had a buffet at our restaurant over lunch so I decided to add the mousse to the buffet. It became very popular and people would start calling to make sure we were serving the mango mousse before them came. It just took off from there. You don’t really find mango mousse in Indian restaurants - I’ve never seen it anywhere - it’s just something I came up with that people really love.
13. Can you recommend a few dishes for people coming to Fusion Food Truck for the first time?
The best place to start is with the Tikka Masala. It was consistently our number one seller in our restaurants in San Diego. Everyone’s going to love that dish.
I personally like the Drunken Noodles, because they’re just a little different. Everyone’s used to eating pad Thai noodles, which are good too, but the Drunken Noodles have a little different flavor. Drunken Noodles also don’t come with peanuts, so for people with nut allergies they’re a good choice.
A hidden gem that we don’t have on the menu yet, but that’s coming, is something called a Kati Roll. It’s an Indian dish that’s basically a wrap. The bread is called roti, and it’s a thin flatbread. You can have a vegetarian version, but if you have it with meat then I sauté the meat with bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and seasoning. I put the meat and vegetables on the bread and add both tamarind and mint chutney sauce before rolling it up. It’s really good. I’m just working on getting my equipment set up for it, so you’ll have to keep an eye out for it.
14. Can you tell us about your background?
I grew up in England and went to university there to study business. We got the opportunity to move to the United States and settled in San Diego. My brother wanted to open his own business so we started with a little frozen yogurt place. We weren’t allowed to cook there so we started off making rice in a rice cooker. My mom used to make some curries and samosas at home. We’d bring everything to the store and sell combo plates for $5. We noticed that there was a huge demand. At that time Indian food wasn’t really well known in San Diego but people were really liking it. After about 2 months it took off and we were selling more combo plates then frozen yogurt. That gave my brother the idea to open a full restaurant. We sat up one night discussing things and drawing up plans. We originally had the idea of a vegetarian restaurant. My mom had taught me how to cook some basic items from about the age of 12 so I was in charge of the kitchen. All the recipes I knew how to make were on the menu. It was actually a pretty extensive list with Indian, Mexican, Italian, American and a whole mixture of vegetarian dishes. My schedule was from about 6 in the morning to 1 am, 7 days a week. That’s how we started, for a whole year. From our vegetarian restaurant we noticed that there was a huge demand for Indian food. There were no good Indian restaurants in San Diego at that time so we decided to open one ourselves. It took off right away. We ended up opening a total of 5 different restaurants - 3 Indian, 1 Chinese and 1 Mexican style (here).
15. Is it true that you’ve cooked for the Dalai Lama?
Yes! I’ve also cooked for the king of Jordan and Jagjit Singh, a famous Indian singer.
16. How did that come about? And what does the Dalai Lama eat?
The Dalai Lama was visiting San Diego in April of 2013. He stayed at the Manchester Grand Hyatt and the executive Chef there asked me to come up with a menu that I thought would be suitable for the Dalai Lama and his crew. I cooked Chicken Tikka Masala, Fish Korma, Paneer Masala, an assortment of naan breads, Mango Mousse, a Tandoori sampler, and Kheer.
My brother and his family got to see him and had pictures taken with him. Unfortunately I was at the restaurant cooking for an event so I missed out.
17. What brought you to Jacksonville?
I got married in July of 2012.
18. What was the appeal of a food truck for you?
I had wanted to have a food truck in San Diego but never got around to it. When I came to Jacksonville I didn’t want a restaurant where I’d have to work crazy hours all the time. I’ve done that for 22 years and didn’t want to get into that again. It seemed like the perfect time to start the food truck I’d always wanted.
19. How does the food truck scene in Jacksonville compare to San Diego?
It’s a lot more developed in San Diego. Food trucks can pretty much go anywhere they want and you see them everywhere. I saw the food truck culture take off in the ‘90s and I was just back recently and the number of trucks is incredible.
20. Have you found locations yet?
I’m still working on it. Getting a location feels like winning the lottery! It’s challenging.
21. Do you offer catering?
Definitely! Hopefully we’ll get clients who eat at the food truck and love it enough to invite us to their events.
22. Anything else?
I’ve received feedback that some people want the food to be spicier. When I first went out I purposefully kept things on the milder side. But I have the option to make things spicier. Each dish is made to order so people just have to let us know their preference for spice.
23. Why did you decide to make everything to order?
It tastes better that way. You get a freshness that you don’t have if everything is sitting for an hour or two in a warmer. Especially for things like the Drunken Noodles - if they’re made in advance they’ll dry out and people just won’t enjoy the taste. It also gives us the option to customize every dish for each customer.