Food trucks are becoming one of the hottest trends in dining out here in the States. Many estimates claim there are several thousand food trucks throughout the US, with more than 10 popping up in major cities each week. If you haven’t had a chance to taste for yourself what it’s all about, maybe this interview with Ed Cornelia, owner and operator of the popular Silk Road BBQ truck in Boston, will be all you need to become a food truck-aholic. It did for me! First, a bit of background:

You know those nights, I’m sure many of you have been there. It was cold out. And dark. My husband was away on a business trip to a far-off place. My daughters were hungry and tired and I’d had enough of them teasing me yet again about “mommy’s (lame) breakfast dinner” plans. Frankly, I was getting tired of cereal and eggs too.

“Put on your coats, get in the car, we’re going to the Silk Road,” I declared. My daughters looked at me wondering what crazy plan I’d hatched now. During the drive through town I answered their endless questions about the Silk Road and when we arrived at our dinner destination they were eager to get out of the car and learn what this food truck, Silk Road thing was all about.

As we met up with Ed, who would win the award for everybody’s coolest dad hands down, decided what to order (shashleek, tzatziki, hot dog with everything on it, delicious—and free–hot tea), and savored our food, it dawned on me that this simple experience was providing my daughters and I with a phenomenal cultural lesson about an area more than half way around the world…and we were just a few miles from our home.

Read on for my interview with Ed, and please go out and support your local food truck! If you’ve visited a food truck, please share your experience by leaving a comment below.

Q: Why did you start a food business based on the culture of the Silk Road?
A: We actually arrived at it in reverse order. We were looking to develop a model for an outdoor market, convinced that we could create a little street corner social magic and enough commerce that made sense for a particular neighborhood. We concluded after many different ideas that live-fire ambiance with complementary hot tea would convince folks to hang outside with us through the New England winter.

Envisioning that was made easy by my experience one winter visiting northern Kazakhstan near the Siberian and Mongolian borders; people of many cultures and obvious differences, separated by language, and yet happy and communal and inquisitive and somehow communicating while jonesin’ for the mind-altering BBQ sizzling in front of them.

Q: What is your favorite memory of traveling along the Silk Road?
A: Riding a train for days across the Steppe, one side of the train looking up at sheer peaks of the Hindu Kush, the other side of the train looking out over endless rolling grasslands. Herds of horses, sometimes horizon-to-horizon brushfires, occasionally slowing and drifting through Soviet military hardware ghost yards, tanks and artillery and support vehicles rusting where they were parked the day before the Soviet Union collapsed. The next day, everyone went home and left the war machines behind.

Q: If you could describe the food of the Silk Road in only a few words, what would they would be?
A: A swirl of cultures and spices.

Q: What has been your most memorable Silk Road BBQ customer experience?
A: A customer experience “category” really, since this peak experience occurs often for us … it happens more often with the tea drinkers, the hot cup inviting folks to unhook from their urgencies if just for a moment.

Then the stories begin, and customers turn to one another and start sharing … food experiences, cultural experiences, food and family and ancestry. Just like we envisioned for our service: moments of social magic on the street corner.

Q: What is the story behind the Korean carrots you serve?
A: We pay homage to the food we serve by trying to replicate the original taste, texture and heat. Along the way, we have learned many of the underlying stories told about the food itself. Perhaps the most poignant (and most recently historical) food we serve up is “Korean carrots.”

During World War II, when Central Asia was occupied by the Soviet Union, the Kremlin decided that Koreans living along the far eastern border of the USSR closest to Japan were spies and sympathizers, so they exiled hundreds of thousands to camps in Kazakhstan (part of the infamous Gulag). The extremely lucky boy soldiers of the Soviet army who guarded the camps (they could have been fighting the Germans along the Eastern front instead) were astonished to see the bland boiled root vegetables of their culinary tradition being “kicked up a notch” by resourceful Korean cooks.

After the war, lucky to have survived, these men returned to their home villages and proclaimed the virtues of “food that actually had taste,” in particular the fiery koryeska morchovka (the Koreans’ carrots). This new idea swept the country, and by the 1950s, Korean carrots had become as ubiquitous in the Soviet Union as cole slaw is in America, hence the nickname “Russian cole slaw.”

A deceptively simple pickled shredded carrot, it actually features a challenging combination of soy, cumin, coriander, garlic, vinegar, and black and red pepper. The sweetness of fresh grated carrots lures you in, the salty garlicky tang hooks you, the cumin/coriander blend delights you as it throws you off balance, and then the heat creeps in…

Q: What is your dream for Silk Road BBQ five years from now?
A: To be providing social sparkle on lots of street corners in America, telling stories and serving up amazing food.

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