By JR Valrey
The silver lining in the Covid pandemic’s shelter in place, is that the closing down of society has given many people time to think, be creative, and re-invent themselves. Some have created businesses that they plan to live off of so that they never have to return to work, while others plan to return, but have created alternative incomes.
Influenced by her mother and husband, Chef Nicole Garcia has created her own distinct blend of food from two of the modern world’s most revolutionary, and internationally oppressed cultures. ASÚKAR Palestinian Cuban Fusion, is a very unique catering business that was created locally in Oakland, during the pandemic. ASÚKAR is a blend of the Spanish and Arabic words for sugar. Azucar means sugar in Spanish, while sukar means sugar in Arabic, and with Cuban plantains on the menu right next to Palestinian carmalized onions, you never know what adventure will be visiting your palette. ASÚKAR has recently been appearing at monthly pop-ups, and has its own Wednesday delivery service. If you are an adventurous foodie, this is definitely an interesting halal twist that you don’t want to miss. Check the ASÚKAR IG, but until then, here is Chef Nicole Garcia in her own words.
JR Valrey: How long have you been cooking Palestinian food? What are some of your favorite dishes. Please explain because most know nothing about Palestinian food.
Nicole Garcia: I am first generation, daughter to immigrant parents both born and raised in Palestine. As I am the youngest of seven with two older sisters I did not spend much time in the kitchen. Growing up my mom cooked every meal, it was rare to eat out. While most of the dishes cooked in our home were traditional, the times they weren’t my mom managed to arabize them. Everything she made was delicious. She never followed a recipe or used any measuring tools. She loved cooking and feeding people. Food and hospitality is one of the many beautiful aspects of my culture.
It wasn’t until I had a family of my own that I began to truly cook. I can honestly and humbly say I’ve come a long way in the kitchen. As I never spent time in the kitchen learning, I lacked confidence and trust in my natural ability. Like my mom I never follow recipes, nor do I measure. My husband was born and raised in Cuba, and very accustomed to eating Cuban food. Naturally this led him to teaching me how to prepare Cuban dishes. It is important that my children know and are familiar with their heritage and cultures. So I made sure to cook traditional Palestinian dishes like Mujaddara (lentils and rice with carmalized onions), stuffed grape leaves and squash, falafel, hummus, Msakhan (sumac roasted chicken with carmalized onions) and pickled cauliflower and turnips just to name a few of my favorites. I soon realized preparing and cooking colorful nutritious meals was my creative outlet, as well as bringing awareness to Palestinian culture and food. As well as cooking for my family, I cooked a Wednesday meal for my coworkers (40-50 people). This is how and where I first introduced Palestinian Cuban Fusion outside my household, and it was very well received. This was the birth of ASÚKAR.
JR Valrey: How long have you been cooking Cuban dishes? Which are your favorite?
Nicole Garcia: I have been cooking Cuban dishes for about 14 years. The flavors and spices in many dishes are familiar to me. I have been cooking for some time, so to break the monotony of meals for my family and creative process for myself, while at the same time keep it healthy and fresh, I began infusing dishes blending them with both cultures. The dishes really complement one another. Some of my favorite Cuban dishes are Congri (black beans & rice), yuca, platanitos maduros (sweet plantains), Aroz con pollo (chicken & rice), Ropa Vieja (shredded flank steak). There are too many to name them all.
JR Valrey: So what exactly is Palestinian Cuban fusion food? Can you give examples of dishes that you sell?
Nicole Garcia: ASÚKAR Palestinian Cuban Fusion is a creation of both cultures foods and flavors alongside one another or infused into one meal. ASÚKAR offers a unique menu with high quality authentic ingredients. A few Palestinian Cuban creations:
Hummus Baladi: hummus with Palestinian olive oil
Encurtidos a la Arabe: pickled cauliflower and turnips
Platanitos Maduros with a tahini/date sauce: sweet plantains
Msakhan rolls: halal chicken seasoned with sumac and caramelized onions rolled in filo dough.
I currently offer a Palestinian Cuban Fusion meal delivery on Wednesday’s. An example of my fusion meal would be sumac and garlic chicken wings, alongside congri and a salad. It is important for me to use authentic quality ingredients, even if that means the price may be a bit higher, this is why I chose to use Palestinian olive oil in my products.
JR Valrey: Can you talk a little bit about why you started a catering company?
Nicole Garcia: As I’ve already stated quality nutritious food is of high impotence to me. I’m in my creative element when I’m preparing food. As I have been cooking for others, I have recognized the need as well as desire for my offerings. I’m very proud to share my Palestinian culture and food with others, as we are often silenced or unknown. Food is a way to bring people and cultures together, and I feel ASÚKAR does that. As I was raised by immigrant parents, my culture is very much a part of who I am. I too enjoy cooking and feeding people.
JR Valrey: How has the pandemic affected your catering company? Are people ordering more catering since restaurants are not done in?
Nicole Garcia: ASÚKAR was introduced during the pandemic, December 2020 to be exact. I am pleased and grateful for the support ASÚKAR has gotten thus far. I do monthly pop ups and a Wednesday meal delivery. I advertise via Instagram @ASÚKAR and word of mouth. ASÚKAR is a small woman owned business. I cannot speak of the pre pandemic times of ASÚKAR, as there were none. I do think people are inclined to order out more, as dine in has been null and void. I also think moving forward businesses are going to have to strategize and rethink operations, and I am excited to be a part of it.
JR Valrey: How do people, with knowledge of the two cultures, respond when they hear that you specialize in Palestinan and Cuban fusion?
Nicole Garcia: ASÚKAR Palestinian Cuban Fusion is well received, people are very excited to try the fusion. Some people are familiar with Cuban food and others Palestinian food. Quite a few people are familiar with both foods. Regardless of familiarity with Palestinian or Cuban food people are very intrigued by the fusion. I feel people are a bit surprised as to how well Palestinian and Cuban flavors blend together.
JR Valrey: As things begin to reopen, what are your plans for the future of your company? Do you want a restaurant or are you content with catering? Why?
Nicole Garcia: I aspire to work with businesses who will be hosting pop ups in their establishments. I’m hoping to have some products in health food stores. As for now, I do a weekly Wednesday meal delivery, and pop ups monthly. The fact that I do not have an establishment is to my benefit at the moment, and I think the industry will be making some creative changes as things begin to reopen. I would love to one day have an establishment of my own, with art incorporated. This is just the beginning.
JR Valrey: When and where do you do pop-ups?
Nicole Garcia: I will be doing a pop up this Sunday March 21st from 1-4pm, 935 Underhills Rd., Oakland. I will be alongside some other local artisans of all kinds. I’m working on more collaborations, and pop up venues, stay tuned I will post them on Instagram.
JR Valrey: How do people keep up with you online?
Nicole Garcia: Follow us on Instagram @ASÚKAR or email firstname.lastname@example.org. I usually post weekly menu delivery options and pop ups through both outlets. I look forward to meeting new clients and offering Palestinian Cuban Fusion flavors to those who are unfamiliar.