Owners work to destigmatize gypsy culture in their own way.
Sometime around a thousand years ago, the ancestors of the more than 11 million people known interchangeably as the Roma, Romani, and gypsies were forced to flee their homeland of northwestern India. For hundreds of years to follow, these artisans, entertainers, and farmers continued their exodus, caravanning ever westward, seeking shelter from violent persecution.
Many were captured and enslaved throughout the Middle East. Others were rejected refuge, destined to wander landless, forming loose migratory communities — first in Iran, then throughout Turkey and Armenia, North Africa, Spain, the U.K., and Eastern Europe.
No matter how far they traveled, the proud Roma kept traces of their ancestral food ways intact, adapting their ancestors’ recipes with regional ingredients. Today, the Roma are Europe’s largest ethnic minority, still landless, criminalized, exoticized, and fighting for basic civil rights.
Tony and Tyané Kuya work to destigmatize gypsy culture in their own way, bringing Tucson a rotational sample of Romani cuisine via their catering company and food truck, Gypsy Caravan. Each of their seasonal offerings derives from a region that gypsies historically migrated through.
“There is lots of hatred in the world,” Tyané said. “[Humans] make our decisions from emotions and in-depth places, not from logic, and food and art can help us do that with compassion.”
The Kuyas are somewhat gypsy-like themselves, cosmopolitan folks brimming with wanderlust and creativity. Tony was born in Bangladesh; his family migrated to New York in 1982. His mother and aunt taught him to cook, stressing the importance of infusing oils with flavor.
“You have to make sure the oil is the tastiest thing because that’s going to get incorporated into every aspect of the food,” he said.
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Tony learned the restaurant business as a teen, running food up and down stairs in a two-story Indian joint on Manhattan’s Curry Row. He progressed to a barker, charismatically convincing customers into a series of seemingly identical restaurants. After several years of that, he learned the art of the back of the house.
Eventually, he stuck with one restaurant that gave him a month off every year, some of which he spent visiting Tucson. It was winter the second time he came through, and someone mentioned that “73 percent of the time it was gorgeous here.” That stuck and he wanted to stay, so he did in 2006.
On the other side of the world, Tyané grew up partially in “the super melting pot of Berlin” and partially in Tucson. She “always loved people, Turkish culture, and Iranian markets,” all of which inform her deep respect for the Roma. Musical theater became her passion; her purpose in life to use the arts to transform nations. One of her theatrical productions toured Asia and Europe, and as she toured, she lived and cooked with locals, exposing her to global recipes and techniques. She finally settled in Tucson in 2013.
Now in the desert, the Kuyas are sharing their heritage through the Romani cuisine they serve.
Their organic Mediterranean chicken kabob dish has at least 15 components. It’s a substantial plate of grilled white meat marinated in a honey-white wine sauce with lemon and garlic overtones. If you close your eyes, you can taste each ingredient, which is confusing because all these elements really should muddle together, but they do not. Like gypsies, they maintain integrity in the face of external factors. Chunks of bell pepper and onion punctuate the dish, which is served with long grain rice and lightly oil-dressed salad – no sharp acids here, just gentle balance for an equally accessible $10.
The Moroccan veggie kabobs are completely different. This time they were carrots because that’s what Tony found freshest. The dish has white beans, cranberries, mint, garlic aioli, sweet potatoes — reminiscent of autumn on the U.S. East Coast but with unmistakable North African aromatics infused throughout. Organic, seasonal, and distinctly Roma — well worth the $9.
The same unmuddled complexity is true of Gypsy Caravan’s Indian puchka. A puchka is similar to a perfectly crisp two-bite sized samosa chaat purse crammed full of two chutneys – cilantro and tamarind – as well as the chefs’ signature garlic sauce, chickpeas, and yogurt. Teeny crunchy potato strings on top are thin as if they were forced through a garlic press. They add not only texture and color, but a shot of sweetness to an already complicated appetizer. Again, though, they are not too complicated, and they’re surprisingly gourmet at a price point of four for $5.
Here is the appetizer Puchka.Crispy shells filled with chickpeas tamarind sauce mint and coriander Chutney.Topped with…
Accessible price is key to the Kuyas. For the last several years, Tony worked at Westward Look Resort in accounts payable, which taught him purchasing skills – vital for a catering company and food truck. Gypsy Caravan is establishing relationships with local purveyors that can help them stay affordable, which is a challenging balance to strike.
“We know that there’s a rounded number that people are willing to spend for lunch,” Tony said. “We want to ensure that people feel value in what they’re getting.” To that end, the Kuyas keep the food truck menu minimal and the catering menu diverse, all the while representing gypsy food heritage.
The truck has been operating for a month, and as Tyané says, “really exciting because everyone is really excited” when they see the truck’s menu and try the food. In fact, she said, two Romanian gypsies came to the food truck and had the puchkas for the first time were thrilled at the flavors.
“We don’t just want to serve something to the masses,” Tyané said. “We want to reach families and have our positive outlook shine.”
“Food can be prepared with the meditation of love; it doesn’t matter what is being prepared but when it is prepared with good energy and love, it tastes better,” Tony added.
Gypsy Caravan is available for catering by appointment. The food truck is at Hemisphere Loop for lunch Tuesdays through Thursdays; Tap & Bottle – Downtown on Sundays from 3 – 7 p.m.; Crooked Tooth Brewing Co. on Wednesdays from 5 – 9 p.m.; and Harbottle Brewing Co. Thursdays starting at 5 p.m.
For more information, call Gypsy Caravan at (520) 257-9066 or keep up with Gypsy Caravan on Facebook.