WATERVILLE — During the three weeks that her fledgling food cart has been open for business, Ishrat Khan has been experimenting with the spices she uses in her Asian fusion dishes in order to adjust to the palate of the region.

The way she normally cooks has turned out to be too spicy for most people who show up at TinTin’s Mobile Kitchen, a silver cart that has been parked in the lot at Joseph’s Market on Front Street since the first week in July when she opened. She’s pulled back on the chili, opting for just a pinch when she seasons the chicken or beef she uses in her wraps and rice dishes.

“On the first day, I did it differently and I see how they took it,” said Ishrat Khan, who is known to most people in her life as Tina — an alteration to the nickname “TinTin,” which her cousin started calling her when she was a child and inspired the name of her business. “On second day, I added more sauce. I’ve made it less spicy and people are taking it really well. I don’t want people to think it’s too hot and they can’t handle it.”

Tina believes her customers’ reaction to the spice is because they haven’t been exposed to the Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern flavors she’s been incorporating in her dishes, which is one of the primary reasons she and her husband decided to open up a food cart in the first place: They wanted to introduce people in Waterville to their culture and their food.

Tina and her husband, who goes solely by his last name, Khan, are both originally from Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Khan lived in New York City for 17 years and moved back to Bangladesh after he graduated from college. That’s when he met Tina and the two got married and started a family, having a daughter who is now eight and later a son who is four. But they didn’t want their children to grow up in Dhaka, as the political system, they said, is often unstable.

“We moved for my kids, for their education,” Tina said. “Our political situation is not good there. There’s always a halt in education for political situations.”

In December 2013, they moved to the United States and spent the first six months here splitting time between New York and Connecticut before moving to Lewiston. They lived there for about four years before moving to Waterville.

The couple noticed that people in the area were more inclined to choose fast food options when eating out — and they wanted to offer something different.

“I’m introducing my culture’s food,” Tina said. “It’s Bengali food.”

Tina and Khan acquired a license from the city and set up shop in the parking lot of Joseph’s Market, where the couple are also part owners.

The cart is open every day except Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Tina and her crew will be featured at the Taste of Waterville, which takes place on Aug. 8 on Main Street. She plans to close the cart during the winter while she returns to work as a tax professional at H&R Block here in town.

All of the meat and produce come from the market so she can work with fresh ingredients everyday. The spices, however, she has to travel to Indian food stores in Portland or Boston to find.

She said Bengali food is similar to Indian food in that they use the same spices — cumin, coriander, garam masala, turmeric and curry — but in different ways.

“We use the same spices, but it’s just a different culture,” she said. “They are Indians and we are Bangladeshi. They’re Hindu and we are Muslims so we do things differently.”

She compares Bengali food to Indian cuisine so that people who have never tried it have a flavor profile to reference.

“A lot of people know about Indian food, and a lot of people say I’ve never had Indian food,” she said. “So I say, ‘Please, try this. You might just like it.'”

The daily menu at TinTin’s has two standard dishes: beef or chicken over rice and beef or chicken pita wraps. Both dishes are topped with lettuce, tomato and a cool, creamy white sauce. Customers who can take the heat may also ask for a spicy chili sauce, as well. The healthy portions are also reasonably priced, with wraps going for $6 and the rice dishes for $7.

Tina describes the food as Asian and Middle Eastern fusion, bringing together flavors from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

“I think of fusion as two ends meeting,” she said. “It’s just a blending of it.”

She’s also offering specials every day, which have included beef kebabs and chicken curry as well as vegetarian options such as egg curry and vegetable biriyani, a spicy rice dish with mixed vegetables.

These are the dishes she learned how to make from her mother and that she would cook at parties for her family and in-laws back home.

“My only inspiration is my mom,” she said. “Fully, honestly, she made me believe I can be the best cook.”

She remembers starting to cook from the age of six or seven and following her mother around the kitchen so she could soak up everything she was doing.

“So I got it from her. Whatever is in me just comes out naturally,” she said. “Whatever I’m doing every day for so many people, I don’t measure (spices) with measure cups. It’s just (the feel of it). I just have it.”

Tina’s mother passed away suddenly four years ago, she said. Tina had been pregnant with her son at the time and gave birth to her son just five days after her death. She described it as an emotionally intense period, and she hasn’t returned to Bangladesh since.

But she continues to cook with her mother in mind. It is the inspiration of her mother and the support of Khan that has pushed her to open up TinTin’s Mobile Kitchen, she said.

According to the reviews she’s received on her cart’s Facebook page, the food is resonating with people in Waterville.

“We get five star reviews all the time. I haven’t had a four star yet, so I will be disappointed when that happens,” she said, laughing.

Every day brings new customers, she said, but now there are people returning a couple times a week — which she says is the most encouraging sign.

“I’m amazed by everyone’s reaction,” she said. “I’ve even had people say, ‘Please, don’t leave. This town needs a restaurant like yours.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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