Fusion World

Chapter 1, Fusion CookingIn the 1980’s, Florida chef Norman Van Aken borrowed the term fusion from the world of music, where it was used to describe compositions that blend jazz with elements of rock, funk and R&B (rhythm and blues). It seemed to him an apt descriptor for his contemporary, place-based cooking that was influenced by Florida’s mix of Spanish, Cuban, African-American, Native American and West Indian cultures, as well as French techniques. I wanted the best of both worlds, said Van Aken. The concept went mainstream in the 1990s with the rise of multi-outlet chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa, a native of Japan who created his signature style—traditional Japanese techniques combined with South American ingredients—after years of living in Peru.  In Los Angeles, Wolfgang Pluck, an Austrian-born, French-trained transplant, merged his French techniques with Asian ingredients.

Fusion cooking has come to mean combining both elements and techniques of different culinary traditions; it can’t be easily categorized by style or even sometimes what meal a dish might be part of.  Fusion cooking has become a spreading part of contemporary restaurants for the last 30 years, but it is NOT new.  The pluralistic society called India, with its many languages, has more than 35 identifiable cuisines, each influenced and shaped by geography, religion, politics, environment, climate, and other factors.  Like religion, India’s cooking has always reflected an amalgam of borrowings and innovations from the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Moguls, Portuguese, British, and other cultures that left their mark on the country.

Worcestershire sauce, that very traditional British condiment, has tamarind in it – which is a very Middle Eastern and Asian ingredient.  French and Cambodian/Vietnamese cookery have met and borrowed from each other, as has Chinese and Cuban cuisine.  In New York City, you can go to a restaurant which has both banana chips and soy sauce on the table.  The expansion of fusion cooking was originally limited to the import/export of dried or preserved ingredients.  Modern transportation allows us to have fresh ingredients from all over the globe, and for people who are interested in healthy alternatives to some of their various comfort foods, the possibilities have become like stars in the sky.  Populations continue to merge, and salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States.  In Los Angeles you will find Korean pickled cabbage (kimchi) in tacos!  Kimchi resembles that famous German side dish, sauerkraut.  The similarity is not accidental.  Sauerkraut is believed to have been introduced to Europe in its present form by Genghis Khan in the 12th century; the Tartars brought it in their saddlebags.  In both Texas and Massachusetts, there are restaurants which advertise Thai fajitas.  In Diluth, Minnesota, a Vietnamese woman named Pak serves Pad Thai burritos in her tiny restaurant, Pak’s Green Corner, A World Café.  Peculiarly but happily, much of the creativity in fusion cooking is found in food trucks and small establishments, rather than expensive, fashionable restaurants.

In fact, if we examine the history of food, it’s clear that fusion cooking, in the broadest sense, isInternational Collage responsible for much of the world’s traditional cuisine. Without the corn/maize from the Americas, the Italians wouldn’t have polenta. They wouldn’t even have tomato sauce!  Thailand wouldn’t have chiles or peanuts (also  from the Americas), nor coriander, which is from the Mediterranean.  Britain and Ireland wouldn’t have potatoes (they came from Peru), never mind tea (from India and China).  So fusion cooking begins with the introduction of new ingredients, often adapting traditional recipes to make use of those ingredients.  If we dare to think outside the box, one example of fusion cooking is simply mixing wrappers and fillings from different cultures or taking traditional recipes and altering the seasonings.  Why not curried sushi?  Why not potato and scallion pancakes in one?

Imagine yourself making rice pudding in Japan or pasta salad in the Caribbean.  What would that be like?  Pretend you’re from Asia or the Middle East and make some ratatouille.  What would those traditional recipes look like in a different setting or culture, perhaps using different ingredients and/or spices?

To have fun doing fusion cooking, the very idea of which has made even very good cooks tremble, you have to be familiar with some of the basics of the world’s cuisines.  Let’s look at some common foods and see how they are used differently in different cultures and then see what happens if we cross the boundary lines and use them differently.

Potatoes came originally from Peru, and now they are found over the whole world.  You can slice and fry them; you can bake them (whole or in a gratin); you can mash and stuff them with innumerable ingredients; you can bake them into bread or pancakes.  Who says you can’t put lemon and sugar or jam on latkes (potato pancakes) as though they were crepes?  Who says you can’t use potatoes in ratatouille as though they were squash?

Who says you can’t stuff a tortilla with red cabbage and onion, or filo dough with beans and cheese?  Who says you can’t put chocolate in fruit cake?  Or curry in pudding?  Who says eggs are only for breakfast or as an ingredient in dessert (see the recipe for Artichoke Mushroom Frittata in Chapter 9 of A Dance in the Kitchen, Joyful World Cooking)?

Spice Market in NazarethFusion  cooking is simply the modern, intentional mixing of cultures and cuisines, rather than the haphazard combinations first wrought out of necessity, when people moved to new places with different climates and had to use new ingredients with their traditional recipes.  Do you want to experiment with this unparalleled opportunity?  Take time to wander through a good supermarket and notice the kinds of produce and the kinds of condiments they have.  You may find your own inspiration.  You may also make things you will never make again.  But that is not failure; it is learning.  And keep it simple.  The best food preparations are usually elegant in their modesty, both in the numbers of ingredients and in the complexity of their preparation.  We are often misled about cultural foods because so much of what we experience is from restaurant.  Chinese home cooking, for example, is not at all what you think – it’s simple and fresh: lightly steam  greens such as Swiss chard or kale; drain; top with sliced ginger, scallions, and soy sauce; and then drizzle with hot garlic oil.  Dessert in France is often just a piece of fruit and breakfast is coffee and a roll.

Thinking outside the box is not to disregard sensibility or even tradition, but to understand the nature of ingredients and how they work together.  Writer-chef Ching-He Huang gives good advice:  “Don’t mix too many flavors, and don’t get too hung up on authenticity.  It has to be absolutely delicious.  That’s the only rule.”  Well, there may be one more rule, courtesy of Alice Waters:  “Don’t classify your [restaurant], just cook.”

The same may be said for all the issues our world faces.  Don’t classify one another.  Be adventurous; get to know people who are different from yourself – in appearance, custom, belief and expression.