Fusion Cuisine - The 'F' Word

Fusion food can be of two types: intelligent or simply monstrous. Learn the difference between the two

By: Raj Rao, Managing Director, NYC.PIE

Posted on: July 14, 2015

Korean Tacos with Beef

Fusion today is as popular as ever and engendering new and exciting ways of creating and thinking about food. Fusion cuisine now has a younger audience that, thanks to television and Internet, is more knowledgeable and curious about different foods and cultures, and more than willing to try the next fusion creation. These days, fusion is becoming more and more mainstream, with ethnic ingredients like soy sauce and sriracha becoming household staples. Food trucks are also embracing the fusion trend, crafting daring concepts, such as Korean tacos and Southern sushi. With the fusion trend showing no signs of slowing down, fast casuals and fast food chains seem to be following in the food trucks’ footsteps by offering more ethnic food combinations. 

A New Fusion Trend Recently, a new type of fusion cuisine has gained popularity—mash-ups. Mash-up dishes are simply two distinct food concepts combined to form one. Perhaps the most well-known mash-up is the Cronut (a cross between a donut and a croissant), which exploded across America, making it the hottest food trend of 2013. Other examples include the ramen (as in the Japanese ramen noodles) burger, the donut burger, the bacon shake, the pizza cake, and the list goes on. Quick Service Restaurants in particular seem to be monopolizing on this trend, with chains like Taco Bell unveiling unusual concepts like the waffle taco and the biscuit taco. These peculiar combinations are leaving some to wonder if chains are more focused on the novelty of these items rather than quality. Only time will tell if these mash-ups will actually be profitable after the initial novelty wears off.

Regardless of the success of the more outlandish mash-ups, their original inspiration, fusion cuisine, looks like it’s here to stay. With fusion influence steadily gaining mainstream acceptance, it’s only a matter of time before items like the Cronut become less of a trend and more of an American staple.

Ramen Burger

So what the ‘F’ is it?
Fusion cuisine probably needs a quick explanation. Food is as political a subject as other seemingly controversial subjects. Food often plays an extraordinary role in shaping history. 

Fusion food takes, as it's starting point, the belief that any ingredient, from any part of the world, has the potential to be cooked and eaten. Who is there to say, for example, that we must never use a Malaysian ingredient in a traditional French dish? Perhaps the dish will benefit. Perhaps it will change it, but surely if it tastes all the better, or even, if it tastes intriguingly different, then that can be a positive thing. And if it doesn't work, then best to forget it – but what harm has been done in the pursuit of the new. I must point out that Worcestershire sauce, which is a traditional British condiment, has tamarind in it – which is a very Middle Eastern and Asian ingredient. 

Without fusion, the Italians wouldn't be serving polenta. Corn and maize are from the New World as it was once called – the Americas. Thais wouldn't have chilies or peanuts – more staples from the New World. Thailand also wouldn't have coriander, which is a Mediterranean herb. The Spanish couldn't serve their delicious grilled toast rubbed with garlic, olive oil and tomatoes (tomatoes are from the New World) and the Brits have Peru to thank for the potato and India and China for their tea. If we trace back all of the classic ingredients from each cuisine - we'd be very surprised at what we'd find.

Fusion has become a profanity among food lovers in recent years, synonymous with mindless mixing of ingredients in the name of novelty rather than good taste. And it’s undoubtedly responsible for some miserable Frankenstein dishes – chicken balti pizza, anyone? But now it may be time to rehabilitate the term. I for one believe that it’s a mistake to write off the blending of food culture as a modern atrocity. 

Fusion or Con-fusion?
In an attempt to stand out during the fusion food boom, some chefs focused less on marrying flavors and more on unexpected flavor combinations, which resulted in odd and undesirable dishes. As a result, the term “fusion” is often met with hostility in the culinary world today, sometimes being referred to as the “F” word by chefs who don’t want to be associated with the “con-fusion” era of fusion food. A new species is being cooked in the alembic of fusions. The membrane between cultures, between worlds, between old and new ways of being is breaking down. In the past, migrations and diffusions allowed for gradual changes and exchanges between cultures and identities. Now nothing is gradual. We are watching a speeded up movie of strange multicultural mitosis and their stranger spawn. 

Let’s look at a few examples of this phenomenon, starting with food, perhaps the most basic and understandable component of the fusionary world. After all, the palate is a palace of culture. The topography of the tongue alone travels the vast geographies of taste - sweet, sour, salty, spicy, bitter - each its own domain in the taste buds. Different cultures get contracted to specific alliances across these geographies, which is why Chinese food does not taste like Mexican, nor French like Egyptian. Each nation of taste cultivates a distinct gustatory coalition of foods and their preparations that affects consciousness in very real ways, making for significant differences in people.

Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you know. The implications boggle the mouth as well as the mind. For can one really retain habits of claustrophobia and paranoia while burning with the endorphin-induced bliss of Mexican chili peppers? 

Go into most fine restaurant kitchens in North America and you find Japanese chefs trained in France, American chefs who have studied in Shanghai, and a coalition of sous chefs who have mastery of many cuisines. Practitioners of a high art form, the best of the new fusion chefs are blending the notes of individual cuisines into a never-before heard symphony of culinary sound. The complex music of the new cuisine is so unexpected that eaters are enticed to leave behind the sensory expectations of the familiar and take off for new territory. A great fusion meal demands that we meet the world’s flavors from a new place in consciousness. When we eat familiar foods, we know what to expect. Our response is comfortable and well established. 

What works, and what doesn’t
Take, for instance, the homey warmth and slightly sweet and silky perfection of a steaming bowl of French onion soup. Then mix in cilantro and lemon grass and even an unusual root vegetable, like purple potatoes. Suddenly we have to be cognizant of what we are eating. Jolted out of our sleepy state, we wake up to a variety of tastes and textures, a new global geography of place - the French Alps conjoined with fields of Thailand and a Peruvian garden. Putting the basic building blocks of taste together in new ways is a reveille to the senses, an innovative and engaging-wake up call.

When fusion food is created randomly as happens in too many restaurants, it is like a monkey hitting the keys of piano. Such cooking gives us the wisdom of the future with the knowledge of the past, an incredible time consciousness that, like the salmon who returns to where it was spawned, helps us find our way home to the land of our future self. At its best, fusion cuisine is a roadmap to the cellular memory of our species - a virtual tarot of food.

In fact, fusion has gone further, incorporating ingredients and methods from the Middle East, the Caribbean and Central and South America into menus that, when they're successful, begin to lose their national identity and become something like the diet for a culinary One World.

Can a cuisine be in flux fuse? A region would have to be impregnable - as China once was, or seemed to be - for its food to be constant enough to register the change that fusion represents.

No, what I mean when one talks about "fusion" is a particular historical circumstance having to do with late-20th-century chefs and their urge to create. Of course, most high-rent chefs offer the recipes on their menus as their own, but these dishes are usually variations (often wonderful variations) on standard themes - southwestern American, northern African, bistro French. It's not complicated: you sit down, open the menu and more or less know where you are.

Smoked Salmon and Caviar Pizza

Yet some chefs have wished to stretch their range. Aside from a few unsung oddities, the first inkling I recall of what we now call fusion came in the late 1970s in New York, Tokyo and Paris. Japanese chefs trained in France began to flirt with recipe intermarriage: tempura hollandaise! But the chef who solidified the concept of fusion, if not the term, is better known for his duck-sausage and smoked-salmon-and-caviar pizzas. In 1981, Wolfgang Puck, an Austrian who had honed his cooking skills in France, created a masterpiece fusion restaurant, Spago, by combining chefs, not ingredients, in the open kitchen: Mark Peel, Kazuto Matsusaka, Nancy Silverton and, for pizzas, Ed LaDou.

Look at Spago's early fusion dishes: pizza with artichokes, shiitakes, leeks, eggplants and sage; roasted duck with pears and ginger; marinated tuna with avocado, kaiware (daikon sprouts) and sweet onions; sweetbreads sautéed crisp with mustard greens and smoked pancetta. Puck was probably the first culinary postmodernist, and his earliest California restaurants - Spago in Los Angeles and Chinois on Main in Santa Monica - were the first to acknowledge that the world's appetites have become nomadic. 

But as every true cook knows, you can't toss just anything into a wok and serve it. The geographic identity of some dishes may be up for grabs, but eaters accustomed to certain tastes and textures aren't going to relinquish their prejudices completely. Pre-fusion expectations of sequence, balance and contrast still apply, and restaurant-goers are loath to embrace food that's radically novel. Fusion at its most successful fuses the cross-cultural with the reassuring.

When Gray Kunz was at Lespinasse in New York City, he took one successful route to fusion by thinking of flavor ingredients from ‘far away lands’ - spices, vinegars, herbs - as "essences."  The route that Tetsuya Wakuda has taken at his Sydney restaurant, Tetsuya's, is superficially more traditional, but his subtle and quietly surprising dishes belong to the best of fusion cuisine.

Fusion may have been an inevitable development in tourist-friendly Australia, a nation colonized by the English but also home to a large and various Asian population. Many Tetsuya recipes use a mixture of recognizably Asian ingredients to "relocate" a recognizably Western staple, as in his roasted beef ribs softened with the sweet pungency of a sake marinade and cooked with ground coriander, turmeric, ginger and curry. The resulting dish completely loses its compass locations: it "eats" neither Western nor Eastern but simply contemporary. A more challenging innovation is the chef's use of grilled fillets of veal as a neutral Euro-base for the slight shock of a glaze of wasabi-and-sea-urchin-roe butter, but the result is the same: a secure dish that's a citizen of an integrated new world.

Buckwheat noodles and squid sautéed in olive oil and chicken stock flavored with mirin, oyster sauce, ginger and garlic. Fried sardines with bacon and shiso accompanied by endive and apple salad. See the pattern? The methods and many of the ingredients are European, but major Asian flavor notes, mostly Japanese, enrich and transform the whole into something more than the sum of its parts, either through harmony (salty plus sweet, for instance) or through cultural contrast.

Fusion works not only by artfully combining flavors but also by reminding the eater of the gap that's being breached. When the look and taste of such ingredients as nori become so familiar that they cease to challenge the Western palate - cease to seem "foreign" - then chefs may feel the urge to look elsewhere in order to invent. And fusion, having succeeded so well, will disappear.

Sunda, Chicago

Look Out: Recommendations
Some of the more creative chef driven establishments that I’ve dined at: 

In Chicago try Rios d’Sudamerica. Dino Perez has stepped away from “old-school” Peruvian in favor of what he and chef Jose Victorio call a “fusion of Peruvian, Argentinean and Brazilian.” Mexique Chef Carlos Gaytan is going for Mexican-French here, but most of his food comes off as upscale versions of the former. This isn’t a problem when the fusion thing works, as it does with the cochinita rillettes and the luscious duck confit tacos. At Sunda, go with an open mind and opt for the creative, fusiony signatures of the house: crispy rice nigiri topped with spicy tuna, strip steak formed into “lollipops” around lemongrass skewers, and a salad of salty, crispy-skinned duck meat. At Amelia’s Bar and Grill, former Mundial chef Eusevio Garcia serves langoustines over creamy risotto dotted with velvety mushrooms, pairs grilled lamb loin with a crunchy sugar-snap-pea slaw and lemony potato cake, and makes one hell of a chile relleno - a blistered green-pepper, oozing cheese-covered sweet corn and tender eggplant. Ruxbin serves modern Asian fusion exemplified by Edward Kim’s sophisticated food: K-Town empanadas, calamari bokkum, and nine-spice quinoa. Try the sake mussels with miso.  

WP24, Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, on the 24th floor of the Ritz Carlton in Downtown Los Angeles is WP24 by Wolfgang Puck. This Chinese-Fusion Bistro offers diners two Prix Fixe choices. Popular entrees include the Peking Duck, “Angry” Two-Pound Live Maine Lobster, and Whole Sea Bass Baked in a Fragrant Salt Crust. The cuisine is of the execution and quality that has made Wolfgang Puck world famous. Chaya Brasserie has remained an enduring success for nearly 30 years. The lure is the distinctive East meets West cooking by Executive Chef Shigefumi Tachibe, who first introduced Los Angeles to Franco-Japonaise cooking at the legendary La Petit Chaya in the early 1980s. Chef Tachibe blends exotic ingredients and time honored traditions from his native Japan to create an inspired menu that offers unforgettable fusion of tradition and progression not soon to be forgotten. 

Jean Georges, New York

In New York, Buddakan’s Stephen Starr, the man behind Philadelphia's acclaimed Striped Bass, brings NYers Taro Puff Lollipops (minced pork with ginger), edamame dumplings, lobster egg rolls, masterfully prepared Mongolian lamb chops with crystallized ginger crust, glazed Alaskan black cod with chili eggplant or tea-smoked chicken with chutney. With Nobu Next Door, Japanese-Peruvian fusion fare soars to unbelievable heights at this off-shoot of the original (and legendary) Chef Matsuhisa's multi-course omakase menus. Spare and sleek, the modern dining room of Jean Georges provides the perfect backdrop for truly perfect food. New French cuisine is served up in exciting ways that feature exotic spices and herbs. The prix fixe menus include such delectables such as freshly carved meats and tasty soups like the young garlic soup with frog's legs. 

I have a singular and simple rule when it comes to either food or wine, if it tastes good to you, then it’s right.

Bon apetit!

Raj Rao has lived in the United States for 28 years and was educated in San Diego, California, completing his degree in Business Administration. His career spans over 30 years in the hotel industry in California, Chicago, The Caribbean and India. Passionate about Food & Beverage, he started his career with Doubletree Hotels and has worked for Four Seasons Hotels, Ritz Carlton Hotels and Oberoi Hotels in various roles. He was also deeply involved in pre-opening F&B outlets for Ritz Carlton Hotels in Boston, Key Biscayne-Miami and New Orleans. In 2002, he was shortlisted 1 of 8 candidates for the position of Food & Beverage Director for The White House in Washington D.C., under the Clinton administration. He then came back to India and headed the F&B division at The Oberois, New Delhi where he was instrumental in launching the benchmark restaurant, Threesixty. In 2012 he set up the entire Kitchen & F&B structure for the 1200 bed Fortis hospital in Gurgaon where he has successfully redefined hospital cuisine. Raj Rao has now created his own brand, NYC.PIE, which is a Boutique Pizzeria catering to pizza lovers. He plans on scaling this brand through company owned stores as well as a Partner Owner Program (POP).

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