‘Fusion’ cuisine is older than the Silk Road
Among the cuisine trends noted at the beginning of 2015 was the comeback kid “fusion.” Nation’s Restaurant News Senior Food Editor Bret Thorn blogged that such talk could reawaken the dismissive epithets of “fusion confusion” chefs heaped on “the combination, often self-consciously, of elements of different cuisines in a single dish,” but he urged these guardians of gourmet to relax:
Guests enjoy adding the whimsy to the traditional, the unusual to the mundane, the pastrami to the ramen.
Just go with it and stop worrying about what to call it.
All you have to do is read any history book — say, about the Crusades, the Silk Road, the Muslim conquest of North Africa, Spain and Sicily, or even the Japanese occupation of Korea — to discover that as cultures trade with or conquer each other, new ingredients and cooking techniques rub off on both conqueror and conquered. That’s how pasta migrated from China to Italy and potatoes from South America to Gangwon province in South Korea. The cuisines of Central Asia are a fusion of East and West.
Self-absorbed celebrity chefs did not invent “fusion” cuisine in the 1980s–1990s. Although that term came into the culinary lexicon at that time, it’s just a new word to describe what world travelers and adventurous home cooks have been doing for millennia: taking new ingredients and submerging them into culinary classics.
Dishes as diverse as bahn mi from Vietnam, kimbap from Korea and marinara-slathered spaghetti from Italy, now considered “authentic” ethnic food, were “fusion” when first invented.
So there’s nothing new about fusion cuisine. The demand for “authentic” or “traditional” ethnic cuisines is a postmodern conversation. This profound pressure placed upon most ethnic restaurants and the chefs that operate them to double as unpaid ambassadors of the country that they or their ancestors came from is totally new and somewhat daunting for American chefs to navigate.
It’s a symptom of an age in which more and more Americans can afford to actually travel to countries such as China, Vietnam and Nepal, countries that once were very out of reach. They get a taste for the food in those countries and want their local Chinese, Vietnamese and Nepalese restaurants to pretend that they are on some street corner in Beijing, Saigon or Kathmandu. Some food elites who frequent the bowels of online food-review sites want “ethnic” restaurants to hermetically seal themselves from any American influence. That is unrealistic and stifling for the development of the next “authentic” dishes.
Kimchi was largely introduced to the United States by the wives of servicemen returning from the Korean War. Now, it is now piled high on pizzas, hot dogs and hamburgers in home kitchens, food blogs and restaurant menus all over the country. Even the gourmeting of grilled cheese has brought kimchi into the sandwich, and people love it. Americans have taken something unfamiliar — and initially frightful — as kimchi and married with with their favorite comfort foods and created dishes that may become comfort foods for the next generation.
And that natural process is just as “traditional” as it is “fusion.”