Asian plum sauce flavors pulled pork to create a craveable sandwich with modern-mashup appeal. Photo courtesy of kikkoman. Fusion has evolved from high-brow to ubiquitous to passé — and now, to its latest incarnation as modern American comfort food
By Cindy Han
It’s a telltale sign when the hottest items on the food truck scene have names like “Sushi Burrito” or “Bulgogi Grinder.” Fusion is back — not that it was ever gone, but it has reached new mainstream acceptance in its cool, updated form. Now referred to as “mashup” cuisine, fusion reaches everyone from the Millennials to Middle America.
Even White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford — who is Filipina — incorporates Asian fusion into the First Family’s meals as well as grandiose state dinners. She has said that fusion cuisine is now “as mainstream and as American as the proverbial apple pie.”
THE RISE AND FALL OF FUSION
Fusion cuisine has been around for as long as there have been people from different lands living in close proximity, exchanging and recombining their food traditions. Chef consultant Allen Susser — who pioneered New World Cuisine by fusing the flavors of Florida, Latin America and the Caribbean — describes how fusion emerges naturally when cultures overlap. “I grew up in New York, and I saw a lot of ethnic foods being cooked in my neighborhood. Everyone shopped at the same grocery stores and shared a common bond. That’s what fusion was in the beginning.”
Fusion with a capital “F” emerged on the American fine dining scene around the 1980s, with chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Roy Yamaguchi creating new dishes by intentionally marrying the flavors of different cultures in new ways — especially French and Asian cuisines.
“I was born and raised in Japan, and I was intrigued by French cooking,” recalls Yamaguchi, whose 30-plus Roy’s restaurants now span the world. “From the start of my first chef’s position in a restaurant in Burbank called Le Serene around 1981, I decided to fuse those two cuisines. I can personally say it’s my style of cooking — it’s a real part of me.”
This authentic and innovative approach drove fusion’s appeal in its early days. But fast forward to the 1990s, and fusion began to devolve into what was dubbed “con-fusion.” In their eagerness to ride the trend, chefs were haphazardly throwing together ingredients and calling it fusion, only to create dishes that were often odd combos of disparate foods and flavors. In fact, references to the “F-word” indicated how low in esteem fusion had fallen.
“People got a little too crazy,” recalls Maeve Webster, director of foodservice research and consulting firm Datassential. “I remember when I lived in New York, there was a restaurant nearby serving a combination of Spanish and Chinese foods. It was most appalling — they weren’t making it work. Around that time, the whole fusion thing became a bit of a joke.”
She attributes the shift to the fact that, in the 1990s, restaurants were becoming a more important part of American culture than before, so operators tried hard to differentiate themselves from others by creating new dishes. “The idea was to combine two cuisines, but the operators lost their way, and the food was so far away from either country’s authentic origins that it was unrecognizable.” Webster compares the trend to what sometimes happens now with molecular gastronomy: “Sometimes, fine dining operators just get bored and decide to do something insane just to do something insane. They forget to think, ‘Does this really taste good?’”
Fusion pioneer Roy Yamaguchi serves crispy Hawaiian moi with chile threads and green papaya salad. Photo courtesy of roy’s RETURN TO FLAVOR
Then, over the past decade, came the advent of the Internet and the boom in television shows focused on food and travel. Consumers have become armchair foodies — knowledgeable about foods from other lands and adventurous about tasting new flavors. And fusion has a new audience in younger diners who have grown up with this exposure and are eager to try new, bold combos.
“What you were exposed to used to be determined by how far you could walk, or go on a cart, or in a car,” says chef Susser. “Now it’s about how far you can go on the Internet.” Nowadays, people who watch episodes of Anthony Bourdain tasting exotic foods in far-flung places are more likely to seek out unfamiliar spices or textures. Diners have expanded their global awareness.
“We’re faced with really savvy consumers,” says Tucker Bunch, chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. “They are able to discern authentic versus inauthentic, and authenticity is important for understanding the intrinsic flavors in a dish. Not that you have to be Vietnamese to serve banh mi, but you must be capable of doing it in an authentic style — and doing it with intention.”
Bunch compares this to the art world — where modern artists who create abstract art need to start with a classical foundation. “There is a degree of authenticity that is granted when chefs are trained in classical preparation,” he says. “Before with fusion, some of the chefs lacked the bonafides, then they went into the wilderness without deep appreciation for the original intentions of a dish.”
Beverages keep pace with modern fusion by showcasing flavors that complement authentic global foods, such as this Thai coconut-ginger-basil cocktail. Photo courtesy of perfect puree of napa valley LIGHTING A FUSE
With today’s perfect storm of motivated chefs, educated consumers and new avenues like food trucks and street food — fusion is back in full force. In its new incarnation, it’s more accessible, more authentic, and so integrated into American cuisine that sometimes you don’t even notice it’s there. Ingredients like sriracha, soy sauce and curry have become the ketchup and mustard of today.
“I wouldn’t say that fusion is completely mass market yet, but it’s edging in that direction,” says Webster. “Even in Middle America, you are seeing curry chicken salad and Tex-Mex flavors.” Take mainstream chains, for example. At The Cheesecake Factory, chef Bob Okura is known for building a huge menu of quality offerings, often incorporating fusion flair into the mix. The chain’s Fish Tacos include soft corn tortillas and tempura fish, served with black beans and rice. Applebee’s offers the Quesadilla Burger — sandwiching a burger between a Jack, cheddar and bacon quesadilla along with Mexi-ranch sauce, pico de gallo and shredded lettuce. Ruby Tuesday’s popular Asian Glazed Salmon uses a sweet peanut-barbecue sauce and sesame seeds. And California Pizza Kitchen, of course, has been in the fusion game for decades with its signature Thai Chicken and Jamaican Jerk Chicken pizzas.
With fusion permeating the food world, high-end chefs continue to find new, creative approaches to honor ethnic flavors in their dishes.
“Now chefs are a lot more interested in the culture behind the ingredients — the history,” says Susser. “And they are sourcing locally but being inspired internationally. So they can apply all of that and bring it to a whole new level.”
Susser experiments with global spices and essential oils to bring a touch of fusion to the plate. “I like to use fennel pollen, which is Mediterranean and exotic, on a local fish — like yellowtail snapper from South Florida — sautéed in olive oil and finished with lime and chiles.” He also applies a fusion process to ceviche, drawing inspiration from Japanese raw fish, but using citrus and fresh chiles to “cook” the fish.
Yamaguchi also enjoys taking a fresh look at fusion, although he stays true to the principles he established years ago. “My style really hasn’t changed. I did start with basically Japanese and Chinese flavors in my style of fusion, but over the years I’ve included Korean, Filipino, Malaysian and other countries’ flavors.” One of his current favorite flavor combos is Korean miso fused with lemongrass, ginger and kaffir lime with a lobster sauce.
Yamaguchi says his approach is to look not at a particular dish, but at fusion as a whole — the overall understanding of cultures, flavors and styles. He believes chefs should only use fusion when it makes sense. “I don’t try and fuse everything. Some of my dishes are pretty straightforward without adding any Asian elements.”
The same holistic fusion philosophy is driving the food truck craze, where you’ll find the most daring and playful examples of fusion today. From coast to coast — including places in between — people are taking to the streets to find tasty, fun mashups. In
Los Angeles, Roy Choi is credited for reviving fusion for the modern era by introducing the wildly popular Korean taco from his food truck Kogi Taco. In Chicago, 5411 Empanadas offers a traditional empanada format but with gourmet-Euro fillings, from ratatouille to Malbec beef. The Fukuburger food truck in Las Vegas serves “all-American burgers” with a Japanese twist, like wasabi mayo, pickled red ginger, and furikake (dried and ground fish, sesame seeds, chopped seaweed, sugar and salt).
Why do these work? Tucker Bunch says the collision of cultures has to make sense. “When Roy Choi took the format of a taco and filled it with Korean flavors, the Korean flavors remained intact and with all their integrity, within a Latin taco structure,” he says. “What’s successful in food trucks today is when you have a familiar carrier, like a taco or flatbread, but the ingredients are from a new, less familiar cuisine. People can get interesting new flavors in a familiar context — like bao buns or naan topped with dal, which is kind of like Indian flavors on a pizza.”
When people are able to not only accept new flavors, but gobble them up like comfort food, you know that fusion cuisine has hit home.
“I love the direction our food culture is going,” says Susser. “I think that awareness among consumers is forcing chefs to be much more creative and concerned with quality. It forces us to work harder. Things are changing, and I think it’s a great day for food.”