Illustration of lamb torta
Illustration by Jeannie Phan for Resy

Taste MattersNew York

Turns Out Now Is the Golden Era for Fusion Cuisine

By

At The Migrant Kitchen in Brooklyn’s Dumbo, the lamb torta is filled with sumac and Aleppo-spiced lamb, black beans, and avocado, a reflection of the tastes of co-owners Nasser Jaber and Dan Dorado. If this fusion of Arab and Latin cuisines seems unexpected, it is an obvious match to Jaber and Dorado. Jaber was born in the town of Ramallah, and he points out that there is a long history of migration between such Palestinian towns and Latin America — an exchange of both people and culture.

“In my village, we would drink mate, and we started making empanadas at weddings,” he says, recalling his time in Ramallah. This crossover history explains many of the Arab-Latin creations at The Migrant Kitchen, from those lamb-stuffed tortas, to empanadas and an adobado-style pork shawarma. Even though logical overlap between the two cuisines exists (cumin is a primary spice in both, for example), a history of migration and an Arab-Latin subculture substantiates it.

This, to me, is the real definition of fusion cuisine: a borderless style of cooking, rooted in the multitudes that make people interesting. I would go so far as to argue that fusion is the history of food itself — the ways that adaptation, assimilation, and appropriation have shaped how society eats for the last five thousand years.

It is also thriving today, certainly in America. Chefs across the country are using food to hash out the complexities of the modern American identity, and so we have come upon what I’d describe as a golden era of fusion cooking. In New York, there is everything from the Tex-Mex food at Yellow Rose to the Korean-Cajun blend at KJUN, excellent food that is rooted in a place, a culture, an identity. But not just New York: Restaurants like Rooster & Owl in Washington; Lingr in St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Hanchic in Los Angeles prove this is a cross-country trend.

In a restaurant context, however, the word fusion is still tangled up with a trend popularized by a handful of influential French-trained chefs in the 1980s and ‘90s — a trend that was doomed to fail. In 1983, Wolfgang Puck opened Chinois on Main in Santa Monica, the menu fused together with French, Chinese, and Californian ingredients and techniques. Chinois was perhaps the most well-known restaurant of the era to employ the style of cooking that borrowed ingredients from global pantries, though the restaurateur and chef Richard Wing was blending European and Chinese cuisines at his restaurant Imperial Dynasty, in central California, as early as the 1960s. (In a similar omission, the American chef Norman van Aken was the first to use “fusion” to describe his own, emergent mashup of Caribbean ingredients and European techniques in 1988, perhaps overlooking the work of existing Creole chefs who, by definition, were already cooking that way.)

Considering the esteem of Eurocentric cuisines at the time, the proximity to something French gave value to “exotic” ingredients like ginger and soy sauce. Well-traveled chefs cherry-picked international ingredients and repurposed them for curious diners who aspired to affirm their own worldly palates. Chefs like Jean-George Vongerichten and Joël Robuchon adopted the style, and further legitimized it in their respective restaurant empires. But the practice was not limited to European chefs; it was a sign of the times for any ambitious chef. Ming Tsai, the critically acclaimed Chinese American chef, solidified his reputation at Blue Ginger, in Wellesley, Mass., where foie gras siumai was one of his signature dishes. The Cantonese-inspired dumplings were served in a broth made with Sauternes, a classic foie gras pairing. The era’s implied sophistication-by-association, and the underpinning hierarchy of European cuisine over everything else is, to me, the real reason why this iteration of fusion cooking was so deeply flawed.

I don’t believe critics made it to this part of the criticism — namely because, just over a decade into the trend, fusion turned into a formulaic means of drawing attention with buzzy, eccentric mashups. Rather than consider the ways in which powerful chefs were normalizing non-European ingredients, attention turned to the “con-fusion” cuisine that proliferated. Fusion became ubiquitous and unwieldy; ingredients like wasabi and pineapple became meaningless shortcuts to worldliness and personality. Just because you can wrap anything up in a sushi roll doesn’t mean you should.

Case in point: In a 1999 review of Roy’s New York, a pioneering pan-Pacific Rim restaurant, New York Times critic William Grimes wrote, “If clowns had a cuisine, this would be it. The food at Roy’s is foolish, a parade of exotic ingredients, confused and overpowering sauces, and ideas piled one on top of the other until the recipes simply collapse under their own weight.” Harsh for a review, yes, but it also sums up fusion at rock bottom. The style fell so fast and so far out of fashion that subsequent chefs who cooked with a diverse assortment of ingredients resisted the label, opting instead for “globally inspired” or “multicultural.”

 

▪️

Ingredients like
wasabi and pineapple
became meaningless
shortcuts to worldliness
and personality.
Just because you can
wrap anything up
in a sushi roll doesn’t
mean you should.

▪️

 

Even without the name, fusion cooking continued to evolve. Most importantly, it moved away from that unsettling ‘80s-era power dynamic. In the late 1990s, chefs like Anita Lo, Patricia Yeo, and Floyd Cardoz in New York forged ahead with a cooking style that more successfully reached across continents, while also referencing their own multicultural experiences.

A truly significant shift came in the mid-aughts, though, as the Momofuku restaurants Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar moved the conversation about restaurants away from fine dining, with its European overtones, and focused it on the kind of unrestrained food that a lot more diners could relate to — channeled, as it were, through David Chang’s Korean American palate. In 2008, Roy Choi launched Kogi Truck, combining Korean and Mexican cuisines, a reflection of his life in Los Angeles. Chang on one coast, and Choi on the other, were two of the best-known markers of a broader trend of chefs side-stepping the Eurocentric framework that had dominated restaurant culture up to that point. They used food to discuss their complicated, often hyphenated, identities.

If that is fusion’s new form, it shows no signs of slowing down. In August, new census data revealed a stunning, nearly threefold increase in Americans who consider themselves to be multiracial. Beyond that, Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, followed by Hispanics; and 14% of the U.S. population is foreign-born. In other words, America has the most diverse immigrant community in the world. At its core, fusion — good fusion — is about reflecting some form of the human experience. No, perhaps it’s not exactly a reflection of the country as a harmonious melting pot. But it is a mirror held up to a nation in flux.

Amidst this rapidly changing landscape, though, lie some of the same concerns that hampered fusion in its earlier, flawed form: namely, who gets credit for, and who profits from, cooking with these ingredients, and who is left out.

Certainly, I believe a chef can combine ingredients from outside their own cultural experiences to produce something brilliant. After all, a good chef is a good chef. But using East-meets-West as a superficial framework — as in, what an imaginative combination — is very different than someone providing the context of their life experiences, as they unfold on a plate. Those experiences might be direct, like the overlap of Arab and Latin influences in Palestinian towns, but I believe they can also be learned, like Ivan Orkin’s expat take on ramen after years of living in Japan. As a displaced expat myself, I empathize with how distant cultures can prompt appreciation, even infatuation. In other words, there isn’t an easy answer to these questions of ownership and appropriation.

But I’m heartened by the fact that we’ve largely moved on from the narrow approach that relied on French technique as an anchor, and only extended credit to white chefs. That’s why I get excited about the Migrant Kitchen’s spiced lamb torta, or even a restaurant like Luthun, where the tasting menu exists within a fine dining setting, but contends with what it means to cook and eat food in the world today, beyond the confines of a Eurocentric point of view. That’s been the true story, and the real value, of fusion all along.

 

Mahira Rivers is a restaurant critic and writer based in New York. In addition to spending five years as an anonymous inspector for The Michelin Guides, her writing has been published in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Food & Wine, GQ and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.

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