Fusion cuisine. For fans, it’s a delectable reinvention of traditional foods with unexpected and unusual ingredients. To detractors, it’s disgusting, ridiculous, excessive gastronomic chaos. But what exactly is it?
Fusion historically is based on a classical French cooking combined with Pan-Asian ingredients and techniques. The array of flavors and ingredients like curries, wasabi, sriracha, soy, lemongrass, cardamom, cumin, fish sauce, shrimp paste, and Thai basil, to name a few, can be sublime when mixed with French methods in the hands of a skilled chef.
The style began in late 1800’s French Indochina, when Pan-Asian elements were first introduced into formal French cuisine. By the time Vietnam earned its independence in 1954, French ingredients and techniques such as butter, bread, reductions, and consommés were instilled into the local culinary lexicon, having been blended with Vietnamese seasonings like mint, coriander, and lime over the intervening years.
Anita Lo is the chef and co-owner of New York City’s Annisa Restaurant. A contestant on “Top Chef Masters,” Lo also defeated Mario Batali on the show “Iron Chef America.” She is a second-generation Chinese American from Michigan who studied French at Columbia University and earned a degree from the famed Parisian cooking school, Ritz-Escoffier. While she describes her food as contemporary American, she acknowledges that many would see it as fusion.
Dishes like A Foie Gras Soup Dumplings, with a black vinegar and balsamic vinegar reduction taking place of the traditional black vinegar dipping sauce, and Hot-Cold Skate prepared with Korean, Japanese and French influences, have earned her the label. The “cold” in the latter is a piece of skate sashimi mixed with Korean spices, chopped avocado seasoned with scallions and soy sauce, and shaved French breakfast radishes topped with micro radish sprouts. The “hot” is sautéed skate served with a Korean kimchee-based vinaigrette and avocado sauce. A classical French technique combined with Pan-Asian influences is clearly evident in all of Lo’s Food.
“Fusion technically means the melding of two or more cultures. It works when you understand the cultural references of the dishes you’re creating. And it’s more likely to work if you have a solid understanding of the cuisines you’re working with,” Lo says. “In addition to good training you have to have a mind that thinks about food in those ways and you have to innately comprehend how to blend them.”
Great fusion is found mostly in the United States and Australia, due in part to the immigrant foundations of both countries. The same is true of Hong Kong with its past as a vibrant trading center, and decades of British rule.
“I think of it as contemporary haute cuisine. Cuisines are global now. There aren’t really a lot of clear-cut lines of demarcation,” Lo says. Whether you call it contemporary haute, or just plain old fusion, for it to taste good, it ultimately requires a chef with a strong background in the classics and a deft hand with non-French flavors.
Whether or not it is successful is subjective. “It works if you think it tastes good. If you’re bringing in other flavors they have to be discernable, and they have to make sense,” Lo explains. The more that you eat, the more curious and informed you’ll be. You’ll be able to tell the difference between the chef who’s merely adventurous versus and the chef who’s truly skilled. The more you know, the more you’ll know what’s good.
“When you’ve added too many things, when the dish is over-complicated and the flavor muddled,” that’s bad, explains Lo. “Or when you do something and you’re not making the dish any better. Like ‘Cheeseburger Spring Rolls.’ Gross. Why? Why? Disgusting. I just don’t think that should be done.”
With all things food, it’s about what your taste buds tell you. One man’s “This is so foul that I’m pulling all my teeth out so I never have to eat it or anything like it again,” is another man’s, “Hey!... Got seconds?”
Often, when you eat fusion, you’re eating an experiment. Hopefully it’s one that the chef has perfected on other unsuspecting diners. But even if he or she hasn’t, a chef with a true culinary education, who’s naturally talented and knows which ingredients work together and which don’t, will often yield an experiment that doesn’t go awry.