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February 6, 2014

Taking the Confusion Out of Fusion

In 1989, acclaimed chef and Miami restaurateur Norman Van Aken  gave a name to the type of cooking that combined crossover flavors from various ethnic cuisines and regional ingredients with classical cooking techniques. He called it “fusion,” borrowing the term from jazz.

Aken’s dishes were complex, both in flavor and technique, for instance Chiles Spiked Veal Adobo with Corn Relish, Garlic and a Spanish Sherry Wine Vinegar Reduction” a Mexican Adobo rub with a classical French sauce and Nueva Pork Havana, marinated in a mix of sour oranges, garlic and so forth, in which he integrated black beans into a sauce with fried plantains, instead of the more expected black beans and rice.

It took cookbook author and culinary instructor Hugh Carpenter tomake fusion cooking more accessible. In his Fusion Food Cookbook (with Teri Sanderson, Artisan) in 1994, he stated that fusion food celebrates the new American cuisine, in which distinctive seasonings and cooking styles from Asia, Mexico, the American Southwest, New Orleans, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean are incorporated into familiar home cooking.


So, what is fusion cooking all about these days?

After the word was bandied about and used and misused, a dish is more likely to be defined as ethnic-inspired, than as fusion cooking, like some of the newly available Heritage Ovens Desserts, offered through Performance Foodservice, like the Latin-inspired tres leche cake and mango mousse cake. That may be a more accurate term for the combinations of ingredients and flavors that no longer seem so exotic. In fact, the National Restaurant Association noted that “ethnic-inspired” breakfast items such as coconut milk pancakes and Asian-flavored syrups, will be among the top 20 trends this year, and number one in the breakfast/brunch category.

When contacted by email, Carpenter who is finishing up a Mexican cookbook still defines fusion cooking much as he did in his cookbook, “as a combination of one or more elements from different culinary traditions, such as a French stew simmered in a wok; or topping Kung Pao Chicken with crumbled goat cheese; or a Mexican mole made with braised veal shanks; or Pad Thai made with Italian noodles.”

The idea of melding elements of different cuisines has long roots, so much so that it’s often hard to remember when two cuisines met, married, and lived happily ever after. Carpenter cites the use of chiles, which were introduced to China by the Spanish in the 16th century. “That was originally a fusion approach that eventually became traditional (in their cuisine).”

As with all trends, the term “fusion” fell on hard times, as chefs tried to outdo themselves in flavor combinations – forgetting the critical rule of thumb: That anyone can combine hoisin sauce with chutney and put it over pasta, but the end result has to taste good. “Fusion-Confusion,” writes Carpenter, “shows an ignorance of food trends that is staggering.”

But the more subtle forms of fusion have become so accepted, that most people may not even know that chipotle ketchup served on top of buffalo meatloaf or a hamburger with green chiles on ciabatta is a mash up of several cuisines. Says Carpenter, “Bad cooking knows no boundaries, but good fusion food has always been present (as far back) as the dim past, and will always be with us.”


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