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Eons before White Castle ever conceived of sriracha chicken sliders—way back when food trucks selling curry burritos or sushi sub sandwiches were only a glimmer on a very, very distant horizon—fusion cuisine had a proponent in the person of Catherine de’ Medici, wife of France’s King Henry II. Many sources credit de’ Medici with having introduced signature Italian ingredients and dishes—from pastries to mayonnaise to artichokes, peas, spinach, and broccoli—to French cuisine when she left Italy in the 1530s.
In the centuries since then, migration, colonization, economic necessity, and a host of other factors have spawned various forms of culinary fusion, which I divide into two broad categories: invisible and visible. Understanding the basics of both can point the way to a nearly unlimited range of new-product possibilities.
Invisible Fusion Invisible fusions are those that are based on content rather than form. These are well-established cuisines that blend so seamlessly that those who aren’t students of history might not even recognize them as fusions. Filipino food—often called the “original Asian fusion”—falls into this category, consisting as it does of signature ingredients such as vinegar, rice, fish sauce, fish and shrimp paste, adobo, pork, garlic, tomato, pancit noodles, and coconut. Filipino cuisine is a delicious melding of Malaysian, Spanish, Chinese, and American ingredients. Those who have never tried sisig (fried pork seasoned with chile peppers and topped with a fried egg) or afritada (a tomato-based stew with chicken or pork, peppers, and onions) are in for a real treat.
Other invisible fusion forms include Chinese-Cuban, which arose when Chinese laborers migrated to Cuba in the mid-1800s, bringing with them a broad range of spices and seasonings from the Far East. The hybrid’s common ingredients include plantains, pork, fish, rice, yucca, and fermented black beans, and its signature dishes include fried rice with roasted pork and whole red snapper, steamed or fried, seasoned with scallions, cilantro, garlic, and citrus.
At the end of the 19th century, the arrival of Japanese immigrants in Peru led to a particular type of Japanese-Peruvian fusion in which fish, lime, corn, potatoes, garlic, and aji peppers figured prominently. And here in the U.S., the large population of Koreans and Mexicans in modern-day Los Angeles has produced a Korean-Mexican hybrid notable for the creative mixing and matching of ingredients such as tortillas, pork, beef, bulgogi (spicy marinated meat), soy sauce, sesame oil, jalapeños, lime, kimchi, onion, garlic, and gochujang, a popular Korean condiment.
Visible Fusion In the past 20 years or so, these invisible fusions have been complemented by a new wave of less subtle, more visible mash-ups that have as much to do with form as with content. I’m talking here about the creative inspirations you might see being served out of a hip food truck in Millennial enclaves from Santa Monica to Austin and Boulder to Brooklyn: kimchi quesadillas, naanwiches, roast duck tacos, tikka masala burritos, sushi samosas, rice bowls with Indian curry, waffles with Nutella, and so on. Often, the use of a commonly known and well-recognized carrier provides the degree of familiarity required for the uninitiated to take a chance on a new flavor or combination of flavors.
Fusion 2.0 The quick-serve fusion experiments that have taken root in recent years, from sriracha and guacamole burgers to Asian chicken salads, seem to represent Fusion 1.0—an introductory approach. But the options for creative expansion are almost literally endless. First, get a copy of Susheela Raghavan Uhl’s Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings; second, pore over her distillation of the key ingredients of most major global cuisines; and, third, consider how each can be applied to your existing menu items.
Earlier this afternoon, I sat down with Uhl’s book and did some quick brainstorming to see how many solid-to-succulent-sounding ideas for fusion-inspired quick-serve menu items I could come up with. Here are a choice few:
- Filipino Pasta: The Asian-Italian fusion. I envision this consisting of vinegar- and soy-braised chicken with peppercorns and garlic, all ladled over a bed of spaghetti, linguini, or fettucine.
- The Chinese-Cuban sandwich with pastrami, cilantro, lime, and sweet Chinese mayonnaise piled high onto slices of Cubano bread or a likable substitute.
- The Japanese-Peruvian chicken or fish rice bowl topped with aji peppers, soy, garlic, and lime.
- A carne asada Mexican pizza, consisting not of a tortilla, tomato sauce, and Mozzarella, but of traditional Italian pizza dough crowned with tomato salsa, grilled and seasoned beef, and Cotija cheese.
We could go on, but you, dear reader, get the idea. By combining and recombining signature elements of various global cuisines with familiar quick-serve menu staples, we can almost reinvent the meal. What other novel options may be out there? Papusa pizzas? Peruvian pot pies? Falafel burritos? Drop me a line and let me know what you come up with. I’ll look forward to hearing about your fusion inspirations.