There’s nothing new about fusion in food.
Food historians say mixing ingredients and cooking styles of various cultures has been part of food’s evolution, from the ancient spice routes to the exchange of Old World cuisine with New World grains, fruit, and other crops. That continues today, as chefs dabble in the creative process of blending elements and practices of different regions around the globe. This is particularly true in the melting pot of America, where so many different cultures thrive.
“There’s so much interest in this,” says Elizabeth Friend, senior consumer foodservice analyst for Euromonitor International, a global market research firm. “It’s been a trend that has been around for a while, and it seems just as strong now.” She believes there are three major factors driving the popularity of fusion. For one thing, it constantly gives consumers something new. “It provides an easy path to innovation,” she says.
The flipside of that, Friend adds, is that fusion also gives the customer a taste of the familiar. “Operators are introducing new flavors and cuisines in a way that is more familiar and perhaps easier to try out and not foreign or scary for the customer,” she says, adding that new or foreign flavors on a pizza or in a taco give customers some confidence in their order.
Finally, fusion—particularly combinations of different cultures’ street foods—can be made into simple operating models. “There’s a lot of pressure to come up with something streamlined but also different, and fusion does that,” Friend says.
Modern fusion is getting more creative and authentic, says Andrew Hunter, foodservice and industrial chef for Kikkoman, producer of Asian-style sauces. He likes to use words like “smashing” or “mashup” to explain the current state of fusion.
“Fusion tried to integrate two different cuisines and styles of food, while smashing takes an unapologetic approach and doesn’t try to be harmonious,” he says. Instead, chefs find ingredients from different cultures that work together when combined.
Chefs working in quick service, including food trucks, have developed many of the creative fusion combinations popular today. Some experts believe modern fusion began in 2008 when classically trained Korean-American chef Roy Choi combined Korean and Mexican cooking at his Kogi food truck in Los Angeles. Hunter says Choi deserves a lot of credit, not just for taking fusion to the next level, but also for helping to spur the entire chef-driven food truck movement.
Today, food trucks and restaurants nationwide are doing their versions of Kogi’s Korean barbecue tacos, which include caramelized Korean barbecued short rib, Korean and Mexican chile salsa, cilantro-onion-lime relish, and kimchi on tortillas.
“The trucks are sort of rolling experiments,” says Ross Resnick, founder of Roaming Hunger, a West Hollywood, California–based service that links consumers with 6,500 trucks and carts across the country.
Some trucks were launched by chefs who couldn’t afford to establish brick-and-mortar units, especially during the recession. The lower costs and risk of a food truck allow operators to take a chance on creative ideas, Resnick adds. “[Fusion] really helped define the trucks for the public,” he says. “There were lots of taco trucks around L.A., but these new chefs were doing something different.”
The Kogi-style mashup spread across the country. In Washington, D.C., TaKorean began as a food truck in 2010 and now includes three fast-casual locations serving tacos and rice and slaw bowls.
“I’m neither Korean nor Latin American—it’s not my personal culture,” says Mike Lenard, founder and chief executive. “But I was looking for a new and emerging type of cuisine that would appeal to Washingtonians who were ready for something different.”
Combining the sweet and sour flavors of Korean cooking with the familiarity of tacos and salsas made the truck successful. While Korean tacos remain TaKorean’s signature items, the bowls, which were not offered on the truck, have been gaining in popularity. The proteins—steak, chicken, pork, and tofu—are all marinated in Asian sauces, while many toppings are Latin, including avocado, lime crema, and salsa roja (albeit with Korean chile paste).
Other fusion ideas have appeared across the U.S., including the combination of various Asian styles and takes on American burgers, hot dogs, salads, and fries, as well as the mixtures of different Latin and South American cooking.
Hunter helps Kikkoman, which produces a wide range of Asian sauces, work with chefs on Asian-inspired or fusion dishes. “We do that as a way to help these chefs visualize trends,” he says, adding that it gives chefs additional credibility when presenting new items. He says the two most notable Asian flavors in non-ethnic restaurants today are a long-time favorite, teriyaki, and a fast-growing one, sriracha.
Many limited-service restaurants feature salads and burgers with Asian or Latin flavors. Carl’s Jr., for instance, has teriyaki and jalapeño burgers, as well as turkey burgers. Sriracha use in the industry ranges from Firehouse Subs’ Sriracha Beef sandwich to White Castle’s Sriracha Chicken Sliders.
At Austin, Texas–based The Peached Tortilla, a food truck and restaurant, founder Eric Silverstein uses his background—he was born in Tokyo and raised in Atlanta—to create a cuisine that is one part Southern and one part Asian, with a little Latin mixed in for good measure.
“I wanted it to be relatable to me,” he says. “A lot of restaurants kind of fit themselves in a box, like burritos or sushi. But you don’t have to fit squarely in a box.”
The truck, launched in 2010, features tacos, burritos, bowls, and sliders. Its JapaJam burger is a beef patty with sweet tomato jam, jalapeño Jack cheese, fried egg, Japanese barbecue sauce, and tempura beer-battered onion straws. There’s more true fusion at the restaurant, Silverstein says, such as the Blistered Catfish Bowl, in which a Southern favorite, catfish, takes the place of eel in a dish that also has Japanese pickles, charred wasabi, cabbage, and a slowly poached egg.
Several limited-service restaurants are featuring sushi burritos, which use the style and shape of Latin burritos but have a nori (seaweed) wrap rather than tortillas. The filling, including rice, is typically Asian-influenced.
At Burrito San in Miami, the rolls are “burrito-sized and sushi-style with Pan-Asian fusion,” says managing partner Samuel Getz. “We wrap the roll in paper and slice it in half, so you can peel the paper back as you eat it.”
The influences are from across Asia—Japan, Korea, China, Thailand, India, and the Philippines. The Mt. Fuji features sashimi tuna, cucumber pickles, and mango sauce, while Masala Chicken has spiced chicken, curry, Yukon gold potatoes, and Asian slaw.
Asian ingredients dominate at Komotodo Sushi Burrito in Denver, but there are also Western flavors, including avocados, cream cheese, sweet corn, and jalapeños. One of Komotodo’s rolls, El Frito Suave, is deep-fried. It has king salmon, cabbage, carrots, avocado, cucumber, tempura asparagus, and cream cheese.
“The wrap is battered and the roll goes in hot oil for two or three minutes,” says founder Alonzo Martinez.
Corn or flour tortillas—mostly in the form of tacos—serve as the carrier for many other fusion dishes across the U.S. The idea of combining Mexican flavors with other American regional foods and serving them in a taco is behind U.S. Taco Co.
Company chefs traversed the country “to find the absolute best ingredients to bring America’s favorite regional dishes served in a taco,” says Rob Poetsch, spokesman for Irvine, California–based Taco Bell, parent of U.S. Taco.
Not My First Rodeo, one of 10 featured tacos on the menu, includes brisket, molcajete salsa, slaw, pickled onion, and cilantro on a flour tortilla, while lobster is in the 1-Percenter, along with garlic butter, slaw, roasted poblano crema, and cilantro on flatbread.
Velvet Taco, a four-unit chain based in Dallas, has a core of 19 chicken, beef, pork, seafood, and vegetarian tacos, plus one special variety in each store and a weekly special taco.
“When we started, we decided to create a concept that’s a [quick serve] and find the best, eclectic, interesting, seasonal, international entrées and put them on a taco,” says executive chef John Franke. “It’s not just a taco joint. It’s a restaurant without a plate.”
The result is dishes like Shrimp and Grits, with blackened shrimp, Creole mayonnaise, Pepper Jack cheese grits, charred tomato-poblano salsa, and cilantro on a corn tortilla. “When people try our tacos, we want them to say, ‘Holy cow, that really works,” Franke adds.
Other tacos feature tikka chicken, falafel, brisket, fried oysters, fish and chips, and flank steak. The Chicago taco is made to resemble a Windy City–style hot dog, with pork belly, pickles, mustard, celery, poppy seeds, and more on a flour tortilla.
The combination of two cuisines is behind Gigi’s Mexican and Peruvian Fusion, a Tucson, Arizona–based food truck that launched three years ago but which was conceived even earlier, when owner Sandra Campana met her husband, whose family is Peruvian.
“We have similar ingredients in our cooking, and we decided to put them together,” she says. The result is a menu rich in Latin flavors and includes the likes of El Chicharron, which is roast pork with sweet potatoes and onions on French bread.
Chimichurri is a Peruvian favorite, and Campana whipped up her own take on the sauce, which is served with rice in a bowl. But it’s also on the truck’s Chimi-Dog, which is a bacon-wrapped beef hot dog with seasoned salad, chimichurri, and avocado sauce.
Mixing American favorites with cuisine from other cultures appears from coast to coast, from New York’s Ramenburger (a burger in a bun made from ramen noodles) to Seattle’s Gourmet Dog Japon (a hot dog with a Japanese twist).
“Hot dogs are a very popular item in the United States, and I thought I could do something different with them that could be interesting,” says Shinsuke “Nick” Nikaido, who opened his first food stand in 2010 and now has five. His most popular item is kielbasa on a bun topped with carrots, nori, sweet mayo, and teriyaki-glazed onions.
Fusion is not new with pizza, an Italian dish that has become very American. Pizza fusions—from Hawaiian to Mexican—have been around for years, but these days, chefs are doing even more.
“You think about pizza being America’s No. 1 food, and consumers are looking for different ways of experiencing that,” says Jared Drinkwater, vice president of marketing for Plano, Texas–based Pizza Hut, the nation’s leading pizza operator.
When Pizza Hut re-engineered its menu last year, it launched several new crust flavors, including the Asian varieties ginger, curry, and sriracha. It also added spicy-sweet Peruvian cherry peppers as a topping for the Cherry Pepper Bombshell and other pizzas. This year, the company added a crust with hot dog bites baked in and served with mustard for dipping. The idea was adapted from a similar pie that gained favor at Pizza Huts internationally and shows the company’s global creativity, Drinkwater says.
Pizza Patrón, which has a large Mexican-American following, has included chorizo as a standard topping for years, “and we probably sell more jalapeños per capita to our base than other chains,” says Andrew Gamm, the Dallas company’s executive vice president.
Among its offerings is La Choriquezo, based on a Mexican dish, chori queso. The pizza features spicy ranch sauce, red onions, chorizo, and Mozzarella, which stands in for traditional melting cheeses like Oaxaca or Chihuahua.
Pizza Patrón expects to add a black bean sauce as an option for its pizzas this month, timed to launch on Mexican Independence Day, Gamm says.