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.”