Why Hello There, and welcome to Kitchen Catastrophes Quick Tips, where we focus on a facet of food culture we feel needs to be more deeply inspected. Today’s Quick Tip is a special one, as it kicks off our second-ever THEMED MONTH!
I'd say "thank you", but this is my house, so I had to set-up all the confetti, and will have to sweep it up later.
That’s right, despite last year’s Diner Month being our slowest month of the entire year, we’re totally trying it again! Because Jon refuses to learn! This time, however, we’re going to try and keep the theme a little broader, and a little more interesting: We’re doing Culinary Mash-Ups! Fusion Cuisine and dishes that mix popular foods are the focus for the next few weeks. Further, we’re going to allow ourselves more freedom on the Thursday posts. Sure, JON loved the exploration of what Diners symbolize in film and literature, and in the mental landscape of America, but he’s also a niche audience. So we’ll have some breather posts throughout the month as well, typically by exploring a related but not-quite on the nose subjects.
Thus, today’s post is a foundational one for the month. A word my spell-check thinks isn't real, which is more disconcerting than you think. Anyway, I was originally considering doing a “Fusion February”, but decided to move it to May. Partly this was because I had the idea in like, the last 10 days of January, so cranking out a month’s worth of Fusion recipes in a week would have SUCKED. It was also partly to give some time for our beloved Patreon Supporters to vote for dishes they wanted to see over the month. And lastly, because I felt that a month of “mash-ups” would be more fun than a month of Fusion cuisine. And to explain why, let’s discuss what exactly Fusion Cuisine is.
An Idiot’s Guide to Fusion
I don’t know.
Seriously, I don’t, right now, know what the technical definition of “fusion cuisine” is. I didn’t want to look it up because, well, I feel that’s true of most people. Sure we HEAR about it, and we kind of understand what it is, but we don’t have the exact definition. So I wanted to give my understanding of the term, and THEN the actual one, to see how close I am.
It's like a pop quiz that I'm taking AND administrating! You can play along at home, with an equal lack of proof that you didn't cheat!
So, my definition, put into what I think of “academic speak”: “Fusion cuisine is when you mix two (or more, I guess) distinct cuisines into a specific dish or menu, typically by: Finding similar flavor profiles and applying them to differing techniques, using a touchstone ingredient or method of one culture in a dish from the other, or creating dishes that unify the themes and methods of both cultures.”
The middle one is the most commonly encountered, because it’s the easiest to grasp. A Bulgogi Taco is Korean-Mexican fusion because Bulgogi and kimchi are Korean ingredients being served in a Mexican manner: the Taco. Everyone ‘gets’ that explanation.
And if you're in LA, everybody gets the Korean Tacos too.
Except Martin Short. Well, maybe even him now.
So, what's the ACTUAL definition? Dictionary.com says “Any dishes combining ingredients or methods of two or more regional or ethnic cuisines”. And looking over Wikipedia and some other sources…yeah. Basically anytime you mix cultures in a dish, it’s fusion. So my definition is actually MORE involved than the real one. Huh.
Wikipedia goes on to note there’s a couple varieties of it, such as regional fusions, where an area is assimilated into one (Like how in most Asian restaurants in smaller towns, there’s a lot of cultural bleed. A restaurant may say “Chinese”, but serve Chinese, Japanese, even Vietnamese and Thai dishes.) Or Tex-Mex cuisine, which is, kind of obviously, a fusion of Texan and Mexican cuisines.
Tex-Mex Lasagna, on the other hand, is a fusion of "cholesterol" and "regret".
Also, I totally forgot I've referenced Tex-Mex Lasagna before, and now I'm mad I didn't make it an option for the recipes this month.
So, pretty easy, right? If that’s the definition, you’ve probably eaten at plenty of places doing “fusion” cuisine over the years and never even known it. Well, it gets even more interesting, because if you take a broader look at history, that may be more right than you know!
Going Back to The Future for Take-Out
A lot of discussion of fusion cuisine points to it really taking off around the 1970’s, and ties it to names like Wolfgang Puck, who, to be sure, is no slouch in the fusion cuisine department. I’ve seen the man make a smoked salmon and caviar pizza. However, if you take a step back, you’ll find that MOST FOOD is, somehow, fusion cuisine.
Let’s take an easy, singular example: the banh mi sandwich is arguably the most recognizably Vietnamese food in the world, second only to Pho. Except the Banh Mi only exists because Vietnam was a French colony. I mean, think about it. It’s a sandwich of PATE served in a BAGUETTE. OF COURSE France was involved! Heck, if you look at it a little closer, it gets even sillier: Banh Mi are also made with pickled jalapeños. And in case you missed your Spanish and Geography lessons,” ñ” ain’t a letter you find in Asian alphabets very often.
Then again, you don't really find ALPHABETS in Asia very often.
Other than Vietnam and Korea.
There are other, broader examples: Ramen noodles? Japan copied Chinese noodles long ago Maybe. They’re both very touchy about that. (It happened shortly after a Japanese invasion of China. They don't like talking about those.) And Korea claims they did it first, but Korea says that about a lot of things. One website I went to pointed out that a Barbecue Chicken Pizza is clearly a fusion of Italian and American traditions. But that's not quite right. And to prove why. think of a ‘traditional Italian meal’ right now.
Did you picture various noodles in rich tomato sauce, topped with Parmesan cheese? That's pretty standard Italian food, right? Except only ONE of those three components is naturally Italian! Tomatoes came from America! It wasn't until Italians started using American tomatoes that the modern pizza even EXISTED. Barbecue PIzza isn't simply fusion, PIZZA AS A WHOLE is. And Italy didn't make noodles until they learned China was doing it! Your nonna would never have made a single spaghetti in her life if it wasn’t for Marco Polo hitting up China and coming back to say “dudes, let me tell you about this stuff I saw over there. Yarn, that you EAT.”
"We can make sweaters that we eat when it gets warm!"
Grown A little Cold on Fusion
That’s partly why I didn’t want to do a month of fusion cuisine: from a very technical standpoint, myself and others are accidentally making fusion cuisine all the time. Throwing a teaspoon of the wrong spice into a pot and Boom, suddenly we’re ‘fusion’.
Another reason is… a little more complicated. See, for all that fusion food, when looked at in the long-term, is this ongoing shared thing, cultures mixing and recreating and so on, in the more immediate stage, there’s a lot of… weight in the term. A lot of confusion. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been writing about food for years, and I didn’t know the technical definition. And knowing the technical definition of food-based trivia (and really, trivia as a whole) is my thing! Some chefs (typically those dedicated to an ‘authentic’ singular style) have a bad view of restaurants that call themselves fusion, under the “why half-ass two things when you can whole-ass one thing” doctrine.
Unless your corporate named proudly proclaims your dedication to Haf-as-ing things.
Not helping either of these matters is the fact that It’s also the hot new thing, as it were: the success of chefs like David Chang has created a LOT of new chefs experimenting with fusion cuisines. If you live near a city of more than...60,000 people, I'm willing to bet there's at least one restaurant honestly making fusion cuisine of some kind. So the market has something of a glut.
So I wanted to explore a different kind of food "fusion" this month. Not just a combination of cultures: but combinations of specific DISHES. Yes, there will BE fusion in aspects of it, but I wanted to explore what I called “ culinary mash-ups”. Because there’s a... lack of pretension to the idea. A sort of "beginner's guide" to bringing foods together. I’m not standing here saying these next few weeks are going to re-invent your kitchen, or are infused with traditions dating back centuries. They’re ideas I had that I spent 20 minutes scratching out with a pen and paper last Sunday. They’re rough drafts, cobbled together sometimes on the fly. They're experiments, and I wanted them to be approachable, and relatable. So let’s dive in, mix it up, and slam some shit together!
NEXT MONDAY: BLOODY MARY PENNE ALLA VODKA. IS IT GOOD? BAD? HAPPY? SAD? TIME TO FIND OUT.
NEXT THURSDAY: JON AND FRIENDS DRINK A LOT OF BLOODY MARYS TO…PROVE A POINT? THE REASONING HERE IS SLOPPY.