When Worlds Collide
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Nov 30, 2005 - Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net
Archive of other articles by Mark Vogel
Psychologists would agree that mentally healthy people have good “boundaries.” Unlike the tangible perimeters of the physical realm, psychological boundaries are the lines that demarcate your emotional world from others. They also signify the limits of certain interpersonal behaviors. You could probably stroll into a co-worker’s office who you’re friendly with, take a seat uninvited and blurt out obscenities about your ex. But you couldn’t do that with impunity in your boss’s office. There’s a boundary there. And if you can do that with your boss, then the two of you have blurred that boundary.
In all walks of life people occasionally cross boundaries. Sometimes this is a good thing but most of the time it’s not. Boundaries are there for a reason. It is the intuitive and prudent individual who knows when it is fortuitous to breach certain boundaries and when it isn’t.
Boundaries certainly exist in the culinary arena. There are the interpersonal boundaries between the customer and restaurant staff or the staff and the head chef. But on a larger scale, there are boundaries between different cuisines and/or techniques. It is here that a brave few have ventured into the murky waters of culinary synthesis, otherwise known as “fusion” cuisine. Even fewer have done so successfully.
Fusion cuisine began in the 1970’s, spearheaded by such culinary icons as Wolfgang Puck. Puck laid the groundwork for one of the most commonly fused pairings: European and Asian cuisine. Traditionally trained in Europe but equally well versed in Asian cooking, Puck’s launching ground was the apropos California, situated midway between Europe and Asia. Over the ensuing decades “east meets west” eateries began emerging throughout the country, most notably in urban areas where the cultural melting pot was more amenable to culinary integration.
Eurasian cuisine blends ingredients and/or techniques from the two cultures. For example, a spinach salad (Mediterranean) may be paired with tempura battered scallops, (Japanese). Chinese pot stickers could be filled with traditional European ingredients. Risotto may be infused with wasabi. Poached tofu is an example of the intermingling of technique and ingredient. Here the French method of poaching is combined with an Asian victual. A less discrepant form of fusion cuisine is when two types of Asian cooking are combined such as Thai and Vietnamese or Thai and Malaysian. Here the orchestration of ingredients and techniques is less challenging. Proponents of fusion cooking espouse the bounty of creative opportunities and new taste sensations that it affords.
Dissidents of fusion cuisine call it “confusion” cuisine. The point being, that all too often chefs combine ingredients that have no business being together. The result is a gustatory nightmare. Consider this excerpt from a recently published review of a new restaurant in New York City: “Sometimes the dishes get a little out of hand. Black sea bass is overwhelmed by Asian spices and chop-suey style mussels.”
Other than a lack of culinary dexterity, “confusion” cuisine occurs when chefs try too hard to develop something innovative. Let’s face it; all the classics have been done to death. Nowadays a crucial means for a chef to make his mark on the culinary world is to go where no chef has gone before. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s into a black hole.
Determining which ingredients can commingle propitiously is a daunting task. There’s a tremendous degree of subjectivity, namely the great variability of human taste. While I would find ginger crusted lamb in miso broth to be abhorrent, another person may proclaim it to be extraordinary. The trick of course, is uncovering those elusive and unheard of combinations that naturally resonate with most palates despite the few inevitable dissenters. Talented chefs can sometimes find the best of both worlds.
Merging ingredients/techniques from two dissimilar cuisines into a single dish is not the only road toward culinary enmeshment. There’s a French/Thai restaurant near where I live that serves both classic French and Thai dishes that are culturally in tact. The “fusion” is the mix of both types of cooking on the menu. Thus you could order steak au poivre with haricot vert (black peppercorn encrusted steak with French green beans), or pad Thai, the classic noodle dish of Thailand.
The antithesis to fusion cuisine is to create dishes, indeed entire meals, from ingredients indigenous to a specific culinary region. The theorem is that foods, (and wines for that matter), grown together in the same microclimate, share a natural affinity for one another. Undoubtedly there is merit to this position from a biochemical standpoint alone. Proponents of this “terroir” driven school of thought recoil at the idea of crossing culinary boundaries. Chefs who are true to their cultural roots believe that fusion cooking diminishes the integrity of both cuisines. More scathing criticisms attack it as an attempt to obfuscate a lack of culinary talent and/or an attempt to jump on the latest food craze at the expense of culinary propriety.
If you’ve never tried fusion cooking I strongly recommend you do your homework before you do. Seek out a place with a good reputation. Whether you condone fusion cuisine or not, the fact of the matter is that it can be a culinary minefield. You may not mind your worlds colliding but you don’t want them blowing up in your face.