Pastrami egg rolls, ramen burgers and sushi burritos, oh my! Going from “edgy culinary improv” to “dated and gimmicky restaurant trend” to “something we can revisit a little more thoughtfully this time,” fusion cuisine has experienced its own full-circle reckoning in the public imagination since it first became a “thing” in the ’80s and ’90s. But in order to really dig in to what that all means, we’ll need to address how fusion cuisines actually arise in the first place — not to mention whether there’s truly such a thing as “non-fusion” food.
The Early Days Of Fusion Cuisine
Most people you ask will tell you that chef Norman Van Aken came up with the term “fusion” cuisine when he began serving a hybrid of Caribbean, Latin American and European food at his Florida restaurant Norman’s. Contemporaries like Wolfgang Puck helped bring it further into the mainstream during the big globalization wave of the 1980s and 1990s. It was during this time that fusion food became the “it” thing in the culinary world.
The nouvelle cuisine of 1970s France, which often combined aspects of French and Japanese cooking, can also be credited as a precursor to the fusions that followed. Countries like the United States and Australia ran with the concept, thanks in part to their immigrant culture and lack of a fixed culinary identity. Add a few celebrity chefs to the mix, and you had a recipe ripe for the fusin’.
From Confusion To Infusion
The early days of fusion cuisine were more “experimental flex” than they were “natural response to an actual blending of cultures that was taking place beyond the context of a single chef’s imagination” (with exceptions, of course).
For immigrant communities in the United States, where many disparate cultures do exist side by side, fusion food may have felt like a flat or empty promise. Vice’s Bettina Makalintal writes, “For people of a similar background, fusion can pull at the tensions of our often-confusing multiple identities; fusion dishes arise with relative ease, but our mixed cultural backgrounds don’t.”
The early days of fusion food brought us culinary mashups that usually involved adding East Asian ingredients to European dishes, often according to the whims of a white chef and not always in a way that made much sense. It seems as though there’s redemption yet for the notion of fusion cuisine, however, and this is thanks to the efforts of first-generation Americans opening their own restaurants and reimagining a cuisine that’s an authentic reflection of how they actually grew up — a blend of family recipes and the local cuisine around them.
Isn’t All Food Kinda Fusion Food?
The term “fusion food” usually refers to the specific restaurant trend, but its name belies a bit of a conundrum. Did all world cuisines really exist in a perfect vacuum before a random chef in the ’80s decided to toss them in a bag and shake them together, or has food always been a bit of a cultural melting pot?
Take, for instance, tomatoes. Tomatoes are not an inherently Italian ingredient, but they’re as central to Italian cuisine today as pasta and mozzarella. Speaking of pasta, did you know that spaghetti is likely an offshoot of the Chinese noodle? Avocados come from the Americas, but they’re a staple in Japanese sushi. And potatoes aren’t actually Irish in origin, and yet here we are.
In a sense, history has always been bringing the world into contact with itself, and the result of that has always been food or culture that can’t unsee what it already saw. The main difference is that “pre-fusion” fusion food was almost always a reflection of conditions that predated the food (like colonialism, migration and trade), rather than an abstract attempt to blend cuisines haphazardly.
In the truest sense of the term, fusion food has always existed. Perhaps it’s “Fusion Food” that is more of a blip on the radar; a commercialized response to a world that was increasingly without borders. This return to a more a natural and organic blending of cultures isn’t just an evolution of fusion food, but a return to what we’ve always been doing as people.