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Readers, I write today about a time when a strange passion gripped our polity. In the decade we called “the '80s,” there was a fervor for combining the ingredients, techniques and cuisines of myriad cultures into an amalgam that went by the name “fusion.”
In practice this usually meant a French-trained chef had been to Thaliand or Viet Nam or Japan and, understandably, had experienced an epiphany. Nouvelle cuisine was gasping its last and for a while it appeared we’d truly entered a new era in food.
“Fusion” was not a dirty word, then. It stood for the idea that you could take the rigorous techniques taught in Continental (read: French) kitchens and simply add new ingredients to achieve novel flavors. Then it became “let’s put mango on that.”
That is not to say that combining cuisines is inherently bad, or even something new. Here is an article that explores the history of fusion cuisine, which as you might imagine pre-dates the 1990s. Facile though that piece may be, the point is apt: adapting cuisines to new ingredients, flavors and/or techniques is not revolutionary.
You’d be very hard-pressed to find any world cuisine that doesn’t incorporate flavors and ingredients from elsewhere. The most obvious example to us is Italy, which didn’t have the tomato until some years after C. Columbus returned from the New World. Today, we’d no more think of marinara sauce as anything but Italian than we’d think Carne Asada wasn’t “authentically” Mexican. These are examples of how great world cuisines have adapted and mutated over time. These are examples of how people who know good food know how to incorporate new things into their repertoire.
Perhaps what’s new is that with the incredible inter-connectivity of our world there are more and more of us who are exposed to new tastes. And some people who no doubt mean well have decided to combine things that were better left separate. This is why in 1996 I ate lobster poached in a broth strongly flavored with vanilla.
I should not say “ate,” because in truth it was more like “tried a bite and then focused my entire being on forgetting the experience.” I would like to tell you that I have gotten over my picayune taste prejudice and learned to love vanilla in savory contexts, but that would be a nasty filthy lie because vanilla does not belong in savory dishes.
Then again, sometimes the unexpected pays off. My first thought after recovering from the memory of vanilla and lobster was a dish chef Phillip Lopez had on the menu at his restaurant Root in which scallops were infused with tobacco smoke. It was delicious.
The thing about combining the flavors and ingredients and techniques of different places is that to do it well requires the same things it takes to cook really well: practice, imagination and taste. We’re lucky in that in New Orleans we have a lot of cooks who tick all three of those boxes.
I have a lot of restaurant websites in my “bookmarks” folder and I’ve spent 20 minutes trying to find one that I’d classify as “fine dining” that doesn’t include some sort of “fusion” element in its menu. I was actually going to list some examples, but I got about as far as Bayona and realized I’d be writing for days if I was going to try to give you a representative sample. Instead, I thought I’d end with a request.
Two things motivated me to write on this topic in the first place and only one of them was to express my continuing displeasure with the concept of vanilla used in savory dishes. The other was to request that you share an example of a fusion food – either good or bad – with me either in a comment or by email. I would very much appreciate the input, because this is a topic that has gripped me for some reason and I’d like to be validated.
My thanks in advance.