Reader’s Digest: Musin’ about fusion

(Sarah Flemming • Student Life)

My dad and I boarded the F train at dawn so we could join an endless line that wrapped around an entire block of Soho. The object of our quest? The legendary and internet famous cronut. Dominique Ansel’s innovative croissant-donut cross was my first exposure to fusion foods, and it was definitely the sweetest. Little did we know that a ring-shaped croissant would continue the global tradition of mixing culture through cuisine – a catalyst for the explosion of fusion foods in the 21st century.

Fusion foods captured the zeitgeist of American food culture in the 2010s. Shortly after the Cronut made its massively successful debut, Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger has become the subject of many Instagram posts from hipster foodies. Then came the sushi burrito. More recently, I tried a TikTok “hack” that involved putting leftover Chipotle in a sheet of rice paper and rolling it, burrito-style, into a Vietnamese-Mexican-American Frankenroll. Novelty was life changing, on a very minor scale.

Despite the virality of foods like the ramen burger, fusion foods aren’t just a fancy invention of the internet age. A myriad of well-known dishes are the culmination of a rich international culinary history. French baguette and pâté found in a banh mi are a product of French colonialism in Vietnam. Cuban-Chinese cuisine was born from the fact that Chinese people worked in the Cuban sugar cane plantations in the middle of the 19th century.

But these trendy mashups aren’t necessarily what comes to mind when you picture fusion food. A relatively common understanding of the term “fusion” relates to the many Asian fusion restaurants that populate American suburbs.

The concept of the Asian fusion restaurant has always seemed strange to me. To be fair, the invention is a pretty fantastic business opportunity – the prospect of ordering wonton soup and green curry from the same establishment is hard to beat. But the practice of reducing the diverse and distinct cuisines of dozens of countries to a single menu of pad thai and fried rice is undoubtedly questionable. At the very least, the European fusion restaurant should also be popularized. Personally, I wouldn’t mind having fish and chips and paella in the same meal.

Asian fusion as understood today seems like a bitterly missed opportunity to emulate the novelty and innovation of fusion foods such as the Cronut. Practical considerations aside, imagine a xiaolongbao filled with kimchi jjigae! Or a fondue just for the pho!

Being, in a sense, somewhat Asian fusion myself, I was privileged to have the education and palette to explore this opportunity in my own kitchen. Let me explain – having grown up in a Korean Jewish home, I don’t have a comprehensive understanding of Korean or Jewish cuisine. What I do understand, however, is how to cook and eat in a way that makes sense to me. I prefer to eat my meals in a bowl with chopsticks and a spoon. Around Passover, I’ll replace the bread with matzo in my avocado toast. I honestly think gefilte fish (if it’s not for you, save it for yourself) would taste amazing in a Korean seafood stew. I dream of red bean and sesame babka while writing.

“Modern” interpretations of ethnic cuisines sensitive subject in the food world. Alison Roman’s Infamous #TheStew is a wonderful illustration of this phenomenon. When executed with care, however, the concept of mixing dishes from different cultures opens up endless avenues for culinary innovation. It is not only natural but also practical to develop and adopt new cooking practices that optimize accessibility to the kitchen and challenge creativity.

But creating fusion foods doesn’t have to be—and certainly shouldn’t always be—a one-person endeavor. A fundamental function of cooking is to share food with other people. Like music and art, food is a way to unite communities and spread ideas. The boundaries that separate different cultural cuisines are both centuries-old and worthy of respect, but we should not allow them to limit the cross-cultural connections and ideas that sharing food with others can foster. Food can and should pave the way for societal progress, not just reflect it.

Sadie Matz SC ’24 is a gefilte fish lover from Brooklyn, New York. If you are planning to open a European fusion restaurant, please invite it when it opens.

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