Like most children of immigrants, I always felt like a weird mash-up of two cultures. My childhood consisted of traditional Gujarati dinners on weekdays and Pizza Hut on weekends, Bollywood movies with my parents and Disney Channel TV shows with my friends.
Growing up, one of my favorite meals was paneer pasta, a dish that pays homage to my duality. It comes together by pan frying bite-sized cubes of paneer — an Indian cottage cheese — and tossing the paneer pieces with spaghetti, marinara sauce and stir-fried vegetables. To this day, paneer pasta feels like the perfect representation of who I am — an amalgamation of my Indian heritage and American upbringing.
These types of fusion dishes were all the rage in the ‘80s when chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Roy Yamaguchi experimented with combinations of different cuisines. While fusion food was originally celebrated by the cooking community, by the ‘90s, food writers and critics claimed that fusion food was more “con-fusion” than anything.
Paneer pasta is the reason I’ve never understood the culinary disdain for fusion food. Food’s beauty lies in its ability to transcend borders and cultural barriers, bringing together communities over a shared love of flavorful eats. Fusion food is the ultimate expression of that.
Long before fusion food became an ‘80s buzzword, it was a way of life. As people began moving from one place to another, they brought their favorite foods with them and shared those recipes with their new neighbors.
In the late 1800s, many Chinese immigrants came to South America and began cooking the dishes they love with Peruvian ingredients. This mix of Chinese flavors and Peruvian ingredients is now known as Chifa cuisine. From lomo saltado to chaufa, several mainstays of Peruvian food are inspired by this cultural collision.
Though much of the food we love — from queso to bahn mi sandwiches — are fusion foods, fusion went out of style as chefs stopped respecting the cultures they were borrowing from.
Rather than pairing ingredients and techniques that complimented one another, chefs began combining the most shocking foods. ‘90s chefs forgot that fusion was about marrying cultures and tried instead to create the most unexpected, and often undesirable, flavor combinations.
Fusion food becomes appropriative when chefs take ideas from other cuisines without learning to respect the cultures those flavors come from. Delicious fusion food requires chefs to understand the ingredients and techniques they’re incorporating into their dishes.
There’s a delicate balance between honoring culture and tradition and blending the flavors and cooking techniques of different cuisines. When fusion food loses the spirit of its parent cultures, it crosses from appreciation to appropriation.
We usually think of fusion food in the context of trained chefs developing restaurant recipes, but the best fusion foods are often the ones we make at home, combining the flavors of our childhood with those we’ve learned from our friends and neighbors.
Adding fusion elements in our home cooking is the solution to nearly every dilemma. Though the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner is stuffed with delicious starches, meats and herbs, it has little to no textural diversity.
Samin Nosrat, a well-known chef, food writer and TV personality, explains the key to an irresistible Thanksgiving dinner is turning to different communities. In her article “How To Make Your Thanksgiving Dinner Less Boring,” Samin describes a Cambodian method of frying shallots to obtain the perfect crispy, golden-brown texture.
In her endeavor to add crunch to Thanksgiving, Samin uses this Cambodian technique to create a beautifully fried topping with breadcrumbs, rosemary, sage, thyme and parsley — overflowing with the flavor of Thanksgiving while paying respects to Cambodian traditions.
Food is sacred in its ability to bridge cultural and ideological divides. This Thanksgiving topping is a simple example of the ways food can unite us. By integrating fusion cooking into our daily lives, we have an opportunity to learn about the cultures we’re surrounded by and appreciate their flavors through our own cooking.
Sharing our culture is the ultimate form of connection, an act full of love, laughter and nourishment. When made respectfully, fusion food represents diverse communities coming together to create something filled with that same emotional and physical sustenance.
Reena Somani is a graduate student writing about food and its social implications in her column, “Good Taste.”