...Could it be that you and I are products of Asian fusion? You part-Asian with an occidental surname, me with an Asian (sounding) surname who is still an occident waiting to happen?
I wouldn't go so far as to call myself Asian, though some of my friends might; I am, however, hugely influenced by my early exposure to Asian immigrant populations, as I think those experiences substantially influenced my university course of study, my career path, and my personal interests.
Asian fusions are probably likely to continue to dominate the culinary scene for the near future, because travel to Asia and Asian ingredients are both more accessible than ever before; intra-European fusion mostly ran its course, and travel to Africa is still rather complicated and expensive. Some potential for fusions between South American/Caribbean cuisine and European techniques is imaginable, but again, the effects of colonization meant the fusion has already pretty much happened, and it's just a question of how much of a presence South American cuisines can develop outside of that region. Middle eastern cuisine has already had a substantial influence on European cuisine.
Long term, most fusions will have to involve either Asia or Africa. These are where the frontiers are.
While I have misgivings about the excesses of fusion, I think this is mostly due to the fact that most fresh-out-of-culinary school cooks have limited culinary experiences. Outside of restaurants, most cooks still have limited exposure to Asian cuisine. Almost none of it is from exposure to Asian cuisine within Asia. As appreciation for Asian cuisine becomes more sophisticated, I hope fusion will also evolve, becoming less about shocking and surprising customers and more about fundamental understandings of the functions of ingredients, and deeper understandings of techniques of the cuisines they are borrowing from.
The old sitcom joke about the Chinese eating Chinese food all the time just goes to show how limited the range of culinary experiences Americans have within the realm of Asian cuisine. In China, Hong Kong or Taiwan I might find restaurants mostly focused on a particular region and so they might have a long menu of various things, as one might find in the U.S., but it's a very different approach. You don't usually see a long list of (insert name of meat here) (insert name of sauce or preparation here). Options are important, but usually each place has a signature touch. But beyond that, many restaurants really specialize in something; you aren't entering some sort of ambiguously Chinese restaurant. You're at a duck place, or a dumpling place, or a noodle place, or a seafood place. In the U.S. and Canada, such specialization does exist, but it's rare enough that most people have a very specific imagination of what they should be able to get at any Chinese restaurant.
I once went with a friend to a favorite noodle place in Seattle and she was disappointed she couldn't get an order of fried rice... at a noodle place.
This kind of specialization is even more pronounced in Japan. I went to one place which only served one dish, depending on the weather: either mori-soba (plain buckwheat noodles with a dipping sauce) and pickles, or soba in hot soup. Granted, it was a restaurant on a buckwheat farm, but it's a restaurant concept that is incredibly unlikely in the U.S. I've gone to a place that serves only rice porridge, and one that only serves onigiri (generally, stuffed rice balls, a classic traveler's lunch) and simple accompaniments. I've been to several restaurants that only serve I've gone to a place that only serves anmitsu.
If go out to okonomiyaki in Japan I would be somewhat disappointed to find sushi on the menu, because it would mean they don't have confidence in their signature item, and probably don't do either dish very well. Yet in the U.S., I find restaurants that do this kind of thing all the time. We have "high end" Japanese restaurants with menus as long-winded and unspecialized as chain family restaurants in Japan.
Because of the relatively poor palate education the average American has, especially in the context of Asian food, "fusion" chefs have a lot of room to appeal to people with essentially mediocre food. I've watched restaurant reviewers base their entire rating of a "Japanese" restaurant on their impressions of "standards", which for them meant the spicy tuna roll, spider roll, and California roll, all of which are incredibly unlikely to be found in a Japanese sushi place. By those standards, it won't take much to impress the same reviewer with "innovative" combinations of monstrous towers of ingredients.
On the other hand, I have misgivings about the use of the word "authentic" to describe cuisine, especially when used as an opposite to "fusion". It's also incredibly ambiguous, and reflects more on the experiences of the person using the word than on the "authenticity" of the food. Even authenticity isn't much a guide for quality; it would be incredibly naive to say that 7-11 prepacked onigiri and side dishes aren't authentic Japanese food. They clearly are designed to meet emerging Japanese needs, even if the delivery method isn't traditional and even if the taste is relatively unremarkable. Similarly, grilled chese with processed cheese slices on white bread with canned tomato soup is authentically American, but this implies nothing about quality or tradition.
Fusion as a process is always a product of the experiences of the person who creates the fusion. The future of fusion will really depend on how much exposure chefs and home cooks have to their source cuisines. If every trendy fusion restaurant is built on the chef's experiences of a lifetime of ambiguously Asian restaurants and uninformed trips to the nearest Asian supermarket, coupled with a 2 year culinary degree, there isn't much to look forward to.
I do hope that people will start to appreciate not just the novelty of ingredients, but the fundamentals of what their source cuisines value. Japanese, for example, place a high value not on flavor intensity or spiciness, but on "sappari"-ness, which can be partially explained, but doesn't translate very well. If fusions of Japanese ingredients and Western foods are done with an understanding this fundamental aspect of Japanese culinary ideals, there's something for me to look forward to. But that will take more non-Japanese chefs experiencing this in context, rather than in the U.S.
Actually, the experience of Japanese convenience foods weighed against a well-executed Japanese ryokan meal, and the experience of the difference between instant noodles vs. handmade, recently milled soba noodles made by someone who has been doing it all his life, are all valuable pieces of culinary education that will help inform a chef who wants to develop a fusion of Japanese cuisine and something else. Not every experience needs to be "haute cuisine"; sometimes the perfect simple thing teaches a lot more than an elaborate multicourse meal at an expensive restaurant.
But I do think that Asian fusion, and fusion in general, will only grow as much as the sophistication of the culinary education of Westerners does.
Edited by JasonTrue, 30 September 2005 - 12:48 AM.