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Thoughts on culinary convergence


Fat Guy
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A few recent meals, where dishes drew on a global larder, got me thinking. The term "fusion" has been used to denote any mixing of cuisines, but it seems to me it may be helpful to reference three distinct phenomena:

The first I'll call migration. This is a historical phenomenon whereby agricultural and cultural exchange make new ingredients and techniques available. For example, tomatoes in Italy, hot peppers in Asia, potatoes in Ireland, chocolate in Europe, deep frying in Japan. This tends to be a relatively gradual process where an ingredient or technique gets absorbed by a new culture and becomes part of that culture's cuisine.

Second, there's fusion. For example, French-Asian fusion (the most common early example of the genre) or Indian-Latin fusion (as at a newly opened New York restaurant). In some circles fusion is now passe. But I just Googled the word fusion and was amazed at how many restaurants, at least here in the US, claim to serve "fusion" cuisine as part of their very brand identity, all over the place:

Fusion On Main, Flemington, New Jersey

Madeleine's, A Fusion Restaurant, Evansville, Indiana

ROCC Asian Fusion Restaurant, Dallas, Texas

Cibo Fusion, Marion, Iowa

The search results go on and on. What seems to be the tie that binds all these places is, I think, that they're doing something very self-conscious: it's all about a deliberate injection of elements of one cuisine into another, or a blending of a few cuisines.

Third, I think we are now seeing a post-fusion movement in cuisine that for the moment I'll call "convergence." There are a couple of terms floating around out there like "eclectic" and the notion of "pan-" but I'm not sure they do justice to the phenomenon. Culinary convergence, to my way of thinking, happens not when a chef tries to combine French and Asian cuisines, but rather when a chef cooks without any regard for those distinctions.

No doubt, we are seeing a new generation of globally minded chefs. So for example if you go to any of the Momofuku restaurants in New York City you will be hard pressed to label the cuisine. You can try to call it fusion but it isn't really fusion because it is so un-artificial. The cop-out is to call it "eclectic." And it is eclectic in the sense that it is heterogenous, but I think calling it eclectic trivializes the phenomenon and places it on par with crummy restaurants that serve "food from around the world." It seems to me we're looking at convergence: the merging of distinct cuisines into a unified cuisine.

Before we sound all the standard "I don't want every restaurant to be the same" alarms, let's remember that we're not talking about every restaurant in the world being the same under some sort of evil corporate regime of forced gastronomic globalization. Some restaurants are regional, some are local, some are both, some are whatever. But right now I think one of the most important and delicious phenomena in cuisine is this notion of convergence. Nor does a unified cuisine mean that every practitioner of that cuisine will serve the same thing. To the contrary, that's mostly the case with regional cuisines. In the era of convergence, where there are no rules, chefs need be limited only by their creativity and their notions of what tastes great.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I enjoy and am pretty knowledgeable about all the world's major cuisines. I hate it when they are mixed together, though, I'm very bored by it and it is rarely done well, particularly in Europe.

Food is rather like art, literature and music-to be good it needs lots of rules, even if they seem arbitrarily imposed.

Edited by muichoi (log)
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The first I'll call migration. This is a historical phenomenon whereby agricultural and cultural exchange make new ingredients and techniques available. For example, tomatoes in Italy, hot peppers in Asia, potatoes in Ireland, chocolate in Europe, deep frying in Japan. This tends to be a relatively gradual process where an ingredient or technique gets absorbed by a new culture and becomes part of that culture's cuisine.

What you are describing sounds like another generation or an ongoing product of "migration". The availability of ingredients and techniques is more widespread than ever before and perhaps what you are witnessing is an unselfconcious internalization of what is available. When I pick up an ingredient that is available, I don't reflect on its origins and history, I'm looking for a particular flavor or experimenting with new materials without preconceived notions.

Then again, what do I know. I live in a town where no grocery store even carries USDA Choice beef anymore :sad:

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Interesting thoughts, and tricky to disentangle. Is "fusion" supposed to be about ingredients or about technique? It seems that both are pretty blurry categories. When does the time line begin? You mention tomatoes, but many spices would also be hard to pinpoint as distinguishing one cusine from another. The spice trade routes saw to that. My Swedish grandmother put cardomom into all her baked goods, but the only cookbooks I own that call for it are Indian.

The technique piece is also hard to pinpoint. Marcella Hazan points out in her cookbooks that she believes Italian cuisine is most closely related to that of China, and she was talking about technique, not whether Marco Polo brought pasta to the western hemisphere. I remember being very struck by that observation the first time I read it, it jerked my thinking away from "tomato vs. soy sauce" and made me pay more attention to the simplicity and quickness of many Italian cooking techniques.

The concept of "fusion" seems to be more an invention than anything else, a reflection of times when cultural categories of all sorts were less familiar and seemingly more distinct. It seems like a tired concept today. Perhaps the locavore movement will help us purge it from our culinary language. Who cares that fresh ginger is considered an "asian" ingredient if it tastes great with the locally caught salmon (east coast envy here) or the carrot soup I made last night from my CSA box?


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I agree that fusion and convergence are different phenomena, but migration and convergence are the same thing just on a different scale or time line. The difference between migration and convergence as defined by Steven is one of time. Migration is a slow incorporation and evolution of ingredients within a cuisine. Convergence is much more rapid, but essentially the same thing. he difference between the two is that we have a much more rapid availability and assimilation of various products from around the world.

Fusion as a concept has become overly maligned because it is difficult to do well and many who have tried failed. When done well, such as Susur Lee appears to be doing at Shang in NYC, it is a wonderful style. In this way it is not unlike Technoemotional cuisine (aka "Molecular" to many). When done poorly, it is insipid and brings down those who do it well. When done well, it is on another level.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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To me, the thing with fusion is that it is much less reproducible than a well-established cuisine. There's no established flavor palette. No rules means no accumulated wisdom. Fusion relies on the experience and palate of the cook. Unfortunately, younger chefs seem to favor fusion over established cuisines and younger chefs are the least able (based on experience) to pull it off.

Established cuisines have rules that protect the diner from nutty combinations and inexperienced cooks. The downside is eater-boredom, the upside is that one knows what one is getting.

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To me, the thing with fusion is that it is much less reproducible than a well-established cuisine. There's no established flavor palette.  No rules means no accumulated wisdom. Fusion relies on the experience and palate of the cook.  Unfortunately, younger chefs seem to favor fusion over established cuisines and younger chefs are the least able (based on experience) to pull it off.

Established cuisines have rules that protect the diner from nutty combinations and inexperienced cooks.  The downside is eater-boredom, the upside is that one knows what one is getting.

Conversely, the upside to creative cooking is excitement and discovery. The downside is a potential mish-mash that doesn't always work. One has to separate the medium from the practitioners.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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I do like the idea of convergence and it seems a natural process within a metropolis like Manhattan or London,but outside of these two great cities I feel it would be down to an individual like D. Chang or in London someone like Peter Gordon who have the palette,skill and grasp of a bigger picture that enables them to do it at a higher level.

To me it would still be at the trailblazer stage,its when the people around these great individual cooks clearly get it and are themselves able to pass on the knowledge then we could really consider it a proper movement.

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The time for fusion probably hasn't arrived until you've mastered--or, at the very least, adequately familiarized yourself with--the elements you aim to fuse. Ironically, though, if you do that in good faith, you may well end up concluding that the conventional/traditional use of a given ingredient didn't need "improving upon" in the first place.

Here's an entry on the subject from a highly regarded reference book whose name escapes me at the moment:

"FUSION CUISINE: A restaurant cooking style that is one part curiosity and two parts apology. The typical fusion dish reflects both the irresistible novelty of foreign ingredients and the fact that their appropriateness--and flavor--diminishes with distance from place of origin, requiring them to be combined with more familiar local ingredients with which they usually clash.

"For most of human history, cooking styles fused gradually, the result of cross-cultural encounters and coexistence over long periods. In this era of globalization, however, self-conscious experimentation by individual cooks has sped up the process, resulting in such culinary chimeras as 'Thaioli,' 'quarkamole,' and the 'hot pho sundae.' "

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"For most of human history, cooking styles fused gradually, the result of cross-cultural encounters and coexistence over long periods.

I'd argue that the above statement isn't accurate....cooking, like many other aspects of material culture, doesn't evolve/change smoothly. At certain times in human history, foodways changed quite rapidly. Consider capsicums: the New World native chile pepper is introduced to the world after Columbian contact. It soon spreads around the globe, thanks to Spanish colonial trade, and becomes such a key part of south and SE asian cooking that we have a hard time imagining those cuisines without chiles' heat. The whole Columbian exchange provides a wonderful example of various cultures' willing- or un-willingness to accept new foodstuffs: potatoes, corn, turkeys, chocolate, chiles, black/red/pinto/lima/green beans (only some beans like lentils, chickpeas, cowpeas, green peas, favas were known in the old world)...pick your favorite regional cuisine and imagine it without those ingredients. Every single one of those ingredients was unknown globally before 1492.

Fusion is as old as humanity, isn't it? Creolization & syncretism are the rule, rather than the exception. Borrow from your neighbor, make something new, repeat what tastes good.

Alford & Duguid quote an anthropologist in "Flatbreads and Flavors" who did fieldwork in the mid-east (sorry, can't remember where). Anyway, this scholar hated the local flatbread and worked with his camp cook to bake a loaf to his liking. Fast forward 25 years; he goes back to the area and discovers delicious bread baked all around the area. He runs into his old camp cook and says why did you feed me that bad bread when such good bread existed? But that IS your bread, the cook replies: I liked it too, and so did everyone else. We bake nothing else now.

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I do think the gradualness of culinary migration tends to be overstated, however we're still talking about a difference of several orders of magnitude when we compare a single product changing in 25 years to new ingredients and techniques being available every 25 minutes.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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You took the words right out of my mouth, Fat Guy--you oughta see the last guy who tried that!

Hungry C's point is well made and incontrovertible. (Let me make clear, though, in case it's not already, that the entry I quoted is from a humor book.) The salient feature is the time scale. There is a difference between actual culinary fusion and capital-F, capital-C Fusion Cuisine, the latter being intensely market- and/or boredom-driven, highly self-conscious, and geared toward manifesting results at what might be called Trend Speed (or perhaps Food Blog Speed), i.e., within one restaurant-fashion season, i.e., almost overnight. Compared with this, the couple of decades that transpired in the anthropologist's bread story, and the time it took for chiles, etc., to take hold in Asia, while appearing from this distance in time to be rapid, in fact occurred at a glacial pace. My objection isn't to true culinary fusion--objecting would be pointless anyway, since it can't be stopped, nor would we want it to be--but to fusion as a remedy for laziness or income stagnation or xenophobia or an excess of disposable income.

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