Thousands of years, ago, the idea of eating raw fish would have been unthinkable and only considered in extreme conditions of life and death. However, sushi and sashimi are now wildly popular across the world, eaten by many living halfway around the world from Japan. With the advancement of transportation and the internet, our world is shrinking, and a most welcome effect of this is that we now know more about other cultures and their practices. One area where this shows is the world of food. People nowadays are more adventurous when it comes to food than they’ve ever been. There are countless social media channels catering to those with an interest in exploring the most exotic foods of various cultures. This same interest is also fuelling chefs to experiment with various ingredients and techniques from around the world, driving the rise in popularity of fusion food.
The modern concept and use of the term “fusion food” only came about in the 1970s, as explained in an archived article from the New York Times. However, fusion food has been around long before the phrase was coined. The merging of ingredients and culinary techniques likely dates back much, much further to the beginning of trade between different nations. In fact, the history of fusion food is so old that we often forget that many culturally iconic dishes were actually created as a result of this merging of cooking techniques and ingredients. For example, it might be shocking to know that the quintessential bowl of ramen isn’t wholly Japanese. It was actually the result of Japan’s imperialist history during the late 1800s and 1900s when they claimed several Chinese territories as their own. Along with the land, they also took the traditional Chinese noodle 拉面 (la-mian), which was saltier and had a chewier consistency than the soba noodles which were predominant at the time. The dish was originally Shina soba, meaning “Chinese noodle”, before tempering over time to become the ramen we know and love today.
In its modern iteration, many ramen chefs are using the simplicity of a bowl of noodles as a blank canvas for culinary expression, experimenting with unconventional techniques and ingredients. A great example is Ramen Atelier in Singapore where Chef Andrew Ng draws from his experience in French cooking and applies it to the Japanese staple.
Another example of fusion food that is a little closer to home is the Peranakan cuisine, unique to the region around our little red dot. The culture itself came about when Chinese immigrants arrived in Malaysia and Indonesia during the 15th to 17th century and married into the Malay community, incorporating many of their cultural and culinary practices. Many Peranakan dishes meld Chinese ingredients with spices and cooking techniques used by the Malay community, creating a new vibrant cuisine that is archetypically Southeast Asian.
The traditions of Peranakan cuisine are still going strong in the region as many embrace this rich heritage and continue to dish out authentic fare. However, these days, adherence to traditions simply isn’t enough which is why chefs like Malcolm Lee constantly push boundaries by combining age-old techniques with his experience in contemporary western-style cooking. This uncanny ability to merge old and new has earned his restaurant, Candlenut, a one Michelin star, making it the world’s first Michelin-starred Peranakan establishment.
Like Malcolm Lee as shown, fusion food is a way for chefs to take themselves out of their comfort zone and expand their culinary repertoire, hopefully allowing them to come up with dishes that are distinct from those offered by competitors. On the other hand, it could also be a way for chefs of mixed ethnicity to express their unique cultural identity, borne from increasing global immigration and cross-fertilisation of ideas.
Chef Bjorn Frantzen does the former masterfully at his restaurant Zén, where he combines Japanese ingredients with an eclectic, but tastefully done, mix of Nordic, French and Japanese techniques. The result is dubbed “new Nordic kaiseki” and showcases the best of each culture that Frantzen has drawn from in dishes such as the classic chawanmushi, reinterpreted using aged pork broth in place of dashi, or their tartlet filled with Alaskan king crab and topped with ikura (salmon roe).
In Houston, Texas, Riel’s chef Ryan Lachaine draws on his mixed French-Candian and Ukrainian heritage to create dishes which epitomise the idea of fusion food. Highlights of Riel’s menu include the oysters with coconut-lime granita, cauliflower tempura with kimchi hot sauce, and the borscht topped with crème fraiche, dill and horseradish, which is a modern take on his mother’s recipe.
The idea of fusion food might have been around for centuries, but it’s only in the last two decades, with the advent of social media and improved interconnectivity that it has really started to blow up. Chefs the world over are taking advantage of the wealth of cultural knowledge at their fingertips and blending different ingredients and techniques. While these experiments may not always bear fruit, with refinement, these unconventional combinations of flavour will come to represent the future culinary and gastronomical pleasure.