When East meets West on a plate, fusion of food happens. While fusion is not a new phenomenon, it has picked up momentum in the last decade as travel, trade, and ingredient availability have hit a new high. Fusion food definitely suits Indian tastes, but when is fusion food truly fusion and not just a strange-tasting gimmick?
Fusion food is a style of cooking that uses ingredients and techniques from around the world, especially one that combines Eastern and Western influences. It is a kind of fusion that gives the best of different cuisines and complements and enhances the taste of dishes. There are two different ways in which we follow fusion food in India: international dishes having Indian spices and Indian food with international sauces.
Chinese to Thai or Vietnamese to Singaporean, we evolve through Asia looking for our next favourite cuisine. Dhokla sandwiches, tandoori chicken gyros, chicken tikka nazza (take on pizzas), etc., form part of the Indian fusion cuisine with a twist. But the questions that are an integral part of the chef and culinary debates are: What defines fusion food? Is fusion the evolution of our demand and understanding of the cuisine, or is it simply going gimmicky and merging together any two flavours to produce a “fused” third? To arrive at the answer is a journey in itself.
The food culture of the world has greatly evolved in the past 10,000 years, following domestication of plants and animals which greatly increased the food supply. The development of states and industries has contributed to changes in vegetation and soil, new fuels for cooking, emergence of new seeds, and the blending of soils, crops, and fertilisers. The increase in travel, trade, and immigration led to the discovery of new culinary routes, spices, and tastes, and the merging of cuisines. One such instance is that of the Polynesian Islands, which were originally British colonies that were later taken over by the French colonisers. These Islands were also a predominant spot on the Chinese trade routes. Hence arrived their cuisine – a mix of Chinese-style cooking, sharp and strong tastes, and French-style presentations.
In the era of colonisation, cultural identities remained stark but cuisine paved the way for interesting inspirations and fusions due to the mixing of food habits and sourcing of products from across the colonised territories and the home countries of the colonials. In this way came the French-Vietnamese style of cuisine after a century-long control by the French over Vietnam.
From a similar historical situation emerged the Anglo-Indian cuisine, a by-product of the British colonial influence in the region. Conversely, the English too have taken the “chicken tikka” back to England and gone ahead and “christened” it as their national dish! Today, from specialised dining to concept cafes, the Anglo-Indian cuisine has become another culinary genre with stratified accessibility. This culinary evolution and intermingling of food habits has led to a fusion of culinary styles and ingredients. So, is the produced food “fusion food”?
When chefs push the barriers of the evolution of cuisine, fusion happens. With the world becoming a global village, access drives “fusion.” For instance, Norwegian Salmon was never available in India historically. But now that it is, we have seen the birth of Salmon Tikka. Basically, fusion occurs when ingredients traditionally not found in the cuisine culture of a region make their way into a dish. So now, instead of using Indian river Sole to make tandoori fish, it is salmon that has found its way into the tandoor and so “Salmon tandoori” now adorns your plate. The same is the case with New Zealand lamb chop kebabs.
Fusion is a tasteful, modern culinary art. The chef’s creativity and his ability to experiment with food, blend traditional and modern flavours, and create eclectic versions of old or brand-new dishes result in fusion food.
Fusion also stands for a more contemporary approach to food which imbibes the ingredients and dishes of a particular region. However, experimenting with dishes and giving them a twist may not be a result of cultural intermingling but simply food populism. “Chinese bhel” possibly leads this category with “Korean tacos” close behind. While “chaat” is a hot favourite with one generation and some communities, Chinese cuisine is considered younger and more Western- oriented, so the fusion of the two widens interest in the food and its scope.
This trend is also reflective of a high degree of Westernisation, a result of the exposure of our culture, cuisine, and preferences to the forces of globalisation. I am pointing towards the “chicken tikka” burgers and “nazzas” that may have started with the intent to be “fusion” but have now joined the evolution process of cuisine. The same is the case with what happens to the dhokla or the taco in Korea. Most international chains that may think global but act local are carrying out the process of culinary fusion.
At the mass market or lower level, it is an evolution that has happened in the natural course of time, pushed both by customer demand and natural market preferences.“Nouvelle cuisine” is a way of cooking and food presentation of French cuisines. But the phenomenon is not merely French. It has takers across the world, from contemporary Indian to even South East Asian, with alterations in cooking methods and styles and distinct additions to the final presentation.
Molecular gastronomy is another form of such fusion. Chefs take ingredients, deconstruct, and Indians are fairly exposed to all sorts of “fusion.” Cuisines derived from colonial influences are familiar to our taste buds. What has emerged in the process is cross-border cuisines re-fuse flavours to create an exclusive cuisine. The word “contemporary” is also used by some chefs to denote a process called “deconstruction.” I read an article which explained that even the American staple diet of meat-loaf and mashed potatoes could be produced in new avatars by deconstructing it. That implied either changing the style of cooking – making the potatoes into a fritter – or giving the meat-loaf a Middle Eastern styled “kibbeh” finish. Contemporary fusion may also mean going a step further and adding new ingredients to give value to the finished product or using healthier methods of cooking – grilling instead of frying or working towards a baked version.
Fusion becomes a gimmick when both finesse and subtlety are compromised. The blind use of ingredients, with little thought to texture or individuality of flavour is a cheap gimmick, not fusion cuisine. Wasabi-crusted Australian lamb chop kebabs – subtle meat-crusted with horse-radish paste and served with mayo – is simply adding up multiple flavours to “tamasha.”
I stumbled upon “Chinese dosa” in the Nilgiri Hills in South India. Dosa stuffed with noodles and cabbage, with vegetarian and non-vegetarian options, and Manchurian sauce to replace the traditional sambhar is a gimmick, one that does not taste good. Keema dosas and potato stuffings are traditional while paneer is an evolution or fusion catering to North Indian preferences. The noodles simply spoil the taste of the original.
Indians are fairly exposed to all sorts of “fusion.” From burgers and pizzas to modern takes such as “salmon tikkas” and “Chinese chaat,” the Indian palate is highly diversified. Cuisines derived from colonial influences in North Africa, Vietnam, and even the Islamic-Ottoman connection from history are familiar to our taste buds. What has emerged in the process is cross-border cuisines, such as “Chinjabi” (a combination of Chinese and Punjabi) that has items like “gobi manchurian” on its menu or “chicken tikka Singaporean” which is simply marinating chicken pieces in a “laksa” paste made from the leaves of the Singaporean herb “laksa” and cooking it on charcoal grill.
Fusion creates an opportunity to give a regional touch to traditional cuisines and create interesting recipes. It tends to be more common in culturally diverse areas such as India where there is a wider audience for such food. Fusion recipes have evolved in different ways in the country. Here, an original dish is combined with several ingredients from different cuisines and regions. There is also the possibility of combining regional and sub-regional cuisines to create a new dish.
Global fast food players have innovated with local ingredients to suit the Indian palate. Fusion foods attempt to bring a rapport between Indian traditional food tastes and popular foreign products from Thailand, China, Europe, Mexico, Japan, USA, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. So what’s your pick of fusion: Chicken Manchurian kulcha, daal soup, methi chicken pakoras, or wonton bhaji with tamarind chutney?