Fusion Reaction

How America fell in love, and then out of love, and then in love all over again, with Asian-influenced cuisine.

Kimchi Quesadilla.
Kimchi Quesadilla

Photograph by Gary Stevens/Gary Soup Flicker.

Ten years ago, I would have said the future for Asian fusion seemed pretty dim. The style, which combines various Asian modes of cooking and merges them with Western ones, no longer seemed cutting-edge. By 2002, once-hot fusion cuisine had diffused into Ming Tsai’s agreeably bland Food Network programming and the sort of Chinese chicken salad with fried wontons you might find at the airport. Asian food was, as always, essential to the American palate, but “authenticity” had come to motivate sport eaters like me. We were using Chowhound and alt-weeklies to quest for the food we thought least contorted by its voyage West: the best sundubu place, the most exquisite sushi, the hottest Sichuanese, the ne plus ultra of xiao long bao. The only fusion we could abide had been fused long ago or in a country far away, like the Franco-Vietnamese banh mi sandwich.

You won’t hear much mention, these days, of “Asian fusion,” let alone its dubious synonyms “Pacific Rim,” “East-meets-West,” or “Pan-Asian.” But the truth is, the idea of a not-too-traditional take on Asian cookery is among the most dynamic in restaurants today. It’s the duchy of Momofuku’s David Chang, not to mention dozens of wave-making food trucks and pop-up shops from California to New York, and it’s the future, it would seem, of conscientious fast food, as Chipotle launches its Southeast-Asian-inspired ShopHouse concept and other entrepreneurs try to fit Indian food into a similar model. Fusion as a term may have become deeply unfashionable, but its influence is everywhere. Looking back, it would seem I was wrong that fusion had gone away; it was just evolving, as it has done again and again since the first waves of Asian immigrants arrived in America.

All cuisine is at heart a form of fusion. When cultures collide, (peacefully or not,) ingredients overlap, cooks get inventive, and traditions are merged. But the modern and postmodern periods have sped up that interbreeding and scrambled traditions at a much faster pace than ever before. In this country, the expansion of railroad and mining operations brought the first major waves of Chinese immigrants, and the first American Chinese restaurant opened in 1849. Most places like it were rooted in Cantonese kitchen traditions, but their dishes were hybridized to make use of available ingredients and appeal to local tastes. It wasn’t uncommon, back then, to see chop suey served alongside Euro-American comforts like steak and roasted chicken—reassurance that a familiar meal could be chosen among the “exotic” offerings.

A few decades into the 20th century, the food started to change. Mainstream consumers came to demand exoticism from their Chinese restaurants, and chefs triangulated between Eastern traditions and a sort of kitschy sino-drag. The trend became more pronounced—and more self-conscious—in 1934, when the restaurateur Donn Beach opened his Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood. Victor Bergeron converted his Oakland saloon into the Polynesian fantasy Trader Vic’s soon after. Together their restaurants kicked off the long-running Tiki boom, offering a tipsy-sailor’s-eye view of the world, with strong drinks—both Beach and Bergeron lay claim to the Mai Tai—and exotic fare from any number of Asian port cities. It was at Trader Vic’s that dishes like the “Polynesian” rumaki (chicken livers and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon) and “Burmese” crab Rangoon (wontons filled with crab meat and cream cheese) were popularized. In the Polynesian mode, anything exotic would do: A 1968 recipe book of Bergeron’s includes recipes for Kahlua Pig, Mock Bird’s Nest soup, Malayan Meat-on-a-stick (satay), and guacamole, too. (Hewing to tradition was never the point: Bergeron wrote frankly that his recipes “have been worked over and adapted to American tastes.”)

The Polynesian phase had faded by the 1970s, as Americans gained access to Asian cuisines in less mediated ways. A fresh wave of immigration from the East brought with it a broader spectrum of regional foods. (Sichuan restaurants were hot in the post-Vietnam era.) California rolls, the epitome of Japanese fusion, also took off in the early-1970s, after someone—likely Ichiro Mashita—substituted the fatty fruit of the avocado for a fatty tuna belly. No matter who invented that maki roll, it worked as a gateway drug for Americans initially skeeved out by raw fish, and sushi culture would go on to conquer the nation. Another Japonesque food that took hold at the time was teriyaki. Though the sweet soy glaze has Japanese roots, it was as practiced stateside (with sugar instead of mirin) likely a Hawaiian hybrid.

In the 1980s and 90s, a new, worldly, haute cuisine grew up from this convergence of Asian cultures in American cities. In 1988, chef Norman Van Aken borrowed the term fusion from jazz to describe the new, experimental way of cooking, whether it included Asian flavors or not. Wolfgang Puck’s second restaurant, Chinois on Main, had opened a few years earlier and set the tone with its breezy borrowings of Asian ingredients set in a framework of French technique. His early menus included foie gras with pineapple, tempura tuna with uni sauce, and whole fried catfish with fried ginger. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who had cooked in Thailand early in his career, made Southeast Asian flavors the focus at Vong, which opened in 1991; he served shrimp “satay” stuffed with coconut mousse, lobster-daikon rolls dipped in a rosemary ginger vinaigrette, and a Frenchified take on pho made with roasted marrow bones and seared steak. And Nobu Matsuhisa, who had previously opened a Japanese restaurant in Peru, brought a Latin influence to his Matsuhisa restaurant in 1987 and later to his chain of Nobu restaurants. Even before it was so named, fusion was chic entertainment, buoyed by the effervescence of its globe-trotting chefs. Their restaurants served luxurious food in clubby rooms, with a genre-bending flair that rebuffed the old-school French restaurants.

Still, as fusion spread, it rankled. “Forget those restaurants that coyly claim to be Thai-Norwegian or Chilean-Korean with a touch of Guam,” warned New York Magazine in 2001. “Self-consciously crossing borders rarely creates something fresh and delicious.” While the first restaurants kept the blending of cuisines somewhat narrow in scope—with the flavors tied to the chefs’ personal experiences—imitators succumbed to something like a fusion-inflation: More and more elements were being combined into single restaurant concepts, and diverse, sometimes clashing regional cuisines were being dumped together into a big, groovy Asian-themed pot.

 Soon the trend had spread to fast food with the proliferation of “wrap” restaurants, where customers could have the world’s flavors—Thai, Mexican, Argentine, Caribbean—jammed and intermingled in a giant burrito. The broader the global references, the more unruly the menus seemed. To some, like Felipe Fernandez Armesto, the mode seemed to make its borrowings in dreary, mechanical ways. He called fusion cuisine “Lego cookery” in his food history opus from 2002, Near A Thousand Tables. “Only the revolution in availability makes it possible to mix and match elements delivered—often in processed form—to a kitchen which resembles an assembly point,” he complained. Even more dangerous to fusion than serious cultural critique: Mass-marketing had started to make it seem uncool.

As an antidote to that fusion frippery, turn-of-the-21st-century American eaters celebrated the simpler pleasures of stripped-down, farm-to-table restaurants, and the hunt for a less manipulated source of Asian food—those out-of-the-way pancake mavens and strip-mall noodle shops. But seeking cultural authenticity in a mongrel country like our own can be a self-defeating quest: How “authentic” is it to dine on dosa one day, satay the next, and pizza the day after that? Even if we weren’t eating at fusion restaurants, curious urban eaters were embracing the globetrotting pleasures of the genre.

What’s more, good fusion was itself irresistible, as was the cheeky attitude that first made Wolfgang Puck, or even Victor Bergeron, so winning. We were primed, then, for the entrance in the mid-to-late 2000s of David Chang—the Korean-American veteran of top New York kitchens who had moved to Japan to learn about noodle craft. He came back and opened a little ramen bar called Momofuku in 2004, and after a tremulous opening season, his pork buns and noodle bowls began to drive New Yorkers wild. Though the spirit of the cooking was informed by his travels, he’d tweaked the techniques: There was bacon in his ramen broth. It was a combination that made foodies see “Asian influence”—if that’s now an acceptable euphemism—in a brand-new way (or maybe it helped them remember how they first saw it 30 years ago).

In the Los Angeles food truck boom of 2009 and 2010, vehicular dining impresarios Mark Manguera, Caroline Shin-Manguera and Chef Roy Choi captured some of Chang’s spirit with hybrid meals that reflected their city’s cultural geography: kimchi quesadillas and tacos filled with Korean-inspired barbecue. In San Francisco, a food-truck-turned-pop-up-turned-restaurant called Mission Chinese food won acclaim for dishes like kung pao pastrami, Mongolian beef cheek and salt cod fried rice. Along with Momofuku, these new eateries established a contemporary fusion based on flavor and sass—one that was decidedly greasier and starchier than its white-linen ancestor.

The new fusion restaurateurs—many Asian-American themselves—are also more willing to mess around with the cultural baggage that surrounds ethnic cooking. The current crop of fusion restaurants either avoids the uncomfortable colonial iconography of previous pan-Asian palaces—the tiki masks or gleaming Buddhas—or they subvert it. (Mission Chinese Food, for example, claims to serve “Americanized Oriental Food.”) This brand of fusion incorporates the authenticity hound’s fascination with Asian street foods—the hawker fare that rarely made it into sit-down restaurants, but it does so with insouciance, and a willingness to elaborate or adapt tradition whenever a chef seems fit.

No doubt the kind of hybrid cuisines we seek will soon change again, so we’ll have another way to love food with mixed messages. At some point, we may even re-embrace Van Aken’s term. “I’m not averse to the word fusion now,” says Chang. “What food culture isn’t a fusion of other food cultures?”