How the shawarma gave birth to tacos al pastor – and why fusion food is here to stay

From Tresind and Farzi Cafe to All’Onda, Tamba and 99 Sushi, “fusion” restaurants con­tinue to pop up through­out the UAE. How­ev­er, while it’s one of the key trends ad­ver­tised by mod­ern res­tau­rants, fu­sion cui­sine is noth­ing new. In fact, fu­sion is the ba­sis of most pop­u­lar cui­sines.

Chef Wolf­gang Puck, who runs Santa Mon­i­ca res­tau­rant Chinois, is cred­it­ed as being the founder of the trend. The California eatery opened in 1983 and fea­tured Asian in­gre­di­ents pre­pared us­ing trad­ition­al French cooking meth­ods.

“I start­ed the East meets West fu­sion trend out on the West Coast with Chinois,” Puck says. “I don’t be­lieve they would have taken so well to it in New York. But after the suc­cess of Chinois they were able to jus­ti­fy the open­ing of China Grill in Man­hat­tan.”

A few years lat­er, Jap­a­nese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who had been run­ning a su­shi bar in Peru, ap­plied Latin American in­flu­en­ces to his epon­y­mous Bev­er­ly Hills res­tau­rant. By do­ing so, he set a new stand­ard for su­shi and gave us the re­nowned miso-marinated black cod.

These days, stum­bling upon an un­usu­al com­bi­na­tion of in­gre­di­ents is what dic­tates a sea­son’s “it” dish, from wa­sa­bi mashed po­ta­toes to ra­men bur­gers. Ex­peri­men­ta­tion is huge­ly en­cour­aged be­cause, who knows, per­haps you’ll cre­ate some­thing that helps you stand out in an in­creas­ing­ly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket, or that makes your place, or you, fam­ous. In 2013, in New York, French pas­try chef Dominique An­sel cre­at­ed the cronut – a crois­sant-­doughnut hy­brid – and queues formed around the block.

In the UAE, Tresind Stu­dio in Dubai has been lead­ing the charge for high-end fu­sion din­ing.

A port­man­teau of “tres” – French for very – and “In­di­an”, it ap­plies French tech­niques to In­di­an cooking for a tru­ly de­li­cious tast­ing menu. “It’s dif­fi­cult to com­bine two an­cient cui­sines,” says Tresind head chef Himanshu Saini, who is of In­di­an herit­age and trained in French cooking. “The best pos­sible way is to find the com­mon ground for both in terms of fla­vour, tech­nique and in­gre­di­ents.”

Even with­in a spe­cif­ic cui­sine, such as In­di­an, most menus now are a mix. “Do­ing just a re­gion­al-cen­tric menu is dif­fi­cult to pull off in a city like Dubai,” Saini says. “But serv­ing a mix of dish­es from dif­fer­ent parts of India doesn’t di­lute the cui­sine as long as the au­then­tic­ity of fla­vours is main­tained.”

Like­wise, chef Yang Tao of Zhen Wei at Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai, says the mer­ging of Asian cui­sines is a way to broad­en the appeal. “Quite often, Asian fla­vours such as Chi­nese, Ko­re­an, In­do­ne­sian, Jap­a­nese and Thai be­come a foun­da­tion for fus­ing South American, French, American and many more styles of cooking, which has helped to wid­en the glob­al reach and at­trac­tion,” he says. “The rea­son Asian fu­sion cui­sine has cre­at­ed a buzz worldwide is due to its wide range of fla­vours, styles of cooking and the abil­ity to blend with other cui­sines.”

Tao ex­plains that one way to make fu­sion work is to pre­serve the trad­ition­al ways of cooking au­then­tic dish­es, us­ing clas­sic in­gre­di­ents and then reimagine the pres­en­ta­tion. “We make clas­sic dim sum adding mod­ern touch­es with unique shapes and in­gre­di­ents, like div­er scal­lops, black truf­fles and cav­i­ar, but re­tain clas­sics like Peking duck along with other items be­ing pre­pared the trad­ition­al way in the woks.”

While Puck may be cred­it­ed as the fath­er of fu­sion, an in­crease in glob­al trav­el and trade is the major rea­son for the rise of fu­sion cui­sine and many of the dish­es we now con­sid­er to be cu­li­nary sta­ples are a re­sult of this. In 2011, a Poul­try World sur­vey re­vealed that chick­en tik­ka ma­sa­la was the most pop­u­lar dish in the UK, where it was served before it ever made it to India. The dish was cre­at­ed in a res­tau­rant in Scot­land after a din­er com­plained that his chick­en was too dry, with the chef mak­ing a sauce from to­ma­to soup and spices to pour on top. The din­er loved it, word spread and an in­sti­tu­tion was born.

The dish is now ­regu­lar­ly used as an il­lus­tra­tion of mul­ti­cul­tur­al Britain and how it takes and adapts ex­ter­nal in­flu­en­ces, or it serves as an ex­am­ple of postcolonial plun­der and cul­tur­al ap­pro­pri­a­tion – take your pick.

Like­wise, the Ja­mai­can pat­ty is a re­sult of the Brit­ish Em­pire ex­pand­ing to that part of the world and intro­du­cing the Cor­nish pasty, with In­di­an work­ers in the Carib­bean adding curry and cum­in, as well as the lo­cal Scotch bon­net pep­per. Else­where, the to­ma­to – a key in­gredi­ent for margherita piz­zas and many other Ital­ian dish­es – only ar­rived in Na­ples in the late 16th cen­tury, after the Span­ish colo­nised the Amer­icas.

And while the story goes that Marco Polo in­tro­duced pas­ta to Italy from China – which was ac­tual­ly the re­sult of an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign – it was Arabs who brought in pas­ta via the Emir­ate of Sicily in the ninth cen­tury. Cof­fee made its way to Eu­rope via the Ara­bi­an Peninsula, while the fam­ous ta­cos al pas­tor were cre­at­ed in Pueb­la, Mex­i­co, dur­ing the 1930s by Leb­a­nese im­mi­grants who in­tro­duced the re­gion to the clas­sic sha­warma. Many of the great dish­es in Mex­ican street food can be traced back to the sha­warma.

In many ways, the UAE is full of peo­ple who cre­ate their own fu­sion meals ev­ery week­end with our ubi­qui­tous in­ter­na­tion­al brunch­es. There, on the plates of the buf­fet graz­ers, the lion roll lies next to the lamb – along­side many other things that prob­a­bly shouldn’t be on the same plate.

In­ten­tion­al fu­sion, though, is fast be­com­ing the norm as we be­come world­-wise din­ers, con­sum­ing an in­creas­ing­ly glob­al cui­sine. What we are see­ing is the con­tinu­a­tion of a proc­ess that start­ed cen­tu­ries ago. It’s a lit­tle more pro­nounced and con­scious­ly fu­sion, with the odd standout dish, but these days it’s ac­tual­ly more dif­fi­cult to find some­thing that is not a re­sult of mixed cul­tures.

For The National – click here for original

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