Fusion, be gone.

In case this looks familiar, this is an entry that was originally posted to my main site. Since it's food related it's been moved here. Oh, and this was written several years ago, and I have since gone to Nobu and so on, and Asian-fusion is even more popular than ever. My views have changed a bit on the subject, but this essay remains here for historical purposes.

The signs were already there years ago - i think it was 1994, when Max and i went to Walt Disney World together for the first time. (i've been to WDW by myself countless times before that, but that's another story.) Always eager to try new restaurants, one of the first things we did was to make a reservation at the new hot California Grill in that retro-monolith, the Contemporary Resort. The California Grill, naturally, served California Cuisine - which was the precursor of sorts in general culinaric buzzwordology to Fusion/Pacific Rim. (I've never had the chance of going to the acknowledged origin of California Cuisine, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, so I'm not sure if California Cuisine == Fusion is entirely correct. But I digress again.)

What we had then at the California Grill was typical Fusion as we know it now: a sushi bar, meats coated with a sweetish barbeque/soy/teriyaki type sauce, rice wine vinegar and grated daikon in the dressing. I was not impressed.

That sauce thing really bugs me, because to me, it tastes just like Bulldog Sauce. Bulldog Sauce is alas, not made from essence of dog, but is the Japanese version of A1 Steak Sauce or Worcestershire Sauce. Actually, there are several varieties of Bulldog Sauce - for tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlets), 'medium-thick' for whatever, etc. They all taste rather similar though - slightly less spicy than A1, thicker than Worcestershire, sweetish. Bulldog is fine on tonkatsu, and makes a nice flavor addition to several proletariat dishes that I make for dinner at home - just like A1 or ketchup does - but its appearance on a $30 dinner entrée really brings down the experience for me. Especially when it completely smothers a decent piece of beef filet, as it did at the California Grill. We'll get to the sushi later.

Flash forward a couple of years, and we found ourselves with Max's mother and my mother at the beautiful - and viciously expensive - Fischerzunft in Schaffhausen. It is a gorgeous restaurant, on the Rhein, and I'm sure the hotel must be a fine place to stay too. This place had been rated very highly by the bible of nouvelle cuisine, Gault-Millau. The owner-chef Herr Jaeger had visited my mother's restaurant in New York (the late, sorely lamented Sushisay..mom retired last October) several times, and she was eager to try his cuisine. He recommended, and we took, the multi-course tasting-with-wine-pairings option.

The first (or second) course that we had was a "galette de riz". A somewhat moist and sticky round of rice, with pretty garnishes, had been grilled or pan-fried or something on the outside, was faintly glazed with a sauce that - yes - closely ressembled Bulldog. I don't really remember the rest of the menu, except that yes, it was quite good, but - well, i guess not that memorable.

On the train ride back, my mother, who had been leaning contemplatively against the window, suddenly turned to me and said,

"Wasn't that yaki-onigiri?"

She was right! That gallette de riz was indeed a bastardized version of the classic grilled rice ball (rice ball is onigiri; onigiri are a staple of picnic lunches and late-night snacks). Bastardized, because the rice was way too loose and sticky, and because of the Bulldog. The next day, my mother made us real yaki-onigiri -- with properly steamed rice, a pickled plum in the center, crispy and lightly brushed with soy sauce. Even Max who lacks that cultural connection with Bulldog acknowledged that this version was far better.

And I think this is the whole point. Fusion food is a mass of bastardizations, a mishmash of flavors from various cuisines with long, well established foundations of flavor. I'm not against innovation in cuisine by any means, but more often than not, fusion seems to be produced by people who have little to no understanding of the culinaric cultures they are borrowing from and mucking about with so freely. More often that not, it seems to me, the original, pure version they started mucking about with in the first place is so much cleaner and honest.

The importance of thoroughly understanding the culinaric traditions on which innovation takes place really hits you when you go to a place where they really, truly do it right -- such as our favorite three-star Michelin restaurant (okay..the only three-star Michelin we've been to so far) the Buerehiesel in Strasbourg. Antoine Westermann obviously understands the cuisine of Alsace thoroughly, but what you get there certainly isn't grandma's choucroute garni. He rearranges, and re-interprets, and refines the flavors of the region so well that the result is just - well, it's perfect.

I think that fusion is still rather prominent these days because it's sort of easy. Because most people do not have any reference to the real flavors from which fusion is derived, it's easier to fool them. Which brings us back to sushi.

I am passionate about sushi. Sushi is a pretty simple thing (which takes years to perfect) - you have to have impeccably fresh fish, and perfectly cooked rice. It is amazingly easy to screw up, as many simple things are. We recently had the worst excuse for "sushi" ever - with the exception of the Migros "sushi" er, whatever that was. Migros sushi disappeared fast from the scene though but apparently this place is quite a hit in London. The scene of the crime is Yo! Sushi. No, we did not expect to be blown away at a conveyor-belt sushi joint, but conveyor-belt sushi can be cheap yet edible - we've had such cheap/edible in New York and San Francisco. Yo! Sushi was neither cheap nor edible. In a way, Yo! Sushi to me represents the nadir of fusion. Bastardized sushi-imitations and Japanese-food imitations, rotating lifelessly on a steel conveyor belt.

If you're going to do fast-food Japanese, you can do it way better, just by keeping it simple and honest. (The Noodle Shop on the same street is way cheaper and much better. We went there after an aborted attempt to have dinner at Yo! and consoled ourselves nicely with tasty yakisoba noodles.)

It seems that yet another fusion has been opened by a prominent French star chef in New York. But really, it's time to move on from the Bulldog mess. Next food fad, please.

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Fusion, be gone.

The foodblog looks beautiful! Too good to eat.

mmmmmmm

pbhastings | 29 November, 2003 - 19:37

Fusion, be gone.

maki,

I just read this post now, I'm a bit late :-). Still, I perfectly agree with your complaint about people with not much noledge of a culinary tradition cooking for people with no cultural reference. That's the same reason why I get mad when I read German/British/US versions of supposedly Italian dishes.

Alberto | 12 December, 2003 - 12:40

Fusion, be gone.

Having seen perfectly prepared sushi and sashimi regularly on the table as a child (no small feat in New York City in the '70s and '80s - even for Asian parents) the highly-touted Nobu restaurant was a great disappointment to me and my family. I recently treated my parents to dinner, and we chose the Omekase (Chef's Choice.) How disappointing! It was like an intersection with too many roads - there was too much traffic, too many "fusions", and no one cuisine or food was allowed to stand out and shine. There were a few exceptional standouts, but overall, not worth the exorbitant price I paid. The sushi was passed around at the end of the meal, as an afterthought, and all our worst fears were realized: dry rice (obviously refrigerated); bland, savorless fish; far too much wasabi. Any sushi place in midtown Manhattan or the East Village would give you a much better meal at a fraction of the cost! Don't waste your money. It's a terrible tourist trap where out-of-towners flock to see movie stars, unaware that famous faces eschew high-profile venues.

I agree. Fusion doesn't work!

Irene | 29 June, 2004 - 19:23

Wow!

What an elegant column! I am not exactly how I feel about fushion food — I might mix up the dishes at dinner, serving Chinese food alongside Korean for example — but rarely make a dish that can truly be called “fusion.” Now I have one more reason to keep cooking at home, and to eschew the fancy restaurants in Manhattan: it just tastes better when I do it myself.

Ai Lu | 3 December, 2008 - 04:18

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