Fusion Flavors

A and N. grumbled when I spiced up meatballs for dinner, stating that the dish wasn’t really Italian anymore! I admit to adding couple of dried red chilies to the tomato sauce and a hefty pinch of red chili powder in the meatballs, but I tweak every recipe to suit my palate. Even the classic dishes, I think, can benefit from a change occasionally. There is a lot of leeway when you are experimenting with food – ultimately, you, the taster, determine whether the new flavor is worth repeating or abandoning.

Fusion cooking entails combining two different styles of cuisine. Both cuisines are represented on the plate, and neither style should dominate; rather, they should complement and round out each other. At one of my favorite restaurants, Tamari, owner Allen Chen combines Asian and Latin flavors. “The gateway to exploring a culture is through food,” comments Chen, who ran a Chinese restaurant in Mexico, subsequently married his Mexican wife, and now creates food encompassing both cultures. One of the dishes, Pork Cheek Quesadilla, is served with aged cheddar, sweet shishito pepper and a creamed winter squash called kabocha that replaces sour cream. The main dish looks and tastes Mexican, but has an Asian overtone. In another dish, Asian Sea Bass, the broiled fish is placed on top of a bed of finely chopped Brussels sprouts, watercress, and pomegranate, and spiced with mojo and chili oil. An overtly Asian dish now has hints of Latin flavors through the sauce, mojo. A mojo sauce is made with olive oil, heaps of garlic, vinegar, and juice of a citrus fruit (lemon, lime, orange juice), and variations of this sauce is used in Spain, Cuba, Caribbean, and the Dominican Republic.

I grew up on Indian-Chinese food, a hybrid cuisine that was developed out of the Hakka Han community. This group settled in Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta), India around the 18th century. Indian-Chinese cuisine is one of the most commonly chosen fast foods in India, and a growing fan base exists in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States due to the cuisine’s spiciness quotient. Indo-Chinese food is prepared by slightly altering the steps of a traditional Indian meal. First, ginger, garlic, and chilies are sautéed; next, instead of adding spices, soya sauce and cornstarch are introduced; and for the final stage, vegetables, chicken, or noodles are added. The nomenclature is simple: The protein or vegetable’s name is tagged on to Chinese descriptions, such as “Manchurian,” “Chop Suey,” “Fried Rice,” and “Chow Mein” – resulting in dishes like Chicken Manchurian, Vegetable Chop Suey, and Prawn Fried Rice.

Blending two cuisines at home is easy. There is no right or wrong way of doing this, but your taste buds may try to protest at the thought. Begin by choosing a familiar dish and substituting one or two ingredients from another cuisine. Maintain similar textures, such as grits, polenta, and cream of wheat (semolina) or brown rice and quinoa. Stick with elements you favor from the original dish and introduce only one or two flavors from a different cuisine. However, it comes down to experimenting and practice, practice, and more practice to make the perfect fusion food!

My attempts at Mediterranean-Korean fusion even impressed A. and N., who are here this week. I made Mediterranean-style Shrimp with Garlic, with bay leaf, lemon, and dried red chilies, served over couscous. I paired this with an Asian-inspired salad of baby spinach and Korean-flavored vinaigrette. To make the vinaigrette, I combined 1/3 cup of rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon of plum sauce, 1 tsp. of sambal paste, ½ tablespoon of lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.