Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
The author is a Delhi based freelance writer on food and culture.
Fusion food: a style of cooking which is becoming increasingly popular the world over but it seems, also increasingly controversial. Some people seem to think that ingredients from different world cuisines should never meet on the same plate. The term "fusion" originated in the U.S., as did the earlier term "Pacific Rim". (In case of confusion, in more ways than one, Modern European and Pacific Rim cuisines are one and the same thing - Fusion is a term that simply implies the fusion of several cuisines in one dish. While Pacific Rim cooking may conjure up images of palm trees and warm waters, many chefs in different corners of the world are busy scouring North Africa for couscous, the Mediterranean for olives and Thailand for galangal and lemon grass - ingredients not normally associated with the Pacific.
Overseas restaurant reviewers, who criticise fusion cooking for taking ingredients from many countries and "fusing" them on one plate might have marvelled at, say, a wonderful Italian dish of braised aubergines and potatoes served with guinea fowl. Well, as any gardener knows, aubergines originally came from China, potatoes from South America, and guinea fowl from Guinea, West Africa. Indeed, in their time, the aubergine and the potato were themselves regarded as exotic, fusion food of a different sort.
Closer home, Olaf "Picasso" Niemeier, Executive Chef, The Oberoi, New Delhi reminisces "while some have been works of laboured love, there have been others, on the genesis of which, I found myself declaring 'Serendipity' - yes! Quite like Eureka, a chance innovation as in the true Picasso style I set about creating new out of the old." Popularly known as "Picasso" Chef Niemeier excels in looking at traditional dishes and turning them into modern and colourful gastronomical creations. He has also carved a niche for himself as a culinary par excellence and believes in blending traditional with modern, classical with contemporary, east with west and Asian essence with Western style. Totally mesmerised by the concept of Indo-Western culinary fusion, Chef Olaf has created fantasies like Chocolate and Rasmalai Terrine or Doa Mille Feuille. (Layers of dosa pancake with a selection of mixed berries.) He has also managed to give a fusion finish to the South Indian pineapple rasam, by putting puffed pastry over it and baking it in the oven. With the rasam piping hot under the pastry, he renames the traditional recipe as "Baked spicy pineapple rasam".
Indian fusion cuisine went global recently, when the Oberoi chefs presented their fusion culinary delights at the prestigious Davidoff International Gourmet Festival on the resort island of Sylt in Germany. It received wide acclaim from gourmet chefs the world over. Appetisingly presented at the Sansibar Restaurant, a super deluxe eatery on this resort island, the cuisine blended frontiers and palates in perfect harmony. Indian cuisine combined with elements from the west and the orient was innovatively created to offer exquisite gourmet presentations. Jalebi layered with lemon kroquant served with blueberries; lasagne with paneer and capsicum bhujia and gulab jamun cheesecake were some of the imaginative creations at the Gourmet Festival.
Fusion food in the 21st century could also mean casual, trendy and chatpatta stuff. Take the case of the capital's new day-night club, Float. There is certainly a lot more to the multi-faceted Float than dancing. The menu at its fusion restaurant, with a large show kitchen open for lunch and dinner, leans towards the traditional - yet a certain cosmopolitan zeal pervades. And more so in the starters. A sure favourite is the Spicy Nachos - toasted corn chips with tomato salsa, cheese and sour cream. Another unusual snack is the Pasta Pockets - filled with vegetables or chicken and roasted pepper sauce. Plenty of meaty stuff, cooked with piquant spices does produce tears of appreciation, despite the best of efforts! Vegetarians are sure to have an exciting time here with the Float Ravioli and its luscious filling of lentils and paneer on saffron cream.
No cuisine today can be classified, understood or ultimately appreciated by looking at borders on a modern map. Italian, Spanish and French cuisines would not be what they are today if explorers had not liked the strange foodstuffs they brought back from their voyages of discovery. The fact that potato, tomato, orange, lemon, aubergine and rice all thrive in Europe, has meant that they have become a part of the European food culture. If the mango or kaffir lime trees had been able to grow in Europe, surely the 18th century cookery writer Brillat-Savarin would have come up with a recipe for them as well.
Miniature papads, dainty pieces of naan, tandoori roti and lemon rice along with the casseroles, cutlets and fillets is fusion at its best . . . . Allowing ingredients from all over the globe to be marinated, cooked and served together in harmony on the same plate. The secret behind it is the successful combination of the familiar with lesser-known ingredients. Pureed green chillies and coriander can be stirred into a simple chicken stew at the last moment. Lemon grass or lemon myrtle can replace lemon zest in a seafood risotto. Coconut milk can be used to make baked custard, replacing some of the cream, altering the taste and texture delightfully.
Diners' tastes and expectations are changing rapidly. Increasing air travel means that more people are travelling to exotic parts of the world where they can experience the "global store cupboard" for themselves. They enjoy experiencing these flavours again when they return to home shores.
It is a shame that critics are so divided over fusion food, and sad, too, that some arrive at the table armed with prejudices against anything innovative and popular. Why cannot they simply relax and accept that if something makes you excited, be it galangal or coq au vin, then it is worthy of praise? No one is denying that classic dishes with traditional ingredients are fully deserving of the plaudits they receive, but no matter how brilliant and respected classical cuisine might be, cooking is a living art which changes and develops, as do the people who are eating and preparing it. Enjoy it. Fusion food tastes good.
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