The style of food I love cooking, the food that is my life’s passion and which, ultimately, I find the most exciting and rewarding of all, is Fusion cuisine.
Fusion cuisine takes as its starting point the belief that any ingredient, from any region of the world, has the potential to be cooked and eaten with any other ingredient from any other part of the world - so long as the result is lip-smackingly delicious. This belief informs everything I do. It’s a style of cooking that has enormous potential to continuously surprise and evolve.
It all started for me way back in the late ’60s in Wanganui, New Zealand, the town I was born in. In those days, New Zealand’s presence was not particularly noticeable on the global culinary radar. In fact, it might be said that many Europeans arriving in New Zealand were somewhat dismayed with what they found there. The ingredients were top quality, due to the endless acreage of grass fields and pollutant-free oceans and rivers, but modern-day basics like a good espresso, avocados, olive oil and fine dining were not in abundance. In fact, they were barely part of the national consciousness. I can remember Dad’s mum Molly Gordon, my Gran, once sending us a packet of pine nuts that she’d found on one of her travels; when I tried them I almost spat them out - they were unsalted and untoasted and were nothing like the peanuts I was more familiar with. What was Gran thinking when she bought them, I wondered.
As a young boy, one strangely obsessed with the food pages from women’s magazines and TV shows like Graham Kerr’s The Galloping Gourmet (New Zealand’s foremost culinary star to grace the screen around the world), I had two ways I liked to spend my pocket money. I’d either head to Parnell’s garden shop on Victoria Avenue to buy plants for the garden at home, or to the big supermarket nearby to buy ‘exotic’ ingredients. I can remember when this supermarket had a European cheese promotion and I saved and saved in order to be able to buy some. I must have been around 12 at the time, and when I’d saved enough cash I went in and discovered exotic tins and red wax-wrapped shapes, all of which were cheese - I thought I’d gone to Culinary Heaven. In those days cheese was always bought as a large half-kilogram chunk, cut from an even larger slab, and it was either eaten grilled on toast or cut into cubes, put onto toothpicks, and stuck in an apple as part of a buffet. I have moved on, you’ll be pleased to know, but as a young kid from a small New Zealand town, with no gastronomic tradition supporting me, this is what I thought good food was all about.
Moving to Melbourne, Australia, in 1981, aged 18, I discovered an alternative culinary universe - and the music of Grace Jones. Here was a city inhabited by people from all over the world: from Italy, Greece, Vietnam, Poland, France, Korea, Spain, Africa and America - every country I’d ever read about. I was so amazed at meeting people who didn’t speak English and who didn’t count mashed potatoes as part of their diet. What these people had in common was an obsession with their own national cuisines, eating things I’d simply never heard of, from kim chee through to and ouillette and cous cous.
I completed a four-year cookery apprenticeship, attending William Angliss College every Friday for three of those years, and, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this is where my Fusion cuisine philosophy was initiated.
I’d eat at numerous restaurants, which were surprisingly affordable even on apprenticeship wages, and would usually discover a new ingredient or technique that would just blow me away. I can still remember eating silken tofu for the first time at Kuni’s restaurant off Bourke Street. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever tasted. Served simply, cut into a large cube, sitting in a beautiful raku-fired pottery bowl with an ice cube and cold water, it was topped with finely grated daikon (mooli radish) and served with tamar (wheat-free soy sauce) on the side. Simple, subtle, beautiful. I fell in love with tofu at that instant, even though I’d been eating the more readily available spongy tofu for years.
I went to college and begged that they teach us about this amazing ingredient but was quickly told that I was at college to learn about cooking - not how to serve raw fish and bean curd which was how my teachers viewed Japanese food. I was gutted. And this is pretty much how my apprenticeship years went. I’d taste an aromatic Thai coconut fish curry at a Brunswick Street restaurant and ask my lecturers to teach me the intricacies of Thai cuisine, but would be told that wasn’t really a classic cuisine either. College, in those days, focussed instead on Europe, Escoffier, thirty things to do with eggs and ice carving!
So, I’d head off to strange-smelling food stores, where I couldn’t understand anything spoken by the staff or written on the packaging, and buy things that either looked or smelled intriguing. Home I’d go with my new purchase and see what I could do with it. I didn’t buy cookbooks in those days, so I never followed classical, ethnic recipes which might have led me along a more traditional path. Instead, when it was my turn to cook something for my flatmates, I’d simply open the cupboard and create something from the ever-growing range of ingredients I’d gathered. Maybe a pumpkin soup seasoned with Japanese miso and Thai galangal, topped with a little braised Chinese pak choy and Turkish feta. Or a braised beef shin stew with Chinese wood fungus, Japanese seaweed and dried Italian porcini mushrooms, served with Moroccan harissa-spiced mashed sweet potatoes and green beans tossed with Chinese fermented yellow soy beans(!). It was during this time I realised that ingredients from different countries could be served in harmony, and I wondered why we were always taught at college to only respect tradition.
One person who did encourage me, apart from my hungry flatmates and family, was my last employer in Melbourne, Tony Rogalsky. Tony helped nurture my enquiring mind and taste buds. He’d let me experiment with staff dinners when I first started cooking for him, and as I became a more senior chef at his restaurant, Rogalsky’s, he’d allow small hints of what I was doing to appear on the menu. I can remember playing around with my own Indian curry spice mix, using about 18 spices, which seemed incredibly exotic. He also encouraged my pickled vegetable and pickled fruit obsession, and many other parts of my evolving Fusion repertoire.
However, to some less experienced and possibly nervous cooks, and to a reasonably large number of restaurant chefs and critics, Fusion represents not only a momentary fad to be derided and insulted, but also a threat, a threat to traditional culinary values. Apparently, it’s not worthwhile. It’s a jumble of ingredients put together seemingly with little skill, with, at best, a childish and unrefined playfulness; at worst, a juvenile arrogance and wanton disregard for tradition. If I’m being honest, unfortunately this can sometimes be the case. For myself, however, and for the many adventurous and open-minded supporters of Fusion cuisine, it allows a unique freedom to use the world’s extraordinary, myriad ingredients from far-flung regions, in delicious combinations - whether they be potatoes (originally from Peru), vanilla beans (Mexico), nam pla (Thai fish sauce), broccoli (Italy), tamarind (tropical Africa), raspberries (Scotland!), soy (Asia) or Argan oil (Morocco). This list is, obviously, endless.
Historically, and I’m talking ancient times here, ingredients were mostly local and regional due to the difficulties of transporting them and keeping them in a fresh and edible state once they were on the move. The transportation of dried spices was the one major exception, and the fairly common contemporary use of these, and the perception that they are part of our everyday traditional cooking repertoire, derive from the evolution of the legendary Silk Road. This road was, in fact, around 9000 kilometres of many interconnected ‘paths’, some of which were on land, others operating by river and sea. These paths allowed the transportation, exchange and trade of many items, some of which were food, by merchants, monks, traders and nomads. Various civilisations dating back to the Han Dynasty (which itself is credited with expanding the already existing trade routes in the first place around 100 bc) began to have contact with other civilisations from Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Rome, India and Mediterranean Europe. This has meant that many of today’s national cuisines have developed as a direct result of this extraordinary absorption and reinvention of foreign influences - historical Fusion.
Pomegranate molasses is a relatively new import into Europe from Asia, unlike, for example, dried saffron, ground ginger or cardamom, which, although ‘exotic’ originally, have now been commonplace for centuries. These spices have been considered a ‘traditional’ ingredient in dishes dating back hundreds of years, and when used today in a recipe of whatever provenance, let’s say English gingerbread, the dish is still considered a ‘classic’. Even if we were to add dried dates to our cake, it would manage to remain traditional as our grandmothers always had dried dates in their pantries - well Molly Gordon did anyway - and dates seem for many to be part of the classical repertoire of ingredients. However, the moment we dare to add, say, lovely sweet and sour pomegranate molasses (one of many recent interlopers to have infiltrated the Western culinary consciousness), our English ginger loaf apparently becomes something quite different, what some critics might term a messed-about Fusion version of a classic. Not so. Dates and pomegranates have been grown and harvested in the same areas of the world for centuries. Therefore it seems it is in their application, the modernity of their inclusion in so-called classical fare, rather than their geographical provenance, which makes all the difference. I must point out that Worcestershire sauce, a very traditional British condiment, has tamarind in it which originated in Tropical Africa. Yet, we don’t consider this sauce a Fusion concept. Why not? Because, put simply, time breeds familiarity. Historical Fusion is acceptable. To its critics, modern Fusion isn’t.
While chefs in the Western world have happily been using dried herbs and spices from around the globe for centuries, incorporating them into their national cuisine, they haven’t historically been able to source fresh, exotic fish, meat, fruit and vegetables. In recent years though, travel, freight and refrigeration have improved immensely, and so the melting pot of various cuisines has been made even richer and more dense now that modern societies are able to sample fresh ingredients from many exotic locations. In London we take for granted the ability to source green papaya and the delicious fruit, mangosteen, from South-East Asia. Fresh wild salmon and grouse get flown down to us at the start of their seasons, and white Italian truffles are freighted over to the USA with much fanfare. I have to say the best book I have read on the subject of food and travel is Moveable Feasts by Sarah Murray, and I’d recommend you read it. It’s informative and fascinating.
But food is also a political force, one that has helped to shape history in many unexpected ways. One example is a small, sub-tropical evergreen bush, a member of the camellia family from China. Tea. The growing British demand and desire for tea (which led to the 1839-1860 Opium Wars in China) has had huge historical repercussions. Similarly, the belief that nutmeg would ward off, or even cure the plague, led, in a very roundabout way, to the claiming of Manhattan for the British (read the wonderful Nathaniel’s Nutmeg by Giles Milton). Even in recent history, there are tales of ocean ‘battles’ over various fish species that were once plentiful off the British coast, the Pacific and in South-East Asia, between large factory-ships and smaller day-boats. Economic and political sanctions were the outcome.
So, who is to say that we must never experiment with so-called classical dishes? I realise that once a recipe has been altered it is no longer the classic it once was, but why not try using Vietnamese fish sauce to season a traditional Lancashire meat stew in place of salt, and adding a little tamarind to counteract the inherent sweetness of the meat and vegetables? The dish may well benefit from this cross-cultural play. It will definitely change its character, but surely if it tastes good, or even if it tastes intriguingly different, that can be seen as a positive thing. After all, the classic version still remains for generations to enjoy; and the refreshed version can equally be appreciated with absolutely no harm done to the old in the pursuit of the new.
Without historical Fusion, the Italians wouldn’t be able to serve classical polenta or risotto at their tables, as obviously corn and maize are from the New World - the Americas as it was once called - and rice hails from tropical and sub-tropical southern Asia. Thai cuisine would have neither chillies nor peanuts as these ingredients also hail from the New World - and there would be no coriander tossed over their luscious coconut curries as this aromatic herb started life in south-west Asia, north-west Africa and the Mediterranean. Ratatouille would be absent from the repertoire of French cuisine as the tomatoes required for this classic dish originated in the New World and its aubergines in India. And the British have Peru to thank for their national vegetable, the potato, and China to thank for their tea. In New Zealand we think of feijoa and tamarillo as being national fruits - but they are, in fact, both from South America. And where would a pavlova be in Australia or New Zealand without a slathering of fresh passionfruit pulp (South American) or some sliced kiwifruit (Chinese)? If you were to trace the individual sources of all of the classic ingredients from each classical cuisine, I promise you’d be amazed at the vast and incredible range of their countries of origin.
Without this extraordinary historical Fusion of ingredients, many cuisines would be so much less intense and flavoursome. And it’s with this in mind that contemporary Fusion cuisine promotes the introduction of foreign ingredients into our everyday lives here and now, to enrich and stimulate us. Fusion cuisine refuses to adhere to politically or geographically drawn borders created generations ago by men in robes or suits, which forbid that you must ever mix, for example, Herb A from the North with Protein B from a region in the South. Food doesn’t obey borders and checkpoints. It’s on the move and always has been. To force it to conform to political boundaries smacks just a little of culinary fascism.
Modern Fusion cuisine allows you the possibility to create perhaps the most stimulating, gorgeous meal you’ll ever experience. Yes, it can be fun and yes, it can be playful, but never forget, it is as challenging as any other cuisine, requiring thought, commonsense and a good palate to achieve it.
Fusion is, therefore, simply one of many cuisines, happily sitting amongst them like a benevolent magpie, borrowing highlights from them all, and in the process creating new highlights of its own. This is surely something worth doing.
© 2010 Peter Gordon. All rights reserved.