Fusion or Confusion Cuisine?

A self-assured Australian is planning to show the Thais a thing or two about their own cuisine. Well, arguably – though that’s certainly inadvisable dinner table repartee for Nahm restaurant, after it launches at Bangkok’s Metropolitan hotel this July.

Chef protagonist David Thompson would undoubtedly disagree with that brash rationale – even though the affable Aussie holds the first and only Michelin star ever awarded a Thai restaurant, the original Nahm at London’s Halkin hotel. (“I slept with the reviewer!” he jested.)

I assume Thompson’s Bangkok menu will be bereft of newfangled creations. This gastro-purist – and erudite author of a voluminous bible on authentic Thai fare that took 15 years to complete – is no fan of “fusion.” A few years back he told me, with typical eloquence: “You end up with an unholy united nations on a plate.”

Earlier this year he grumbled to Time (whose correspondent, Andrew Marshall, called Thompson the traditionalist, “perhaps the world authority on Thai food”) about recent culinary trends: “I hate seeing carrots in Thai food … They're not traditional, they're not correct. And yet they're leaching their way into the cuisine.”

The fusion phenomenon – mating different ethnic foods – supposedly began around the seventies, when Austrian Wolfgang Puck combined French and Chinese cooking in California. Perhaps Ichiro Mashita, of Tokyo Kaikan, one of LA’s first sushi bars, predated Puck. The Japanese immigrant’s avocado experiments in the sixties (wild times, man) gave us the "inside-out" California roll now scoffed worldwide.

This anything-goes approach, accentuated by immigration, continues unabated. In the nineties, a "Pacific Rim" concept implied that its countries – Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Japan – shared a regional culinary lineage that legitimized willy-nilly combinations of their diverse indigenous ingredients.

You can hardly blame ambitious young chefs for straying from convention, seeking taste innovations that could bring fame and fortune. Britain’s “Naked Chef” Jamie Oliver did extremely well (“pukka,” even) from fuse-happy tweaking. (A notable Oliver’s twist is Christmas ham with jerk seasoning. Hm.)

When grub mutation works – one particular salmon in red curry was so dizzyingly divine, I almost proposed – it mesmerizes your taste buds. Of course, for each successful fusing there’s abundant confusion: scores of unpalatable botch-jobs, ranging from glaring miss-marriages (chicken tikka lasagna, anyone?) to inedible travesties, like sweet-and-sour hot dogs.

Tradition needs its defenders of authenticity, like the venerable David Thompson. But like it, lick it or loathe it, fusion is here to stay. There are sustainability reasons to favor local, seasonal produce, sure. But good chow is chiefly about harmonious taste combinations.

Plus, as Peter Gordon, of London’s The Sugar Club, pointed out: supposedly “national” food (including Italian, Spanish and French) often relies on once-foreign ingredients – originally discovered by explorers in strange, overseas lands.

Today’s mixed-race mixed-taste world has room for both tradition and innovation – even within the space of the same meal.

What’s your favorite – or most loathed – fusion feed? 


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