Are you tired of making the same meals for yourself or family? American society may be a melting pot of different cultures, but until recently, the food scene often left more to be desired. Enter fusion food culture: an old idea that’s been given a modern makeover through the efforts of chefs and restaurants around the world. With nearly 200 countries on the planet, fusion meals can be reinvented ad infinitum. What you are left with is a breathtaking assortment of innovative dishes, as can be seen with the more famous varieties, like New Orleans and Tex-Mex cuisines. The world stands to gain, with benefits like flavor enhancement and a more culturally aware attitude only scratching the surface.
In this article, I will elaborate more on the most popular examples of such food, its benefits, and historical walkthrough of food fusion restaurants and food trucks. Then, I’ll cap things off with a fantastic exchange I had with Alessandro Inglima from The Ugly Mandoo, an Instagram channel run by a Korean wife and Italian husband, dedicated to chronicling Korean-Italian food creations with helpful, story-driven recipes. They also have a YouTube channel!
Fusion Food Examples
Research suggests that a definition of fusion foods is hard to reach, because the majority of contemporary dishes qualify as fusion, but many would agree that fusion food is “the blending of culinary worlds to create new, hybrid dishes”. Especially in populated and highly diversified parts of the US, this idea has spread like wildfire, despite a slow start.
Fusion foods are trending now, not because they’re new, but because they’re hot! These delicacies dominate as the most mouthwatering food porn you might come across while they’re scrolling. In addition to the appetizing images, fusion foods inspire awe, creativity, passion, and curiosity.
So what fusion foods am I talking about, exactly? Before we explore the more authentic examples of contemporary fusion foods, I’m going to try to encapsulate the main varieties of fusion food that you will see:
Ingredient and Flavor Mash-Ups
Simply, any dishes that are native to one’s culture but use the ingredients and flavors endemic to another. This is the most common variety of fusion food, and the one you are probably most familiar with.
Technique and Concept Mash-Ups
Examples include the ramen burger and waffle taco, and European food ideas such as the Delicatessen. A technique can be any form of food preparation, like Sous Vide, that is generally native to a particular culture.
Appearance and Presentation Mash-Ups
This last one is easiest to pull off. Although it doesn’t affect flavor directly, it does affect your perception of the flavor, which essentially gets you the same result. Mixing up the presentation (Ariana’s article) of a meal builds excitement and creates expectations about what the dish will provide.
Fusion foods can be the result of a chef’s kitchen experiments , but more often, you will see that such new inventions arise naturally from interaction between two cultures. In a structured setting, the most common fusion food combinations incorporate European flavors with those you would find in Asian cooking, but more spontaneous and natural combinations can be seen between separate Asian cultures, the outcome being a major trend in the United States and the UK.
The following cuisines mix and match all of these varieties, leading to some downright astounding creations, as we will discuss:
Cajun, soul food, and seafood all shine in this iconic city. New Orleans cuisine is unique because it is inspired by a number of cuisines that, individually, also possess a number of ethnic influences. Creole is West African, Native American, French and Spanish, with southern influences as well. The rich sauces and complex preparation techniques used are distinctively French. On the other hand, soul food, consisting of meals that originated from the foods given to plantation slaves, is utilized extensively.
Tex-Mex heavily incorporates meats, beans, and spices, and is distinct from Mexican cuisine in that cheese plays a much more tremendous role in the flavor profile. While innovations remain relatively on the low side, Tex-Mex gained widespread recognition in Paris after the release of the film Betty Blue, featuring the consumption of chili con carne and tequila shots. Oui oui!
This unexpected duo has had one of the biggest impacts on the food truck scene. While some traditions from Tex-Mex are kept. Kimchi-stuffed quesadillas, and Bulgogi beef-filled tacos are not uncommon sights.
New/Modern American Cuisine
This is a 1980’s and onward fine dining trend that serves as an example of American cooking techniques used to prepare foreign ingredients. In particular, its creative use of sauces is inspired by French, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines. An offshoot cuisine, California cuisine is also fusion, combining influences from East Asia, Italy, France and Mexico.
Malaysian food is so specific that we can distinguish different degrees of its various influences. Malay, Indian, and Chinese hold the greatest influence on Malaysian fusion foods, but there are also minor Dutch, Portuguese, and British influences.
How Does The World Benefit?
Broadly, the world stands to benefit in a few major ways:
Promoting Cultural Diversity
What exactly does food fusion spell for the kinds of newfound relationships cultures can have with each other moving forward? A whole lot, actually. Consider how for most of human history, societies around the world hadn’t the slightest idea that just a few thousand miles away, other cultures had entirely different items on their menus.
Fast forward to the 21st century: global communication has reached its zenith, and representation from many food cultures is being seen at the dinner table. Such cultural celebration offers a chance to brave a journey of food outside of the comfort zone you may have grown used to. In this, food fusion acts as a stepping stone, which allows you to keep one foot in the land of familiarity and the other in the land of exotic difference.
Fusion food also shows us that cultural diversity is a cause for celebration and cooperation. If a new dish is pulled off right, it proves how the ideas from one’s own culture can be accentuated by those of another.
Increased Culinary Fluency
Culinary fluency is another benefit that fusion can bring to the world that goes hand in hand with cultural diversity. Food encourages members of different cultures to recognize the beauty of cross-culturalism and expands their awareness of how different people approach life. It also helps them expose themselves to the many unique flavors imagined by their ancestral brethren. By engaging, they invite a more complete understanding of the rich variety of dishes that are capable of being experienced.
Artistic Freedom For Chefs
Wolfgang Puck is an Austrian chef whose first restaurant, Spago, has won many awards. If you look closely enough, you will find his name brand everywhere, regularly making appearances on canned foods, cookbooks, and close to 2 dozen fine dining establishments. But how he really made a name for himself, some would argue, is through his association with fusion cooking. Spago may have lightly blended California and Italian cuisine, but Chinois on Main, a French and Asian eatery he started in 1983, really took things to the next level. Puck, like other marvelous munchie mavericks, employs fusion cooking to deepen his personal relationship with food in general, stand out from the competition, or introduce food concepts that are new or perhaps from their own culture.
Considering this, there are still some criteria for success with experimental dishes. As I stated earlier, many people are only interested in trying fusion when about half the components are from their own culture. This means restaurants can only capitalize on fusion by blending enough familiarity with some exotic and unexpected, but still complementary feature. Furthermore, fusion or not, the consumer needs to be able to read the dish as clearly as a book, and to not be too disinterested over the one-note attempts at novelty.
How Can You Benefit?
I hope I’ve convinced you that trends in fusion food have permanently shaped how we look at food, period. But it’s important to realize that anyone can jump on board just by taking two culturally distinct recipes and deciding how they would go well together. It only takes the manipulation of a single simple element, like frying vegetables over roasting them, and applying it to a dish from another cookbook.
A traditional Italian pizza vs. a Japanese-Italian fusion sushi pizza
Tastemade.com. “How To Make Sushi Pizzas.” Pinterest, Accessed 26 April 2021, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/607211962237258469/.
Following are the most direct and obvious benefits you can personally experience:
The boredom you might experience from having Taco Tuesdays or Meatloaf Fridays could be the result of the food’s one-dimensionality. Nostalgia, convenience or other reasons could compel an individual to continue these traditions, but anyone who’s itching for a break can find solace in fusion dining. These eaters want authentic exposure to the cultures that birthed the delicious meals they’re trying, not an uninspired plate. They want to have memorable experiences, and given how food is a historically terrific social lubricant and conversational motivator, fusion foods may be the icing on the cake that keeps social relationships glued together.
Ultimate Flavor Enhancement
A more obvious benefit is the intensified taste experience. For example, have you found it odd there are rarely if ever any dairy products that show up in Asian cooking? Cheese is often described as having a savory, or umami, flavor profile. In that sense, it is highly similar to Asian staples like soy sauce and pork dumplings. Given that Asian cooking incorporates so much umami already, a truly fantastic merge of flavors can be borne here. Consider this recipe for vegan tofu Ricotta, servable over Chinese Zucchini noodles.
Fusion food has the added benefit of boosting creativity. When it comes to preparing meals, a great deal of creative energy goes into the completion of all the steps, from brainstorming which dishes and ingredients are best served together, to deciding what tweaks to make to turn a borrowed recipe into a personal, highly cherished staple, and to the actual tactile stimulation of using your hands to transform the ingredients into their desired forms. With multicultural food creations, people can even further enhance this creative process. It shows us there does not have to be a set definition to what a meal should consist of. They are not restricted to the same meals for the rest of their life. There is a creative space in between any two food cultures on Earth, and fusion foods aim to find the dishes that exemplify that space in the best possible ways. These dishes already exist; they just haven’t been discovered yet. Curious consumers can take the perspective shift of this creative pursuit and apply it to other problems they could be facing.
A Fusion Foods Walk Down Memory Lane
The term fusion food dates back to the 1970’s, but fusion food as a concept is not new by any means. Neanderthals learned to intuitively combine various food groups into the same meal, and once culturally-isolated flavors were no strangers to global exposure given enough time. For instance, consider how tomatoes weren’t used in Italy until after European colonizers reached North American shores, or how the Chinese noodle found its way across entire continents to eventually be rehashed into the Italian spaghetti we know and love. Now, I’m not so confused when I’m at the grocery store and I feel like these two things are interchangeable.
What is recent, however, is the way chefs, restaurants, and separate cultures like to combine different tastes. A sort of Fusion Renaissance occurred in the 1980’s, led by none other than Wolfgang Puck. His primarily Asian and French dishes took the limelight and showed what was possible with enough thinking outside the box, taking the fusion craze to an international level of recognition. So, to recap, his ingenuity was not new, but he still catapulted the concept to a new dimension, and got many more Americans onboard in the process.
In the 1990’s, there was a “con-fusion era” after fusion foods had hit the mainstream. It was a bit of a warning sign when unexpected combinations started to take precedence over the complementary blending of ingredients, all for the sake of novelty. It is a shame that the con-fusion era had to exist because it dampens the public’s excitement, bringing up memories of failed experiments that tried to stand out from the crowd without considering the actual consumer experience, but it serves as a reminder that innovators must remain culturally cognizant and not go overboard.
The Food Truck Revolution
To add onto this, the history of fusion foods is actually correlated with the history of food trucks, to an extent. The concept of food on wheels can be traced back millennia, but you could say it all started in Texas in 1866 when cattle ranchers were herding their cows across the country, and needed to subsist out in the American wilderness. Charles Goodnight, recognizing this need, transformed an army wagon into a portable pantry, a chuck wagon, that was stocked with dried goods. Since then, food trucks largely targeted construction site and factory workers. That is, until a slow wave of chefs decided to cater to different populations, like movie producers and students near campus. But nowadays, you will find food trucks that cater to really elaborate palettes with their inclusion of ethnic cuisines. Possibly the first and most iconic instance of this occurred in 2008 when Roy Choi established Kogi BBQ in the Los Angeles area, introducing Korean-Mexican dishes to the world. After this point, it becomes clear that professional food critics take the quality of food trucks seriously and liken many of these mobile restaurants to their stationary counterparts. With the influx of gourmet meals on wheels, it’s easy to see how quality and variety in food doesn’t have to be relegated to sit-down places. Thus, with 23,000 food trucks in the US, they serve as the impetus for national exposure to gourmet, ethnic fast feasts.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Researchers suggest that our recent appetite for fusion creations is a demonstration of our already insatiable hunger for experimentation with new elements in life. From this point of view, it would certainly seem that human beings were always destined to reach this stage in their food eating behavior. If food creation is a form of art, it should be no surprise that it’s undergone centuries of renovations and blending from multiple distinct traditions. “New” creations may in fact just be ancient creations brought to public awareness. Furthermore, with increasing globalization, it becomes harder to believe fusion foods is merely a trend that will die off someday. As a species, we are in it for the long haul; fusion foods will most likely undergo several miniature revolutions while each of us walks this planet, inching to a point that could only be described as a perfect homage to all the food cultures, a celebration of all its distinct varieties.
Introducing Korean-Italian Recipe Developing Duo, The Ugly Mandoo!
The Ugly Mandoo delights viewers in several ways, with a feast just as visual as flavourful. They regularly show off their amazingly savory dishes, with components that although separated by tradition, felt destined to go together anyways. I had the opportunity to ask some questions to Alessandro, whose heritage puts the Italian flavors into their varied, experience-rich meals.
Alessandro Inglima. May 2021.
How long has the concept of fusion cuisine been on your minds? Is there a certain experience or type of fusion cuisine that gave you both the confidence and inspiration to experiment with new flavor combinations?
The idea of fusion between Korean and Italian cuisines is something that happened gradually and quite organically. Food is at the heart of both our cultures and it’s no surprise that we both love cooking. When we met, we ‘introduced’ each other to our national cuisines and so, when we then moved in together, it didn’t take long before we started mixing ingredients from the cupboard.
A lot of times we would ‘upset’ each other with combinations that would horrify the counterpart, but throughout the years, we started understanding those different flavours, understanding what Koreans and Italians are looking for in their food, and so our combinations started making more sense. Korean and Italian cuisines are very different, but we both enjoyed that difference, and were genuinely curious about new flavours.
I am aware that your blogs began during the Coronavirus pandemic, a global year-long event that created distrust between members of many cultures. What is the biggest message you are trying to impart to your audience during this challenging time? Have you considered that a potential benefit is the increasing acceptance of a multicultural approach to life? That through food, members of entirely different cultures can feel acknowledged and unite together to share stories and learn from each other?
We always thought we’d love to do a food-related project and the pandemic actually gave us the time to make it happen. Living in London, we knew well how multiculturalism gifts you with opportunities, and makes you continuously discover new things and persons around you. When we travel to each other’s countries, there’s a language barrier with our respective families and friends, and it’s amazing to see how food becomes a way to communicate and take care of each other. So, in a way, the pandemic allowed our food to describe what we were going through. With The Ugly Mandoo, we want to share our experience, talk about our cultures, similarities, and differences, and what we like and don’t like.
What do you see as the biggest positive changes that could be made to the world if fusion cuisine were significantly more popular?
World cuisines carry a lot of history, so fusion food could be a great key to get to know more about other cultures. With The Ugly Mandoo we create different kinds of videos, sometimes just a recipe, sometimes a more detailed story about what that recipe means to us. And we want to share our thoughts.
We live in an age in which ‘exclusivity’ has a strong appeal: an exclusive restaurant, an exclusive treatment, an exclusive event, they are supposed to make us feel important. But with our project, we love to focus instead on ‘inclusivity’, how through food you can explore realities you didn’t know before, and learn about the process and history that brought that dish on the table. For both Italians and Koreans, having a meal together is a very important way to socialize. To give you an example, when Koreans meet, instead of asking “how are you?”, they ask “have you eaten?”. And if you’ve not, you go eat something together. And it’s common for Italians to cook for their friends, too.
With the idea of fusion cuisine, once you get to know new ingredients and flavours, the best thing you can do is to experiment and get creative. It’s like a language and you’re learning new words. Then you start using those words as if they were yours. And then you have unlimited ingredients, that’s a chef’s dream!
Have there been any distinct flavor profiles with complementary ingredients that arose out of your Korean-Italian fusion combinations, that actually wouldn’t be found in either culture on its own?
Korean and Italian cuisines have very different flavours. Korean food can be spicy, raw, fermented, umami, while Italian food can be quite rich, variegated, with loads of carbs and olive oil, so some of the combinations that worked best only replace or add one ingredient. For example, we love a traditional Italian tomato sauce with the Korean Gochujang (inbound link), which is a fermented chilli paste that gives an almost smoked spicy taste to the tomatoes, and you can use in pasta, pizza or as a topping for meats. We often make Kimchi using Italian veggies like radicchio or puntarelle, which are quite more bitter than the traditional Napa cabbage.
To me, food trucks and fusion foods both symbolize freedom in cooking. In either case, one is not tied down by conformity and tradition. Have you ever found a relationship to fusion cuisine and food trucks, in terms of their influence, history, or what they represent?
Food has always changed and evolved historically. Recipes have always been evolving according to what’s available, or whether new ingredients are introduced from other countries. So, in a way, fusion can be considered a natural evolution of food culture.
Getting back to the concept of exclusivity vs inclusivity, fusion cuisine really is inclusive. You take different traditions, mix them, communicate, experiment, learn, and share. This inclusivity is also what food trucks represent but through their mobility and accessibility. Food is coming to you, and it’s available to everyone. That mobility builds up a feeling of wanting people to get involved; it’s a way of sharing.
Want to know what flavors inspire them to continue their fusion adventure? Here you can find a how-to video for The Ugly Mandoo‘s absolute favorite carbonara that they recently cooked to honor National Carbonara Day.
Alessandro Inglima. May 2021.
What Alessandro and Nauen succeed at is not only the brilliance of their dishes with their multicultural but complementary, satisfying ingredients. I was also drawn to their content because with many of the recipes, there is an accompanied story, an experience that distinguishes one of their cultural identities. The Ugly Mandoo finds that those stories are worth sharing, and even accentuate the combination of flavors present. With the Coronavirus pandemic that surely everyone in the world has been affected by at this point, The Ugly Mandoo offered a stepping stone upon which we could peer into the traditions of our intercultural neighbors, and feel less divided ourselves.
The Ugly Mandoo is one of many insightful teachers in the 21st century. It teaches us that creativity, enthusiasm and socialization can be core parts of one’s experience in the kitchen, and not simply a rushed means to an end. These two are leaders, showing us how good staples from entirely different cultures can still blend together pleasantly to make one of the most sophisticated forms of modern art. Like myself, they have recognized that the state of food culture is constantly evolving, with fusion foods and food trucks being natural byproducts. You too, can use this information to get involved and experiment, or simply develop a newfound appreciation for everything involved with food mash-ups.
Fusion food as a food category is not relegated to any one style, and that’s the beauty of it. As the world’s cultures merge in this increasingly globalized landscape, fusion will continue developing alongside it. This brings benefits to the world and its people, strengthening values like cultural diversity, creative innovation, and food fluency. An interesting history under its belt, the food fusion trend has endured trials and triumphs, and is poised to take over more and more dining options for the average consumer as we press onward.
What might you or your friend have made that you would consider a fusion meal or snack? Tag us on Instagram @cookandculture to showcase your brilliant new inventions. It may just jumpstart the next fusion revolution!