We recently spent a few days in Bend, Oregon which seemed like a good place to do some hiking and think about fusion cuisine. The food scene in Portland Oregon has found its way to Bend, so there is lots of self-consciously creative cooking here and many restaurants advertising their fusion bona fides.
Three distinct types of cooking are commonly referred to as “fusion”.
The first is a restaurant that serves an eclectic mix of dishes from various cuisines. For instance, the fast-casual restaurant Spork served a standard Lomo Saltado (Peruvian Stir Fry) but had Pozole Rojo or a Grilled Vegetable Green Curry on the menu as well. The flavors of the Green Curry were spot-on Thai. For apps the Burmese Fried Cheese or Fried Green Tomato Salad were enticing. Although a meal might consist of mixing and matching dishes from various cultures, the dishes themselves consisted of traditional ingredients (to the degree they can be found using local suppliers) with traditional flavor profiles. There was no attempt to meld flavors not typically found together. This is a fusion of cultural horizons I suppose, disconcerting if you’re looking for a simulated culturally immersive experience. But Spork is really more of a celebration of multi-culturalism than a genuine fusion.
The second is a restaurant that serves dishes clearly situated within a food tradition but with highlights and flourishes imported from other traditions. This approach to fusion was well represented by Barrio, a tapas-style restaurant serving mostly Latin American or Spanish themed dishes with influences from all over the world. Green Chile Caesar salad with cotija cheese, Falafel with poblano harissa, Lamb-stuffed Piquillo Pepper with chile rajas, corn nuts, tzatziki, or Patatas Bravas with chili-infused aioli, and smoked poblano crema were among the more fusion-type dishes we sampled. What struck me about all of these dishes was how familiar they tasted. The imported flavors were nuances that never overwhelmed the main thrust of the dish.
If this is a genuine fusion, it’s the sort of fusion that has been going on since time immemorial. Humans have always been nomadic and had to use whatever ingredients were available where they set up camp without compromising the familiarity of their food. Immigrant cooking is always more or less fusion cuisine. And food traditions have long been porous incorporating new influences while striving to preserve the taste of home.
Finally there is cooking that intentionally seeks unusual flavor and texture combinations from two or more cultures and brings them together in a single dish. Sometimes this innovation is done carelessly. Who can forget the wasabi mashed potatoes trend or “Burmese” crab Rangoon (wontons filled with crab meat and cream cheese) These are more mashup than marriage, interesting perhaps but not something to try twice.
Only in the hands of a chef concerned to find bridge flavors and to be very precise with regard to finding the right balance between flavors does this kind of cooking succeed.
5 Fusion, featuring James Beard Award semi-finalist Joe Kim, is Bend’s contribution to creative, crave-worthy fusion cuisine. Toro with Italian truffle, Unagi (eel)/ oatmeal cookie nigiri, Sweet and Sour Tortilla Soup made with tonkatsu bone broth, Raman Carbonara with tonkatsu broth, pork belly and a quail egg, Seared Foie Gras with raisin puree and granola, and Beef Bourguignon Be-Bim-Bap were among the highlights. Amazingly it all worked although the unagi/oatmeal cookie pairing was genuinely weird. The tasting menu included some familiar flavors to allow your palate to rest, such as this Halibut in yazu vapor, but the fusion dishes were striving for something else—to de-familiarize the ingredients, show them in an utterly new context, yet allow them to harmonize. Genuine fusion should not be too comfortable, should challenge the diner, yet not taste like an arbitrary juxtaposition with no communication among flavors.
So fusion cuisine is not new. All cuisine is a fusion because cultures have always collided, sometimes peacefully sometimes not, and so cooks had to innovate. The difference today is that intentional creativity and innovation combined with the speed of global communications have replaced the slow succumbing to necessity and conservative celebration of tradition that marked fusions of the past.