Reader’s digest: Musin’ about fusion

Rays of colors come out of a white take-out box in the lower left corner.
(Sarah Flemming • The Student Life)

My dad and I boarded the F train at the crack of dawn so that we could join an endless line that wrapped around an entire block of Soho. The object of our pursuit? The fabled, internet-famous cronut. Dominique Ansel’s innovative croissant-donut crossover was my first exposure to fusion foods, and it was certainly the sweetest. Little did we know, a ring-shaped croissant would continue the global tradition of blending culture through cuisine — a catalyst for the explosion of fusion foods in the twenty-first century.

Fusion foods captured the zeitgeist of American food culture in the 2010s. Soon after the Cronut made its massively successful debut, Keizo Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger became the subject of many a hipster foodie’s Instagram post. Then came the sushi burrito. Most recently, I tried out a TikTok “hack” that involved tucking leftover Chipotle into a sheet of rice paper and rolling it, burrito style, into a Vietnamese-Mexican-American Frankenroll. The novelty of it was life changing, on a very minor scale. 

Despite the virality of foods like the ramen burger, fusion foods aren’t just a gimmicky invention of the age of the internet. Myriad commonly-known dishes are the culmination of a rich, international culinary history. The french baguette and pâté found in a bánh mì are a product of French colonialism in Vietnam. Cuban-Chinese food arose as a result of Chinese people working on Cuban sugar plantations in the mid-19th century. 

But these modish mashups aren’t necessarily what comes to mind when one pictures fusion food. A relatively common understanding of the term “fusion” relates to the abundant Asian fusion restaurants that populate suburban America.

The concept of the Asian fusion restaurant has always struck me as odd. To be fair, the invention is a pretty fantastic business opportunity — the prospect of ordering wonton soup and green curry from the same establishment is hard to beat. But the practice of reducing the diverse and distinct cuisines of dozens of countries to a single menu consisting of pad thai and fried rice is undoubtedly questionable. At the very least, the European fusion restaurant should be popularized too. Personally, I wouldn’t mind having fish and chips and paella within the same meal. 

Asian fusion as it is understood today just seems like a bitterly missed opportunity to emulate the novelty and innovation of fusion foods such as the Cronut. Considerations of practicality aside, imagine a kimchi jjigae-filled xiaolongbao! Or a hot pot just for pho!

Being, in a sense, somewhat Asian fusion myself, I’ve been privileged with the upbringing and palette to explore this opportunity in my own cooking. Allow me to explain — growing up in a Korean-Jewish household, I lack a comprehensive understanding of either Korean or Jewish cooking. What I do understand, however, is how to cook and eat in ways that just make sense to me. I prefer to eat my meals out of a bowl with chopsticks and a spoon. Around Passover, I’ll switch out bread for matzo in my avocado toast. I honestly think that gefilte fish (if it’s not for you, please keep that to yourself) would taste amazing in a seafood-y Korean stew. I’m dreaming about red bean and sesame babka as I write.

“Modern” takes on ethnic cuisines are a sensitive subject in the food world. Alison Roman’s infamous #TheStew is a wonderful illustration of this phenomenon. When executed with care, however, the concept of mixing together dishes from different cultures opens up endless pathways for culinary innovation. It is not only natural but also practical to develop and adopt new culinary practices that optimize accessibility to cooking and challenge creativity.

But creating fusion foods doesn’t have to be — and certainly shouldn’t always be — an individual endeavor. A fundamental function of cooking is to share food with other people. Like music and art, food is a medium through which to unite communities and spread ideas. The boundaries that separate different cultural cuisines are both time-honored and deserving of respect, but we shouldn’t allow them to limit the cross cultural connections and insights that sharing food with others can foster. Food can and should trailblaze societal progress, not just reflect it.

Sadie Matz SC ’24 is a gefilte fish enjoyer from Brooklyn, New York. If you’re thinking of opening a European-fusion restaurant, please invite her to its opening. 

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