Just to be clear, the Asian Culinary Forum’s Asian+Latin Symposium has nothing to do with fusion cuisine. Their opening panel on September 17th at the San Francisco Ferry Building, Shifting Borders, Changing Tastes framed their 2012 theme closer to this: What lives are indicated by Asian+Latin dishes?
I think that’s good. Because, to paraphrase panelist Kara Nielsen (trend researcher for CCD Innovations), to even discuss “fusion” we first have to get past the involuntary shudder left over from the last decade, when fusion sometimes meant flavors that didn’t really combine. It’s not the same now, she assured us, because we’re not the same. The kids who grew up in the ‘90’s are now adults in their 30’s and know better. We know better, because we grew up surrounded by more flavors; we’ve traveled more. In short, our palates won’t stand for those forms of fusion.
If we go back to the noun “fusion,” without its negative connotations, it is simply defined as the process or result of joining two or more things together to form a single entity. For example, panel member Isabel Cruz (chef/owner of Isabel’s Cantina) was a single mother with no formal culinary schooling. She liked to cook, and needed to support her family. As a Hispanic kid in Los Angeles, she grew up alongside Asians. So after awhile, she just figured out that certain ingredients tasted good together. No fancy concepts or ideas of culinary multiculturalism or, for that matter, exoticism. She just made what tasted good to her, and today has five restaurants stretching from San Diego to Oregon.
Nico Vera, a chef and food writer at the Pisco Trail blog, outlined the Asian influences in “traditional” Peruvian dishes. I could not help but be impressed by the historical processes that force humans to culinary creativity. What we eat is not always handed down to us from professional chefs, as Thy Tran (co-founder/president of Asian Culinary Forum, and panel moderator) emphasized to me before the panel. Sometimes what sticks with us comes from cooking and eating with our neighbors, from looking at what can be combined as opposed to insisting that we remain distinct.
An example of this is lomo saltado. a signature Peruvian dish, in which the Chinese influence is prominent. The sirloin strips are seasoned with soy sauce and vinegar, even as the beef is served with a bed of French fries. There are other dishes, less well known in this country but ubiquitous in Peru, such as arroz chow fa, or Peruvian Chinese fried rice. The Chifa, or Peruvian Chinese restaurant, Vera told us, is literally everywhere in Peru. Japanese influence is subtler but also integral, as the imprint of Japanese immigrants is in the aesthetic of Peruvian ceviche. Modern Peruvian ceviche is simpler now, Vera explained, because of Japanese seafood techniques introduced 100 years ago.
Towards the end of the panel, I began to think of “authentic fusion” (my term) as a trajectory of activities that, over a few hundred years, combines disparate flavors and techniques into delicious possibilities. It’s Darwinism at its finest, because what is not tasty does not last. But today, cultural creativity has found wheels: as Nielsen pointed out, we have “street food fusion.”
The rise of food trucks in 2009, beginning with the Kogi Taco Truck in Los Angeles (2008), proves that Asian Latin fusion is no longer a product of randomized innovation, but the result of relationships. The Korean taco made sense to us, because of the creators’ skillful manipulation of their bi-cultural upbringings. So today in the US, it’s the repetition of an old process, neighbors eating each other’s food, and often on a budget. Widespread awareness and appreciation are accelerating, because “this newish crop of food entrepreneurs” are media-savvy (according to Nielsen), because a formalized conduit has emerged, and because young foodies are moving back home to the Midwest and re-creating coastal dining experiences.
So in short, authentic Asian Latin food partnerships are here. But it’s not new, just faster. As Tran reminded us, with a topic encompassing such large and diverse communities, the panel could only cover so much in a single evening. Panel members were forced to give sweeping overviews of their experiences. But the Forum’s thematic choice, I felt, did invite us to an awareness of how delicious our shared histories can be.
This is just the first event in Asian Culinary Forum’s 2012 Symposium Asian + Latin. On Sunday, September 23, the Forum has assembled an expert panel of artists and anthropologists to offer views on Asian Latin communities from Texas to Tokyo. They will also host a literary reading entitled, Food and Place: On the Geography of Eating. [Full disclosure: Hyphen’s own Melissa Hung and Barbara Jane Reyes are among the presenting literary artists.] If you want to cook with the Forum this October, click for classes here.
The previous issue of Hyphen is available in its entirety for your perusing pleasure. Almost as good as having it right in your hands!