How America fell in love, and then out of love, and then in love all over again, with Asian-influenced cuisine.
Still, as fusion spread, it rankled. “Forget those restaurants that coyly claim to be Thai-Norwegian or Chilean-Korean with a touch of Guam,” warned New York Magazine in 2001. “Self-consciously crossing borders rarely creates something fresh and delicious.” While the first restaurants kept the blending of cuisines somewhat narrow in scope—with the flavors tied to the chefs’ personal experiences—imitators succumbed to something like a fusion-inflation: More and more elements were being combined into single restaurant concepts, and diverse, sometimes clashing regional cuisines were being dumped together into a big, groovy Asian-themed pot.
Soon the trend had spread to fast food with the proliferation of “wrap” restaurants, where customers could have the world’s flavors—Thai, Mexican, Argentine, Caribbean—jammed and intermingled in a giant burrito. The broader the global references, the more unruly the menus seemed. To some, like Felipe Fernandez Armesto, the mode seemed to make its borrowings in dreary, mechanical ways. He called fusion cuisine “Lego cookery” in his food history opus from 2002, Near A Thousand Tables. “Only the revolution in availability makes it possible to mix and match elements delivered—often in processed form—to a kitchen which resembles an assembly point,” he complained. Even more dangerous to fusion than serious cultural critique: Mass-marketing had started to make it seem uncool.
As an antidote to that fusion frippery, turn-of-the-21st-century American eaters celebrated the simpler pleasures of stripped-down, farm-to-table restaurants, and the hunt for a less manipulated source of Asian food—those out-of-the-way pancake mavens and strip-mall noodle shops. But seeking cultural authenticity in a mongrel country like our own can be a self-defeating quest: How “authentic” is it to dine on dosa one day, satay the next, and pizza the day after that? Even if we weren’t eating at fusion restaurants, curious urban eaters were embracing the globetrotting pleasures of the genre.
What’s more, good fusion was itself irresistible, as was the cheeky attitude that first made Wolfgang Puck, or even Victor Bergeron, so winning. We were primed, then, for the entrance in the mid-to-late 2000s of David Chang—the Korean-American veteran of top New York kitchens who had moved to Japan to learn about noodle craft. He came back and opened a little ramen bar called Momofuku in 2004, and after a tremulous opening season, his pork buns and noodle bowls began to drive New Yorkers wild. Though the spirit of the cooking was informed by his travels, he’d tweaked the techniques: There was bacon in his ramen broth. It was a combination that made foodies see “Asian influence”—if that’s now an acceptable euphemism—in a brand-new way (or maybe it helped them remember how they first saw it 30 years ago).
In the Los Angeles food truck boom of 2009 and 2010, vehicular dining impresarios Mark Manguera, Caroline Shin-Manguera and Chef Roy Choi captured some of Chang’s spirit with hybrid meals that reflected their city’s cultural geography: kimchi quesadillas and tacos filled with Korean-inspired barbecue. In San Francisco, a food-truck-turned-pop-up-turned-restaurant called Mission Chinese food won acclaim for dishes like kung pao pastrami, Mongolian beef cheek and salt cod fried rice. Along with Momofuku, these new eateries established a contemporary fusion based on flavor and sass—one that was decidedly greasier and starchier than its white-linen ancestor.
The new fusion restaurateurs—many Asian-American themselves—are also more willing to mess around with the cultural baggage that surrounds ethnic cooking. The current crop of fusion restaurants either avoids the uncomfortable colonial iconography of previous pan-Asian palaces—the tiki masks or gleaming Buddhas—or they subvert it. (Mission Chinese Food, for example, claims to serve “Americanized Oriental Food.”) This brand of fusion incorporates the authenticity hound's fascination with Asian street foods—the hawker fare that rarely made it into sit-down restaurants, but it does so with insouciance, and a willingness to elaborate or adapt tradition whenever a chef seems fit.
No doubt the kind of hybrid cuisines we seek will soon change again, so we'll have another way to love food with mixed messages. At some point, we may even re-embrace Van Aken's term. “I’m not averse to the word fusion now,” says Chang. “What food culture isn’t a fusion of other food cultures?”