How America fell in love, and then out of love, and then in love all over again, with Asian-influenced cuisine.
Ten years ago, I would have said the future for Asian fusion seemed pretty dim. The style, which combines various Asian modes of cooking and merges them with Western ones, no longer seemed cutting-edge. By 2002, once-hot fusion cuisine had diffused into Ming Tsai’s agreeably bland Food Network programming and the sort of Chinese chicken salad with fried wontons you might find at the airport. Asian food was, as always, essential to the American palate, but “authenticity” had come to motivate sport eaters like me. We were using Chowhound and alt-weeklies to quest for the food we thought least contorted by its voyage West: the best sundubu place, the most exquisite sushi, the hottest Sichuanese, the ne plus ultra of xiao long bao. The only fusion we could abide had been fused long ago or in a country far away, like the Franco-Vietnamese banh mi sandwich.
You won’t hear much mention, these days, of “Asian fusion,” let alone its dubious synonyms “Pacific Rim,” “East-meets-West,” or “Pan-Asian.” But the truth is, the idea of a not-too-traditional take on Asian cookery is among the most dynamic in restaurants today. It’s the duchy of Momofuku’s David Chang, not to mention dozens of wave-making food trucks and pop-up shops from California to New York, and it’s the future, it would seem, of conscientious fast food, as Chipotle launches its Southeast-Asian-inspired ShopHouse concept and other entrepreneurs try to fit Indian food into a similar model. Fusion as a term may have become deeply unfashionable, but its influence is everywhere. Looking back, it would seem I was wrong that fusion had gone away; it was just evolving, as it has done again and again since the first waves of Asian immigrants arrived in America.
All cuisine is at heart a form of fusion. When cultures collide, (peacefully or not,) ingredients overlap, cooks get inventive, and traditions are merged. But the modern and postmodern periods have sped up that interbreeding and scrambled traditions at a much faster pace than ever before. In this country, the expansion of railroad and mining operations brought the first major waves of Chinese immigrants, and the first American Chinese restaurant opened in 1849. Most places like it were rooted in Cantonese kitchen traditions, but their dishes were hybridized to make use of available ingredients and appeal to local tastes. It wasn’t uncommon, back then, to see chop suey served alongside Euro-American comforts like steak and roasted chicken—reassurance that a familiar meal could be chosen among the “exotic” offerings.
A few decades into the 20th century, the food started to change. Mainstream consumers came to demand exoticism from their Chinese restaurants, and chefs triangulated between Eastern traditions and a sort of kitschy sino-drag. The trend became more pronounced—and more self-conscious—in 1934, when the restaurateur Donn Beach opened his Don the Beachcomber restaurant in Hollywood. Victor Bergeron converted his Oakland saloon into the Polynesian fantasy Trader Vic’s soon after. Together their restaurants kicked off the long-running Tiki boom, offering a tipsy-sailor’s-eye view of the world, with strong drinks—both Beach and Bergeron lay claim to the Mai Tai—and exotic fare from any number of Asian port cities. It was at Trader Vic’s that dishes like the “Polynesian” rumaki (chicken livers and water chestnuts wrapped in bacon) and “Burmese” crab Rangoon (wontons filled with crab meat and cream cheese) were popularized. In the Polynesian mode, anything exotic would do: A 1968 recipe book of Bergeron’s includes recipes for Kahlua Pig, Mock Bird’s Nest soup, Malayan Meat-on-a-stick (satay), and guacamole, too. (Hewing to tradition was never the point: Bergeron wrote frankly that his recipes “have been worked over and adapted to American tastes.”)
The Polynesian phase had faded by the 1970s, as Americans gained access to Asian cuisines in less mediated ways. A fresh wave of immigration from the East brought with it a broader spectrum of regional foods. (Sichuan restaurants were hot in the post-Vietnam era.) California rolls, the epitome of Japanese fusion, also took off in the early-1970s, after someone—likely Ichiro Mashita—substituted the fatty fruit of the avocado for a fatty tuna belly. No matter who invented that maki roll, it worked as a gateway drug for Americans initially skeeved out by raw fish, and sushi culture would go on to conquer the nation. Another Japonesque food that took hold at the time was teriyaki. Though the sweet soy glaze has Japanese roots, it was as practiced stateside (with sugar instead of mirin) likely a Hawaiian hybrid.
In the 1980s and 90s, a new, worldly, haute cuisine grew up from this convergence of Asian cultures in American cities. In 1988, chef Norman Van Aken borrowed the term fusion from jazz to describe the new, experimental way of cooking, whether it included Asian flavors or not. Wolfgang Puck’s second restaurant, Chinois on Main, had opened a few years earlier and set the tone with its breezy borrowings of Asian ingredients set in a framework of French technique. His early menus included foie gras with pineapple, tempura tuna with uni sauce, and whole fried catfish with fried ginger. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who had cooked in Thailand early in his career, made Southeast Asian flavors the focus at Vong, which opened in 1991; he served shrimp “satay” stuffed with coconut mousse, lobster-daikon rolls dipped in a rosemary ginger vinaigrette, and a Frenchified take on pho made with roasted marrow bones and seared steak. And Nobu Matsuhisa, who had previously opened a Japanese restaurant in Peru, brought a Latin influence to his Matsuhisa restaurant in 1987 and later to his chain of Nobu restaurants. Even before it was so named, fusion was chic entertainment, buoyed by the effervescence of its globe-trotting chefs. Their restaurants served luxurious food in clubby rooms, with a genre-bending flair that rebuffed the old-school French restaurants.