Trend: Southeast Asian Cuisine is Fusion Food Gone Right

Trend: Southeast Asian Cuisine is Fusion Food Gone Right

In Southeast Asian cuisine, it's all about fusion, say these chefs

‘Fusion’, or the mixing of cuisines, has gotten such a bad rep that many serious foodies and culinary experts stay away from the term. Many go by other ways of describing it, including “mash-up”, “global”, “cross-cultural” or “crossroads” cuisine, developed by Chef Ivan Brehm, of Nouri, a fine dining restaurant devoted to exploring cultures through cuisines of different regions.

Hong Kong's French-Japanese Ta Vie earned a spot on 2019's World's 50 Best Restaurants (Asia). The dish features homemade pasta with fresh Aonori seaweed sauce and uni. 

The concept itself could be outdated but the fusing of food cultures is as common as ever, from hipster food trucks to the World’s 50 Best restaurants, which in the 2019 rankings, sees restaurants of Asian-Iberico (mixing Spanish and Asian cuisines) and Asian-Nordic (Scandinanvian and Asian cuisines) origin. In cities such as London and Tokyo, you can expect to see Chino Latino (Chinese and Latin American cuisines), or cuisines combining French-Vietnamese, Peruvian-Japanese or Thai-Italian influence.

Served at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's French bistro, Jojo Restaurant in New York

Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who has helmed restaurants from London, Bangkok, Hong Kong to Singapore argues that he first delved into mixing cuisines, “out of frustration”. Vongerichten says, “My curiosity burst as I ate a lot on the street, on the way to work. I began to love Asian food and its ingredients. When I arrived in New York in the mid-Eighties and went to Chinatown, I felt I was at home."

And to chefs such as Ben Spalding, founder of Puzzle Projects and a pioneer of London’s street food scene who has created Asian-Mediterranean themed menus, the opportunities for ‘cross-culture cooking’ in Asia are outstanding. Spalding says, “It’s established widely that Asian cuisine’s flavours are delicious, full of tradition and when merged with a more modern approach, it is just exciting, creative and progressive -- everything the food community, internationally, needs to keep evolving.”

We dig a little and ask chefs on what they think of Southeast Asian food as a type of fusion cooking, and whether that’s something that will continue.

We need to rethink our relationship with Southeast Asian food

Although made up of distinct states, the cuisines of the region often overlap. Southeast Asian food is rich in shared history including spices introduced by trade and recipes created through the homes of villages. However, there is no singular ‘Southeast Asian’ cuisine, says Brehm of Nouri.

“We should stop generalising the distinct identities that make up ‘Southeast Asian cuisine.’ When we start asking questions like "how did chilli get to Thailand?" or "why is dill, a herb not typical to Vietnamese cuisine, at the heart of dishes iconic to Vietnam?" we start to understand that regional food traditions are reliant on multiple cultures; their webs of interaction over time have led to the rich food cultures we experience today,” says Singapore-based Brehm who helmed his craft at London’s the Fat Duck and New York’s Per Se.

Mixing cuisines is an age-old practice and goes back in time

Many of today’s household favourites in Southeast Asia draw inspiration from other parts of the world including Portugal, China, India, Iran and Latin America. Indeed, there are cultural links that most may not be aware of, which tie the food histories of Southeast Asia together. Consider how the pork-stuffed Vietnamese steamed bao (banh bao) is very similar to the Filipino siopao with an egg and lop cheung sausage filling. It’s only known by a handful that popiah hand rolls were exported from Fujian province in China to see versions of the snack in Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.

Poached Alaskan king crab with watermelon radish, Kampot black pepper and Tahitian vanilla sauce, served at Restaurant Nouri

Brehm adds, “Food traditions are by default the product of human trade and interaction over time. The notion of pure and/or authentic cultural expressions is flawed and examples abound. Thai yellow curry, for example, is the result of transatlantic trade between Portuguese, Indian, West African, and South American ingredients and cooking techniques. Laksa is a dish of Persian and Central Asian origins. Belacan and similar fish sauces are a product of Portuguese/European techniques applied to local ingredients and landscapes in Southeast Asia.”

‘Ready to go’ best describes Southeast Asian fare

Much of Southeast Asian food is traditionally served from small street carts, which one would find along busy thoroughfares or shopping lanes. One can also combine a couple of items to form a balanced meal. Popular offerings found in street markets today include satay - skewered and grilled mutton, beef, chicken, pork or shrimp, noodle soups which are eaten during breakfast or lunch, Thai papaya or seafood glass noodle salads or Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi), derived by the French.

Southeast Asian food deserves to be held up in “fine dining” limelight

Chef Tariq Helou, who will open his first restaurant, Fleurette, come May , says he is “disappointed” by the perception of Southeast Asian food as a “cheap” one. His supper club is a private dining experience merging Japanese, French, Swiss and Middle Eastern flavours. The chef of Division Supper Club urges both local and foreign diners in the region to give more thought as to the level of hard work and complex techniques needed to produce something as basic as a noodle dish. “Though the price point of Southeast Asian food is generally lower, it does not mean that the thought, techniques or depth of flavour are subpar. People are willing to pay S$30 for a plate of pasta but not the same for a bowl of wanton mee or kway teow. People need to start to realise that Southeast Asian food requires just as much or even more effort to prepare than European food and it should be treated as such.”

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