I wasn’t really sure how I should write about Alex’s cheese-stuffed nori rolls. Sheets of nori were used like spring roll wrappers. And, like pork spring rolls, the filling is seasoned ground meat. In the case of these nori rolls, however, ground lamb was used. And, after the ground lamb was spread on the nori sheet, the meat was topped with a strip of cream cheese. The nori was rolled, spring roll-style, dredged in flour, dipped in egg, coated with panko then fried. My goodness, the nori rolls were delicious.
Yes, it’s fusion cooking and it’s something we love to do at home.
Malaysian cuisine, it is claimed, is the world’s first fusion cuisine born from migration and trade with Chinese and Indians. Filipino food, as we know it today, is a combination of Spanish, Chinese, Malay and American influences. That is fusion. Chinese food in America is not traditional Chinese at all. It is Chinese American and that is fusion too.
In other words, fusion cuisine can develop slowly and unintentionally. It can also be born as a result of adaptation as when cooks, transported from their homelands, try to recreate their traditional dishes using the produce of their adopted land.
Fusion cooking can be intentional too as when a cook creates a dish by using ingredients, or combining them, in non-traditional ways. Like how? Like when Alex used nori sheets like spring roll wrappers… It wasn’t the first time that someone in my family used nori that way. A month or two ago, Sam did the same thing with a vegetarian filling. But when she asked me for starch to dredge the rolls in, we had none. I thought I was handing her a jar of rice flour which would have been a good substitute but, as it turned out, I gave her glutinous rice flour. The result wasn’t so perfect—it was totally my fault—but we did learn one thing that night. Yes, nori can be used like spring roll wrapper and, yes, it can be fried.
And when ingredients are combined in non-traditional ways? Think Korean bulgogi taco. Or that taco from Episode 21 of Season 7 of The Big Bang Theory when Sheldon and Penny ate at an Asian fusion restaurant and Sheldon makes a strange sound.
Penny: What’s wrong?
Sheldon: I don’t understand my food. Chinese noodles with Korean barbecue in a taco.
Penny: It’s fusion.
Sheldon: My mother would lock her car doors if she had to drive through this hodgepodge of ethnicity.
Fusion cooking is also about the combination of cooking techniques from different culinary traditions. Take the French confit and apply it to Filipino adobo and it’s fusion. Take the traditional Greek pocket pie spanakopita and transform it into a dumpling and that’s fusion too.
In fusion cooking, traditional rules are not followed. And that is what makes it so exciting. In a generation where ingredients from the opposite side of the globe are more easily obtainable, cooks today aren’t limited by reliance on local produce and food products. My late father, a wonderful cook, had probably never heard of nori sheets in his life. But, if he had, he would have done wonderful dishes with it that aren’t necessarily Japanese.
I am lucky that I had access to more ingredients than my father did. My daughters are even luckier because not only do they have access to wonderful ingredients my father never heard of, the internet also provides them with more information and ideas on the many possible ways that these ingredients can be used. They are also more aware of different cooking techniques that the Filipino home cook from two generations ago never heard of. My paternal grandmother, my maternal grand-aunts… they were such wonderful, wonderful accomplished cooks but I never saw them cook with wine nor had I seen them flambéing. Given such limitations, intentional fusion cooking could not have been as easy back then as it is today.
Why fusion cooking has a bad rep
Just because fusion cooking is so much more doable today doesn’t mean it’s being done well all the time. If a dish is an indescribable mish-mash of mismatched ingredients, it is explained away as fusion cooking. You have layered desserts called chocolate lasagna despite the glaring absence of lasagna and I don’t know what to make of them.
And that brings to mind something we ate at yet another food park last week. At Tobito Food Hub along Lilac Street in Marikina, there was a stall with a huge monitor on the counter. On the screen flashed beautifully plated dishes on the menu. One of those dishes was called Chimichanga Bites which, based on the image on the screen, looked like bite-sized chimichangas. We ordered it excitedly but, when we ate it, it turned out to be pinsec frito.
Yes, wonton wrapper was stuffed with a little—very little—crumbled longganisa, fried, served with a salsa that tasted like chimichurri stirred with a little tomato paste, and christened Chimichanga Bites. Gee, chimichanga is deep-fried burrito and burrito is made with tortilla. Without the tortilla, it’s not chimichanga. The owner of the food stall could have called it Chimi-pinsec or Mexican-inspired dumplings… Something. But chimichanga? With practices like that, it’s not hard to understand at all why many seasoned chefs, food critics and food documentarists scoff at fusion cuisine.
Fusion cooking is a gestation chamber for yet unborn dishes that may just take the world by storm. It is what gives cooks the freedom to stray from the traditional to create wonderful dishes that were not thought possible to execute and much less actually taste good. It is scary for purists and traditionalists who fear of becoming unwanted or, worse, obsolete. But for cooks who obsess with crossing invisible culinary boundaries and breaking barriers, it is the most magnificent playground.