Once upon a time “fusion food” was an epithet.
In those days of yore, it was difficult to find that elusive thing we once called “ethnic food,” which we now just know as “food.” For a long time choices were limited, and the most common modes of culinary diversity was concentrated in a few cultures. We had our spaghetti and meatballs, our Tex-Mex joints, our Chinese takeout. If we were feeling particularly extravagant, there was sushi, slabs of tuna resting on wooden boats on a conveyor belt to nowhere.
At the time, I was most offended by Caucasian restaurants serving Chinese food, steaming plates of beef, broccoli, and other mediocrity charged at twice the mark-up with half the nuance. These soy sauce and sugar bombs were an assault against my senses and I railed against the impurity of cuisines and the death of tradition.
They made Stephanie Izard’s Duck Duck Goat taste like Beijing.
These days the food scene in America has advanced enough that fusion is no longer an epithet. Or at least to me. I still have a friend who decries it as cultural appropriation. Who is this Rick Bayless and why is a white bread Ned Flanders slinging tacos and brewing up mole? Ignore the fact that he probably knows enough about Oaxacan cuisine to fill a few cookbooks, and there lies a legitimate question hiding somewhere in there: Where is the line between influence and appropriation?
To me the answer is simple. Is it respectful? Does it taste good?
America is teetering on the edge between favoring the rustic nostalgia of traditional dishes and the global perspective of modern chefs. And while the advent of the nebulous term “New American cuisine” has reared its amorphous head, nowhere is this evolution better organically embodied to me than the food of Peru.
Crushed under the weight of Spanish colonialism, Peru experienced an influx of African slaves and the inevitable growth of the mestizo community. Eventually, there was a gradual migration from Europe after its independence in 1821, followed by the arrival of Chinese labor in the 1850s and later Palestinian and Japanese miners and railroad workers.
To this day, I detest a restaurant that tries to simultaneously serve me tacos and sushi and chicken wings. A lack of thematic coherency usually means you’re a jack of all trades, master of none. But I was recently sitting down to dinner at Logan Square’s Ceviche restaurant, and feeling slightly dirty as I ordered their fettuccine al olivo. Right up to the moment I received my heaping mound of pasta soaking in olive oil, white wine, and fat shrimp. Other times I’ve swirled my fork in a Dr. Seussian tallarines verdes and sawed at flank steak, pounded flat and desert dry.
When I’m not shoveling Italian carbs, I’m digging into their eponymous ceviche mixto, an aquarium’s worth of seafood swimming in spine-tingling leche de tigre and acid-amped with red onions and lime. The dish has Moorish roots and a Japanese-inflected clarity. The sushi of Guy Fieri, this is not.
I hope Peruvian food has its moment, and it may very well have already happened in Chicago what with the semi-recent additions of Via Lima and Gastón Acurio’s Tanta to the deliciously dungeonesque Machu Picchu. I’ve never had a bad meal at any of them, though I’ve still yet to try the fabled roasted chicken of d’Candela. What I have noticed is that I still don’t enjoy the Peruvian-Chinese mash-up tradition of chifa. Lomo saltado still tastes like bad stir fry; Tanta’s chaufa like bland fried rice.
Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever truly be free of the chains of childhood nostalgia and old-fashioned nationalism. My friend the still-fusion-hater will defend the purity of Korean cuisine and the sanctity of a thousands-year-old tradition till the stars fall from the sky, but she’ll do it between mouthfuls of Mongolian beef.