Fusion or confusion?

David Chang’s pork buns from Momofuku.
Photo: Edward Kimuk / via Flickr
Jet Tila

So, I’ve always toiled with trying not be labeled “fusion.” Like most things, I’m sure the forefathers of fusion were well-intended. Chinois from Wolfgang Puck was, to me, eye-opening way back in the day. Here is an Austrian chef who loved the flavors of Asian food. His plates had familiar flavors and ingredients, but the plating and techniques were very European. This was an example of old fusion done well, but I’ve always joked that fusion was the new F word and vowed never to be a disciple of this bipolar religion. No wasabi cream and no soy buerre blancs. I was on a mission to prove that fusion was always total chaos. Really, I thought, it should be called “confusion!”

Years later, I still feel that most fusion is just a culinary shell game. Take five popular Asian ingredients and five popular Euro-American ingredients, turn them into flash cards and smash them together to make dishes and you’ll get le… shishito pork belly… with chipotle heirloom tomato sauce… lol. You know some corporate “confusion” chef is like, “Holy s**t! We’ve got our new special here!”


But Euros and Americans aren’t the only guilty party to this. Asians also deserve the culinary gas face for screwing up food. I have this extreme love-hate relationship with local Vegas sushi. It’s the perfect example of “confusion.” Su-shi literally translates to vinegar/rice. Traditional sushi is all about perfectly cooked rice - fragrant, soft and pillowy married with perfect sushi vinegar that’s just salty, sour and umami enough. Marry that rice to super fresh fish, and you’ve got quintessential sushi! A light dip in soy is all you need.

Now I move to Vegas and WTF? What are yum yum sauce, chili dots and a double D roll? This generation of Las Vegans are being fed Franken-sushi and thinking this is real authentic shizz. So I open a restaurant, bring in the best fish and sushi chefs in the land, thoughtfully make and prepare clean amazing dishes and what happens? Dishes come back with requests for yum yum sauce. Oh hell to the no! Guests complain that we don’t use fake crab-cicles, because that’s what they get in their local sushi bar. Am I living in the twilight zone?

Within Asian circles, there’s a hilarious blame game about who screwed up sushi here in the LV/USA. The Japanese blame the Koreans; the Koreans blame the U.S. born Koreans and Japanese; both Koreans blame the Thais. Regardless of who created it, the fact is that Las Vegas sushi is a perfect example or “confusion.”

There is a silver lining though…

We are coming into a golden era smart fusion. This is the generation of kids born in the ’70s and ’80s that grew up eating real authentic global cuisines, so their influences are pure. Why is this important? I’ve always believed that in order to fuse, you must have mastery of the authentic raw materials first. If a kid grows up eating real Thai, French, Chinese and Japanese cuisines, with years in the kitchen, traveling and studying, he or she can do some amazing things with food. I am a Thai/Chinese kid that grew up in a pocket of LA between Thai town, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Korean town and a Mexican and Salvadoran neighborhood. Chefs like David Chang, Zack Pelaccio and Rodelio Aglibot are the result of similar stories. As much as I poo-poo the old fusion, there is some cool stuff happening in food today with the new guard, and the next few years are going to just get more interesting with the next wave of fusion! Maybe we’ll need to rename the style to mark this important change. Wouldn’t want anyone to get confused.


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