Fusion cuisine is a subject close to my heart and one that fills me with equal parts pride and ire. There are two camps of fusion cooking; the first, the one where chefs in crisp, smart whites with towering toques are paid to play with exquisite, esoteric ingredients flown in two hours ago from some unpronounceable corner of the planet or locally delivered by a usually undercharging farmer who probably has no idea that his prize ramps will soon cost a prince's ransom to some gastronome with perhaps more money than sense.
Sometimes the ministrations of these chefs produce pure culinary poetry. More often than not, what emerges on the plate should be perceived as what it actually is: an insult to the intelligence of the diner and an unwarranted assault on his wallet. Randomly throwing together the most expensive ingredients in the house without any real respect for whether or not the ingredients gel or make culinary sense, with the main intention of driving up the cost of an entree, does the culinary vocation a great dishonor.
Let's just say that I have worked with professional chefs and have been privy to their unguarded lunchtime discussions, lubricated by a little too much good wine. There are, of course, chefs who are more guilty of pure creative self-indulgence than a cold-eyed focus on the restaurant's bottom line. They are, however, equally guilty of making fusion cuisine the dirty word it is today.
The other camp is, to me, the birthplace of fusion cooking. This usually happens when two or more cultures meet and commune and the result of this union is what truly deserves the honor of being called fusion cooking. Speaking as someone of multicultural origins, I am certainly invested, emotional, and subjective, but I will try to maintain a measure of objectivity.
Five hundred or so years ago, the Portuguese, being the world's greatest maritime power of the era, after the Spanish, decided that they no longer wanted to pay the high prices exacted by Venice (middleman and spice supplier to the Western world) for their beloved spices. They wanted control over the source itself, the East, as the then-skyrocketing cost of spices promised wealth and power beyond dreams. An oft-repeated theory about the allure of spices in days of old is their purported ability to mask stale flavors and aromas in food, in an age when refrigeration as we now know it was not an option. This may or may not have been true.
Even back then, salt was known and served well enough as an effective preservative, but let's face it, salt just didn't have the sparkle and pizazz of a handful of spices — and salt, being quite easily within the reach of the average person, was not a status symbol, unlike the mysterious and rare spices of the Orient. What better way for the wealthy of the day to trumpet their status than to lace their tables and feasts copiously with spices? Thus, believe it or not, at one point in history that clove or nutmeg in your spice jar right now was worth more than human life itself. Yes, countless lives were lost and, indeed, unhesitatingly sacrificed for a constant, assured, and safeguarded supply of pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg.
So came the mighty Portuguese in their galleons to the Far East, with wild-eyed dreams of power and immense wealth. Of course, once here, with a satisfactory stronghold established on the spice trade, other pursuits ensued. As sailors are wont to do when lonely and homesick, eyes began to wander and settle on the nubile local women. Local wives, legitimate and otherwise, were taken and over generations and eventually centuries a new race emerged, one that spoke the language of their Portuguese forebears and, having embraced both cultures, engendered their own subculture and cuisine, that of the "Kristang," or Southeast-Asian Portuguese Eurasian.
We are a tiny, Creole culture and a group that baffles most we encounter, even those in whose midst we have been living for hundreds of years. Perhaps a generally livelier interest in history textbooks might render us much less a curiosity and enigma. Our cuisine is one example of what I consider true fusion cuisine, born of necessity, sometimes deprivation, and intimate and constant exposure to two or more divergent cultures, all of which can only result in a striking, richly flavored, and ultimately harmonious blend, entrenched in generations if not centuries of history.
For an in-depth and highly readable account of the Spice Trade, and all who entered the fray, including the British, the Dutch, and the French, each leaving their indelible imprint on both the history and modern face of Asia, I highly recommend reading Nathaniel's Nutmeg, by Giles Milton, made known to me by Karen Marley, who maintains the intriguing blog Spice Sherpa — required reading if you have the remotest interest in the beguiling world of spices.
How could a chef in a professional kitchen with little more motivation than the day's takings hope to compete and produce a dish that is a worthy representation of the union of several cultures, unless he is intimately acquainted with these cultures or is himself of mixed cultural background? Perhaps you are beginning to see my point — or I am hopefully succeeding in my quest to maintain some objectivity?
I do like to put my money or in this case, stew, where my mouth is, so here is a simple dish, close to my heart, that I feel encapsulates everything I think and feel about my culture, honest and genuine fusion cooking, and the preservation of its delicate and constantly threatened soul. This simple but richly flavored stew, so beloved by Eurasians in this corner of the world, is the distillation of centuries of history, but makes no fuss as it quietly makes its way to the dinner table, leaving a trail of intoxicatingly sweet and spicy aromas in its wake.
Now a stew is a stew is a stew; you have your browned meat, your onions, potatoes, carrots, celery, and your stock, salt and pepper, perhaps a bay leaf or two. The Europeans do it, the Americans do it, but this Western-style, simple but soul-bolstering pot of goodness is not so prevalent in the East. This is how my grandmother did it, with Kristang soul. It's eaten in true East meets West style, with steaming hot white rice and a relish of fresh red chillies, fermented shrimp paste, and lime juice called Sambal Belacan. This, to me, is soul food and fusion cuisine, with purpose, history and heart and a reassuring absence of hoopla.
Eurasian Chicken Stew
Prep 20 minutes Cook 50 – 60 minutes Serves 4 – 6
I medium sized chicken, clean and leave whole or cut into 10 – 12 pieces
2 cinnamon sticks, each about 5 cm (2 in) long
6 large whole cloves
2 medium onions, peel and slice very thinly
4 medium potatoes, peel and cut into evenly sized chunks (I quarter them)
2 medium carrots, top and tail, peel and cut into chunks about half the size of potato chunks
4 cups water or chicken stock
1/4 of a medium cabbage, separate leaves and discard hard ribs
Salt to taste
White pepper to taste
1 stalk scallion (spring onion) cut into 4 cm (1 1/2 in) lengths
• Heat about 3 tablespoons light vegetable oil in a deep pan or pot and when hot, brown the chicken on all sides. Remove from pan and set aside.
• Add the cinnamon and cloves to the same pan, on moderate heat so the spices don’t burn. Add the sliced onions and cook over moderate heat, stirring often, until onions are soft and translucent. Add the potatoes and carrots and stir for about 3 minutes.
• Return the chicken to the pan and add the water or stock. Bring to the boil and reduce heat. Cover the pan or pot and simmer gently for about 45 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink at the bone. Turn the chicken or pieces over every 10 minutes or so for even cooking.
• When chicken is about 10 minutes short of being done, add the cabbage leaves, pushing down into the liquid, and continue cooking until all vegetables are done.
• Season stew to taste with salt and pepper. Dish out and garnish with scallions before serving with white rice and sambal belacan (recipe follows).
Sambal Belacan (Chilli and Shrimp Paste Relish)
6 fresh red chillies, remove seeds
1 large clove garlic, peel
2 level tsps toasted and crumbled belacan (salted and fermented krill/shrimp paste)
1/3 level tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 level tsp sugar (optional)
2 tsp (or to taste) freshly squeezed lime, calamansi (calamondine) or lemon juice
• Combine chillies, garlic, belacan, salt and sugar in a pestle and mortar and pound to a semi-smooth paste.
• Transfer to a saucer and add lime juice to taste. Serve as a relish with white rice and chicken or meat stew, and other Eurasian dishes.