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Fusion Cuisine and the Soul of Cooking

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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.

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About Denise Fletcher

  • Tunde – Thank you for taking the time to read the article and for sharing your thoughts. Passion, to me, should certainly be a part of the creative process in the kitchen, or else as you say, more often than not, it will fall flat. No surprise when the focus is simply on getting the job done or, profit margins. I completely relate to the disappointment of hype that fails to deliver and when it is food that disappoints me, the letdown is especially cutting. We foodies possibly do not relate to food as normal beings do πŸ˜‰

  • Hi Denise,

    This is exceptionally written. Your about the topic really shows. Passion for the cuisine also has to ring through in dishes else it just fall flat on its face. I just hate it when i go to a ‘raved about’ establishment and the food totally disappointments. I guess that’s the burden of being a foodie. Looking forward to more articles and cracking start

  • Pierre – thanks for taking the time to read my article. I have been waiting for a chef to read this and counter my argument with a worthy defence of the culinary profession and it looks like you’ve come closest πŸ˜‰ I do hope you were not a rip off during your stint as a chef because the truth is that many of the ingredients used by chefs – even the “exotic” ones, are not as expensive as the prices of many finished restaurant dishes might lead one to believe, whether or not it is “fusion cuisine”, especially since catering establishments often buy these ingredients in bulk. I speak as a former insider of the restaurant/catering industry. I’m with you on the overuse of the term “fusion” as used in restaurants, cookbooks etc. It is entirely and exclusively the business of the individual in his/her own kitchen/blog to butcher the term or whip up culinary magic in its name, but when you charge a premium for it, I think a little more respect and consideration is in order. I truly enjoyed reading your comment so please feel free to express yourself on future articles – your “babbling” pleases me no end!

  • Hi Denise,
    Great insights in to how you see fusions and the cultural drives that influenced it.

    I have to say, I have imported a lot ingredient for cheap prices when I used to chef around in oz… Does that mean that I’m a rip off? Hahaha…

    For me, I quite hate the word fusion. The term tends to correlate closely with “expensive”. I understand that you were writing about “fusion” from the cultural perspective of other civilisation driving it. And it becomes a part of the tradition itself-as times goes by.

    For reasons that now you can find any ingredients of the world just about anywhere at a cheap price, I think “fusion” as finding a cheap unknown food ingredients in the local & cheap asian/mediterranean supermarket and then trying it out on the cookings skills that one is used to. Lots of amazing creative homecooks/mums do this. I have no doubt that you are one of them.

    OK, I better stop babbling.
    Great topic for a start of your new job Denise! Congratulations!
    I love it! Keep it up the pace!

  • Jennifer – your kind words are truly appreciated. Thankfully, most of my limbs have grown back and rest assured I don’t intend ever falling prey again! I am only too happy to share my culture and grandmother’s recipe – I know she would have wholeheartedly approved.

  • Hi Denise,
    This post was beautifully written, highly informative, and definitely from a passionate heart.
    And it is very sad that when you go to a restaurant, you’ll be charged three arms and 4/5ths of your leg to pay for something that is completely wrong. *sigh*.
    Love your recipe it sounds heavenly as always πŸ™‚

  • Stella – so glad this resonates with you! Enough truly is enough and I hardly eat in restaurants anymore, unless very highly recommended by close friends who really know me.

    It’s a pleasure to share a part of myself and I am really pleased that you “like it” πŸ˜‰

  • Hey Denise,
    This is a great article, and hits home with me. I’ve spent most of my life in restaurants, and, frankly, have often been quite miffed about the inexpensive food (underpaid farmer in mind here) that is blended together in a desperate attempt at being fusion & ‘original’. It also hits the table with the type of price you mentioned…
    P.S. I don’t know what is “Kristang” besides your description here. But, if it’s what you are, I like it!
    Oh, and awesome that you included a recipe for a spicy shrimp paste. Yes!

  • Marly – Why am I not surprised that that’s what grabbed you about the article?! LOL Well, it’s privileged, hence, no names, so *shhhhhhhhhhh* You wouldn’t want to get me into trouble now, would you? πŸ˜‰ I really enjoyed writing this piece and I am so glad that you got something out of it!

    Cleo – Thank you…now tell me, what did I do to deserve you as a friend? Distance is irrelevent in true friendship when hearts and minds are united. Oh my God! Someone’s probably already running to John de Mol, with the idea, even as I type! Hilarious. Aren’t we lucky to have the grandmas and mums that we do? They’re amazing cradle rockers, torch carriers, scribes of history, masons of the future, and if we’re really lucky….great cooks too! Mine were all of those. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!!

    Seer – Thanks sis! Peelers and choppers welcome onboard, anytime!! I take it my extended absence is not being held against me? *fingers crossed*

    Isabelle – Thank you. Coming from you – it is an honor! I have always been more than impressed with your eloquence and the vibrancy of your writing! Completely agreed on the restaurant shenanigans! I for one, have had enough and think it’s time that particular band of chefs and restaurants were taken to task!

    Tanantha – Thank you! Glad to know I am not alone in thinking the term “fusion cuisine” has been too carelessly used and excessively capitalised on! I do appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.

  • Great article Denise! It’s well-written, informative, and deep. Yes, restaurants tend to use the word “fusion” but how many know what it actually means and what it’s meant to the culture.

    Congratulations again!

  • Very well said, Denise. Congrats on your first article… you’ve set the bar pretty high for all your future writings, that’s for sure!
    I’ve always found your blog posts and recipes so inspiring because they fuse simple familiar flavours with amazing exotic ingredients (well, exotic to me, all the way over here in Canada). That’s what I’ve always believed fusion cooking should be, rather than an excuse to charge premium prices for sub-par food.

  • Seer

    Congratulations Sister! Love seeing your name in well-deserved print. πŸ™‚ LucaM and I were just talking about spending time in your kitchen and how much we’d enjoy that – neither of us being ‘pro cooks’ – but you can always use extra hands for the peeling and chopping eh? Your kitchen table should be at the top of all travel itineraries for those who enjoy eating and good conversation!

  • Eloquent, informative, *and* you made me laugh out loud. I can just see the “lubricated” chefs revealing all around that lunch table. (I think you invented a format for a new reality cable show πŸ™‚ LOVE your East Meets West Chicken Stew. That dish is off the charts – and so is your QUICKIES ON THE DINNER TABLE cookbook. RE – your book – I just received my copy and it’s gorgeous! The recipes are fantastic and your voice as a writer is so human and endearing; your observations always witty and insightful. Also – I have to say that your dedication to your mother and grandmother chocked me up, reminded me of my own. Looking forward to blogging about QUICKIES soon and congrats on joining blogcritics! Woot!

    Your fan always, Cleo

  • I knew it! I had a hunch these chefs were creating concoctions from you know where in order to charge a premium price. Your post is beautiful – inspirational and informative (my favorite writing fusion)! Marly

  • Liren – I had no idea you had such an interesting heritage! It’s great to meet a kindred spirit! See what happens when the disclosure ball starts rolling?! I think that anyone who has a rich story to tell about who they really are or where they came from, should! And, I do think that one of the best ways to communicate what we’re all about is to share the recipes from our family vault of culinary treasures. If they were just kept secret or within the family, the voice and soul of that family or clan will die with the passing of the last member. Such a sad thing to contemplate…

    Silvia – Thank you! I would love to one day return to San Francisco’s Bay Area and see how much of it has changed in the last 20 years! I have the utmost respect for you as a chef and knowing that you find my corner of the world interesting enough to warrant a culinary expedition makes my day!

    Zibi – Thank you for your lovely compliment. I do appreciate all the support and the time you’ve taken to read my article and comment!

    Gwen – Thank you! You must be having a tap on my psyche or mind because you are reading me so right! Time, oh precious time! I shall prevail, my friend, or I shall die trying!

    LeQuan – Fret not! I understand…or might that have been a Freudian slip?! I tease, my friend, I tease. Thank you for taking the time to read and leave your thoughts. I hope my grandmother’s spirit lives on each time I share one of her recipes. I’m glad to have made my obscure culture a little less so, even if to a small number.

    Biren – Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I hope this will be only the first of many contributions here!

  • Deanna – The Spice Trade is an endlessly fascinating subject for me – glad you feel the same. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!

    Karen – Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts on the subject. We share an interest, nay, an obsession with a subject that deserves more attention – Spices!! Appreciate the kind words.

    Ruby – It does seem as if Mother Nature likes it when we make human cocktails and very generously shows her approval! Agreed on serendipity and accident in the kitchen. Some of the things we know and have come to love the most were happy accidents! Profit lust seldom amounts to more than money and a starving soul – apparently, something to aspire to, for some…

    Dennis – Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate that a man as busy as yourself would take the time to read and comment. The Spice Trade has been an enduring obsession for me – considering my background that would hardly come as a surprise. I am honoured that a professional chef of your standing is in agreement with me about what should and should not fuel the creative process, in a professional kitchen.

  • Lazaro – Thank you my friend, for reading and sharing your thoughts, and for the very kind words. I could not have done it without you!

  • Beautifully written Denise! Congrats on your first article with BC!

  • I truly love your great writing style Denise. You know how to make the words flow together so smoothly while at the same time captivating the reader’s interest. Combine that with your love of cooking from the heart and we have a beautiful piece of article with a treasured recipe. Thank you for sharing a piece of your heritage with us, for this pleasurable informative read, and for another wonderful recipe.

  • Cheers, Denise! What a beautifully written first article. Congrats on landing this gig and I hope you find the time to be able to do everything you wish to do!

  • Beautiful writing Denise.
    From the recipes I’ve seen you share on your blog, you are the perfect person to write about fusion cuisine.

  • Gorgeous article Denise, I love it, it sounds like poetry. I am very inspired by fusion cuisine too and SF being the melting pot it is, has developed its own. I wish I could come to Singapore and explore that side of the world. Beautiful article and recipe!

  • Beautifully done, Denise! What a wonderful written piece, and so informative. I share many of your feelings regarding true fusion food – my family’s Filipino background being a blend of Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese influences. It is high time these cuisines of true fusion be understood and valued!

  • Denise

    I am certainly not surprised at how well written and how informative this piece is….but I have to say it has to be the well written food article of any type I have read in a very very long time. The history of the spice trade is a wonderful touch. I do agree with you about fusion, some fusion just flows naturally as the people wh created it did when they moved about the world, but to just mix cuisines, simply as an outlet of your supposed creative abilities or as an incuse to charge more is just rediculous….
    And when we stop and think about the development of some cuisines, what are they but fusion to begin with…
    Thanks again for such a well written article, as always it is a joy to read your posts!
    Many blessings!

  • Great article and nicely-written! I often look at my kids and think that Mother Nature does a nice job of blending the best traits from each culture when creating cross-cultural kids. In the kitchen, it’s up to us to decide what flavours go well together. Accident and serendipity play a strong role, and I agree that success is most often born of love, not profit lust!

  • Karen Marley

    You bring grace and insight to the heart of fusion cooking and the spice trade. It’s an immensely fascinating topic and you give it its due justice. Excellent job and thanks for the perfect recipe. It’s right from the heart which is where fusion cooking really lives.

  • Great book suggestion and loved your article.. the history of the spice trade is no end of fun to explore. It sounds like your heritage has prepared you for culinary heights with so much to draw from…. that Creole soul. Although food has given much, it has also been the root of much suffering… don’t get me started on sugar! I can’t wait to see what you write about next!

  • Denise…What an opening salvo! Editor’s Pick right out of the block. Congrats my friend on your amazing maiden voyage on our BC Taste team.

    The article is beautifully written from the soul of a true fusion artist. Not an uninspired “chef” in a kitchen.