Photo: @charlesdeluvio on Unsplash
Walking around the dining hall of my college campus, I’m bothered by the way the label “Asian” is slapped onto any food that vaguely resembles a dish from an Asian country. It’s understandable if the dining hall chose these names out of convenience, but this happens frequently in far more inexcusable circumstances. The use of the word “Asian” as an umbrella term in cases like “Asian stir-fry” or “Asian-style [insert dish that isn’t authentically Asian]” exposes the generalization of Asian food and culture throughout American history. In the case of Asian fusion food, some say it’s an inevitable consequence of our multiculturalist society, while others argue that it threatens cultural authenticity. Let’s take a look at the history of fusion food in America: both in the ways it has exacerbated problematic attitudes towards ethnic cuisine, and how fusion food is being redefined by chefs who use food as a mouthpiece for their personal identities.
The term “fusion” was coined in 1988 by chef Norman Van Aken in “Fusion Cuisine”, an article describing the American culinary trend to combine flavors from different cultures with contemporary culinary techniques. A few years later in 1992, The Cheesecake Factory helped popularize American fusion through dishes like chicken chipotle pasta. With fusion food, there are endless opportunities for creativity and cultural learning for the chef and consumer. However, when fusion food literally fuses distinct cultures, the various Asian cuisines—from Thai, to Bhurmese, to Tibetan, to Indian—are condensed into a singular homogenous category of “Asian” culture. As the largest continent, Asia consists of 48 countries and hundreds of distinct cultures and subcultures, each containing their unique culinary traditions. It doesn’t seem fair to group these vastly diverse cultures under one label.
We must also consider how power structures factor into the creation of fusion food. Fusion cuisine is not merely a mutual agreement between the culinary traditions of two different cultures, but may include a loss of one culture at the glorification of another. The glorified culture is often European. The notion that European cuisine has the authority to elevate and modernize ethnic cuisine can be traced back to colonial times, when European colonizers categorized indigenous foods in accordance to their standards of edibility, health, and cultural value. Even today, French cuisine is revered as the epitome of fine dining and the standard to which other cuisines are compared. The Culinary Institute of America trains chefs under French standards of cooking and dining. Recalling upon his time cooking in Bay Area restaurants during the mid-2000s, Jonathan Kauffman, a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, remarks that “It was exciting to me back then…but as time went on, it became clear how superficial and simplistic most Asian fusion food was…. These days, when I look back on Asian fusion, I think of it as white chefs adding Asian accents to Western food.”
So, can authentic Asian fusion food exist? Currently, Asian American chefs and food entrepreneurs are opening businesses and taking over their parents’ restaurants. Whether chefs are continuing their generational businesses or redefining their culinary spaces with new food creations, second generation immigrant chefs are using fusion food as a tool to trace their families’ histories. Bopomofo Cafe in California shows the Taiwanese American experience in both the food and drinks they serve, with dishes like “Mapo Tots,” which are tater tots served in Chinese Mapo sauce, and “Dou-tiao,” which are traditional Chinese you-tiao drizzled with American donut glaze. The cafe is built in what was once a first-generation Taiwanese restaurant which the cafe owner renovated himself, and is located in the heavily-Asian populated San Gabriel Valley.
Here is where fusion foods become more than a fashion statement. As our society becomes more culturally diverse, cultural authenticity itself is not a singular culture but rather one with many influences. Fusion food is no longer clashing elements that need to be fused together, but rather an organic extension of the chef’s unique experiences, interests, and cultural heritage. And while restaurants may not be invested in cultivating cultural lessons about Asian foods, it should always be a priority to respect the Asian cultures that are incorporated into their dishes. The terms “fusion” and “Asian” shouldn’t be used out of a lazy misunderstanding of the distinct and numerous Asian cultures, as my college’s dining hall had done. When restaurants and consumers are held to a higher standard of social awareness, people can be both exposed to cultures and experiences they may not typically encounter, and hopefully break down the misconceptions surrounding Asian food and culture in America.
Anna Wu is a 19 year-old writer, dumpling chef, and avid listener of self-help podcasts. As an Asian-American college student, she is passionate about creating content that inspires young people to find and discuss diverse narratives on the journey of better understanding themselves. She is currently studying at Mount Holyoke College.