We need a new word for fusion...the good kind. Fusion cooking is forced. It’s mango salsa on your spaghetti. Or a sushi casserole. No no no.
But mixing cultures and cuisines can also create some really great dishes. The question is: what makes one dish a revelation and another just plain revolting?
It’s a delicate line and I don’t have any hard-and-fast rules about it. For me, it’s a gut feeling. Does it feel contrived, like a mix-and-match experiment? Scrap. Does it feel fresh and interesting? Keep going.
It helps to look at cultures that created their own cuisines by mishmashing others. Think: Hawaiian spam musubi (canned meat from soldier rations + sushi), or Vietnamese banh mi (French pate and baguettes meets Vietnamese herbs and pickles).
Macau is a striking example of authentic fusion cuisine. I visited in 2006, knowing little about its background. Long story short, Macau is an island 40 miles from Hong Kong. It was colonized by the Portuguese 400 years ago. Today, it’s a special administrative zone of China and the only place where you can legally gamble in the country. All of these influences -- Portugal + China + Las Vegas -- make for some really interesting cuisine.
Here’s an example of a dish that doesn’t seem all that “fusiony” but actually has a lot of history to it. This coconut lime pudding doesn’t have cornstarch, like you’d expect from a pudding. It’s actually thickened with egg and cornmeal, similar to papas de carolo or cornmeal pudding. The coconut makes it more suited to Asian tastes.
When I was in Macao, I had this flavored with ginger. But here I added lime instead. Not because I was trying to be clever and fusiony. But because it was good.
1 ¼ cup milk (regular, soy, almond)
Scant ½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons finely-ground cornmeal
½ cup coconut milk
4 egg yolks
Zest of two limes
Shredded coconut for garnish
In a saucepan, add almond milk and sugar. Simmer on medium until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool at least 5 minutes.
In a separate bowl, mix cornmeal, coconut milk, and egg yolks. Whip with a fork until frothy. Place saucepan with almond milk back onto heat and whisk cornmeal mixture slowly over medium heat until thickened, about 10 minutes. Maintain a low simmer, increasing or reducing heat as necessary. When ready, stir in zest of two limes, reserving some for garnish.
Spoon into individual cups or one large bowl. Chill until set, at least 3 hours. When ready to serve, top with shredded coconut and lime zest.
TIPS & TRICKS
When you’re dealing with eggs, milk, and something with a light color and subtle flavor, you really need to keep an eye on your heat. Avoid scorching by going slow and steady. If the mixture starts bubbling furiously, turn down the heat and let the pot cool off-heat before returning to the burner.
Other fun variations … Add in place of the lime zest: lemon zest, orange zest, grated ginger; Steep with the milk and sugar: pinch of cinnamon, dark rum