A palate for fusion: What globalizing our pantry has done for cuisine

By Sylvia Tomczak

For many chefs, garam masala, harissa, saffron, and gochujang are ingredients that have become as interchangeable as salt, oil, or flour. The “global pantry,” one that is more rapidly stocking itself with international flavours, is reshaping what we eat. Especially in cultural melting pots like Canada, the shift to embrace ingredients and cooking techniques from different parts of the world has led to an increase in fusion cuisine.

But while this is an exciting prospect, it does require a frank dialogue on the origins of these cuisines, which are often steeped in colonialist history, as well as how they should be presented to the public.

The origins of fusion

Fusion describes a style of cuisine that blends culinary traditions from different parts of the world. It can also describe classic dishes that use a variety of ingredients from other cuisines and regions — essentially, food based on one culture but prepared using ingredients and flavours that are characteristic of another.

A stellar example of fusion is Macanese cuisine. When the Portuguese colonized Macau, settlers introduced new herbs, spices, and cooking methods like roasting, grilling, and stewing —none of which are traditional to the area. Over time, this European influence became apparent in the southern Chinese fare, morphing into a distinct style unlike anything else.

Interestingly, most cultures boast a culinary identity rooted in fusion like Peruvian, Indian, or Vietnamese cuisines. Likewise, more often than not, this melding of food cultures occurs due to political factors that see the migration of people, which in turn is profoundly personal. However, the lines can be blurred when we talk about new-age fusion food.

The appeal of the peculiar

North Americans didn’t have a concept of fusion food until the 1980s. This is when European chefs like Wolfgang Puck began embracing Asian cuisines, marketing them to the American palate through dishes like Chinese chicken salad. While this is a far cry from some of today’s Frankenstein fusions of phorrito or sushi pizza, the one thing that remains is fusion’s peculiarity.

With increasing pressure to be authentic, the one-of-a-kind quality of fusion-style cookery breaks down the rigid ways of cooking and conceptualizing flavours by marrying starkly different cuisines. It sparks creativity and innovation and it’s the trendiest thing that a chef can do.

Following mass waves of immigration in the last century, North America has become a hub for fusion fare. In fact, many budding restaurateurs have actually started reclaiming fusion in a way that expresses the melting pot of flavours they grew up with. After all, with accessibility to a world of ingredients found in metropolitan cities all over the globe, our penchant for flavour is much different than our ancestors.

Building on an already “international palate,” fusion can broaden this culinary perspective even further, pushing even the plainest of eaters to their limits. In crafting fusion dishes, chefs are able to gently introduce different cuisines in an approachable way that exposes patrons to new flavours, methods, and culinary histories.

Despite the exciting world of fusion cuisine, one does start to wonder if all this globalization is problematic. Is fusion a threat to authenticity? In the eyes of movements like Slow Food that aim to protect local flavours and culinary traditions, does fusion rid food cultures of their histories and importance? But the most pressing question is who gets to spearhead this move towards a more global cuisine?

RELATED: Bringing millennia of culinary history to life in the 21st century

Appreciation vs. appropriation

With more attention being drawn to equal representation in food media, many white cooks and chefs have been called into question after presenting audiences with dishes from which they have no culinary connection. This is problematic as ethnic ingredients are rebranded to be trendy, cool, and relevant for Westerners while sometimes totally disregarding culinary histories. This consequent fetishization of foreign foods is not only a racial slap in the face for cultures that have created these cuisines but could also dilute cultural identity.

There is indeed a fine line between appreciation and appropriation. While not always the case with fusion cuisine, it is key to remain cognizant of instances where elements of a culture (in this case, cuisine) are robbed, bastardized, and churned out for profit. Cultural appropriation under the scope of food is neglecting the fact that food is directly related to culture by whitewashing ingredients and recipes of the global majority. A controversial facet of fusion, ethnic food is often presented to the world by a non-ethnic individual. With more opportunity for financial freedom and less social strife, it’s typically white individuals that can capitalize on the cuisines of marginalized communities.

What’s more, food media is even complicit. Contemporary trends in food are defined by white tastemakers that popularize ethnic cuisines, while Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous chefs remain in the shadows. The issue here of course is about fair representation, especially when food is “borrowed” from another culture. This gentrification of foods (many of which were once shamed or looked down upon by white Westerners) is a lesson in acceptance and awareness, and how we proceed in using our accessibility to this global pantry we have at our fingertips makes all the difference.

The constant evolution of food

Fusion food can feel disjointed and unlike a valid representation of a specific culture. But, then again, that is precisely what the core of fusion is — a jumble of dissimilar ingredients used to create extraordinary flavours.

In Canada alone, chefs are showcasing how food can be a culinary playground while representing their blended identities seen in restaurants like Toronto’s Patois (Caribbean-Asian), Vancouver’s Kissa Tanto (Italian-Japanese), or Montreal’s Elvita’s (Latin American-Italian).

Given that contemporary kitchens consolidate ingredients from all over the world, this acts to expand our palates and, consequently, our understanding. Embracing the global pantry should then be less a question of theft and more one of respect, especially if fusion cherry-picks parts of a cuisine. Ultimately, it’s from an array of cultures across oceans that we can improve the way we think about food. Just think of the incredible power of a hint of baharat or dash of za’atar to your meal.

The global pantry is one that is meant to be shared, which is why it’s important to remember that no one has a monopoly over taste. With more available to everyone, blending spices and ingredients to create something brand new is an experiment in flavour that’s not meant to do harm, but simply to excite.

Food is culture; it represents who we are, where we have been, and where we are going. Fusion remains controversial because it creates a new pathway in food culture, yet it is one that many can identify with. While it’s inevitable that our pantries will see more unique international goods going forward, we must be respectful of their origin and not claim to be anything other than inspired by another culture.

Food for the belly, soul, and mind, the globalization of our pantry has led to incredible culinary strides. Now, it’s time for the same sort of cultural strides to be made on a social level.

Sylvia Tomczak is an alumna of the University of Gastronomic Sciences studying food culture, communication, and marketing. With a love of words and all things enogastronomy, she is passionate about learning new things through a foodie-focused lens and sharing them both on paper and online. Find her on Instagram at @honeyandtruffles.