CRISTINA PEDLER WRITES — Culinary culture is never written in stone… it has to be taken with a grain of salt. Or Ssamjang.
The term Asian fusion takes on different meanings in the culinary community. To the OGs, it is a blasphemous meddling with traditional ingredients, methods and flavors. To the younger generation, it is a beautiful amalgamation of cooking techniques that have evolved across oceans and over time. As a whole, it is a clash between old and new, traditional and modern, sacred and experimental.
Fusion was the major boom coming out of the 90s as a new American cuisine. What, exactly, is fusion? Chefs combining different flavor profiles from different cultures, especially those influenced by Asian plates, to make the most of uniquely palatable combinations of spices, sauces and vegetables.
Also termed “pan-Asian,” such cuisine has scooped out a special name, and place, for itself in the American culinary community. One such restaurant chain that has captivated the taste buds of Americans from Washington D.C. to SoCal: ChiKo, the first restaurant from The Fried Rice Collective, which pairs modern cooking techniques with traditional Chinese and Korean flavors. Warning: its fast-casual menu might lead to excessive salivation, with snacks that include: Sichuan Spicy Cucumbers, Turmeric Pickled Daikon and Wok Blistered Chinese Broccoli. Also, beware: The entrees, including Orange-ish Chicken and Spicy Cumin Lamb Stir fry, might actually induce food comas – the good kind, of course – in people sick of old-style cooking who are at risk of overdosing on delectable fusion tastes .
Eric Brannon, the executive chef at ChiKo restaurant in Encinitas, California, has been with the company since it expanded from its initial location on the Barrack’s Row in Washington D.C. during the summer of 2017. He has a lot to say about the fusion debate.
Eric feels that fusion is a cheat card, in a sense. It’s a bit of a dying breed within the food world, almost bastardized for being overplayed for so long. Although the very definition of fusion is a form of cooking that combines contrasting culinary traditions or techniques into a single dish, many chefs opine that fusion cooking actually deprives various cuisines of their authenticity and, in doing so, disrespects those native cuisines.
And yet, Eric does a good job of defending ChiKo. After all, he says, there is value in what you can do simply and well: “At ChiKo we try to diversify a respect and homage towards Korean and Chinese cuisine individually. As neighboring countries, naturally there will be a cross-utilization of ingredients and styles, but we ultimately attempt not to be a fusion restaurant.”
ChiKo’s food culture is not one of fusing, he says, but of doing things their own, unique way. Accordingly, Eric’s team of chefs don’t attempt to cook grandma’s homestyle Korean dish, but to inject dashes of unique culinary ingredients, and cooking styles, into such traditional offerings.
Why all the fuss? Just as ChiKo’s menu relies on creativity and uniqueness, American culinary tradition was founded on a notion of mixing and matching. Just about everything we eat in this country has been influenced by other cultures – such is the beauty of the melting pot.
Whatever your take on the fusion debate, ChiKo executive Eric Brannon encourages people to be humble to our great ancestors of various culinary cultures. And to show it by valuing and enjoying the distinctive methods of food preparation and taste that show up in your meals.