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Move Over Ketchup! There?s a New Guy in Town

Culinary trends follow social trends as cultures & condiments collide

Julienne Markel

If the United States is a melting pot, then California may as well be at the center – a veritable amalgamation of languages, ethnicities and, of course, cuisines. With Hawaii just across the Western pond and Mexico just across the Southern border, California has a head start when it comes to cultural influence; plus, it’s been known to be home to anyone who chooses to hop on a bus, train or a plane and call it so.

It makes sense, then, that just about any type of cuisine can be found in California. Lately, however, it seems that the proverbial pot has been stirred a bit more. In dining establishments across the West, there’s been a rise in the cross-pollination of cuisines. At first glance, this trend looks a lot like fusion. Dig a little deeper, however, and you will find that hints or influences from one type of cuisine are sneaking onto your plate without labeling themselves as fused.

You might find wasabi mashed potatoes as the side to a New York strip steak or sriracha aioli as the  accompaniment to French fries. Whatever the combination, Chef Joycelyn Lee, of B Star in San Francisco, attributes the rise in these types of mergers to the unions happening every day between people with different cultural backgrounds. “Maybe a Japanese man marries a Cuban woman; they both work in the food industry… and bam!” There’s your Cuban restaurant that serves their mojitos with an unsuspecting but noteworthy garnish of candied ginger.

The first date

As is the case with people, different flavors come from different places; wasabi comes from Japan and sambal from India, just to name two. Combinations of these ingredients make up flavor palettes that, combined with proteins, vegetables and carbohydrates, make up cuisines. As the reference book, Food Lover’s Companion defines it, fusion food is “cuisine created by combining ingredients and techniques from various cultures, the results of which are dishes that don’t precisely fit into any of the originating cuisines.” Hence, when these internationally-inspired palettes are mixed, we call it fusion.

As we all learned in World History 101, the marriage of these cultures wasn’t always so deliberate. Chef Ronny Miranda, of Levende East in Oakland, doesn’t like the term fusion. “Food has been nothing but fusion since the dawn of time,” he says. “When the Europeans came to America, they had to start using the ingredients that the Native Americans were using.” Though they might have been cooking meals from their homeland, the European settlers had to adapt to the new climate and crops of the Northeast. The settlers had to adapt and use the fruits of their new land – literally. “Today, what we call ‘fusion,’” says Chef Ronny, “back then [the European settlers] called it survival.” Just as we have come a long way since the first Thanksgiving, the concept of fusion has evolved over time. After a while, people have become more accepting of, and curious about, cultures different from their own. Naturally, people have also become more interested in the foods attached to these cultures. Knowledge of foreign foods, and food customs, became essential for politicians and other public figures. Soon, experience with foreign foods became conversation at ordinary dinner parties – spices, seasonings and sauces with hard to pronounce names suddenly became sexy.

 Today, according to Chef Joycelyn, her customers want, and even expect, less than traditional condiment options. “Diners are familiar with the products [we’re using],” she says. “If you come to dinner here, you come for these things.”

According to Chef Ronny, the use of unconventional condiments makes sense from a business standpoint as well. “It’s a marketing ploy,” he says. At Levende, they serve a Bloody Mary that’s not made with Tabasco, but sriracha. “You wind up with a completely different, unique flavor,” insists the chef. It makes sense; if diners expect it, restaurants need to utilize flavors to distinguish themselves – they need to have something no one else does. In the most basic way, Chef Ronny’s Bloody Mary is a refreshed drink from the past – a Thanksgiving turkey from 1492 with an outfit from 2011.

Keeping things spicy

Chef Kolin Vazzoler, of Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg, would definitely agree with both Chef Ronny and Chef Jocelyn. If diners expect restaurants to have an angle, it makes sound business sense to take a foreign twist on an otherwise ordinary dish. To that end, Shimo Modern Steak is exactly what it sounds like – an American steakhouse with a Japanese influence. “We pair Japanese items with the [traditional concept of] American steak,” says Chef Kolin. “We researched what the Japanese do and [use bits and pieces] to compliment the food.” A perfect example of this idea is the “Shimo Steak Sauce,” which accompanies all the cuts on the menu. A Japanese-inspired dressing, the steak sauce is made up of ginger, soy sauce, mirin, tomato paste, ketchup, rice bran oil, Tabasco and sesame oil. Instead of A1, diners are served Shimo Steak Sauce and, among other things, it’s probably what keeps them coming back for more.

When people ask Chef Onil Chibás, of Elements Kitchen in Pasadena, what type of food is served at his restaurant, he tells them it’s “American.” After studying the menu, which features items such as the “Marinated Flank Steak & Kimchi Tacos,” served with corn and sesame tortillas, sambal aioli and pickled ginger, or the “Forbidden Lobster Paella,” served with whole Maine lobster, forbidden rice, shrimp, bay scallops, chorizo and saffron foam, these same people often reply, “American?” At first glance, the items featured are so culturally diverse it may seem more appropriate to label the cuisine as “random,” “but it’s not random,” insists the chef. “Just look around the room right now,” he says. “My menu looks like my staff. There are Asians, Caucasians, Latinos… It’s the truest sense of what ‘American’ really is today.” In regards to his paella, Chef Onil simply tells me that he just really likes the way Chinese forbidden rice tastes, so he uses that instead of a more traditional Spanish rice.

It’s the same concept Chef Joycelyn explained to me when she told me she puts sriracha on pizza. “It’s just delicious,” she says. A lot of people probably have chili pepper flakes and sriracha in their pantries right now, but if these people wanted to add a kick to their pizza, their brains are trained to grab the flakes. Chef Joycelyn, on the other hand, will grab the sriracha – an approach that no doubt contributes to her success.

Chef Kolin would also grab the sriracha. When asked if he had advice for someone wanting to incorporate ethnic ingredients into their cooking, he told me that he’ll “try anything once so [he] knows what it tastes like.” If he likes it, he’ll put it on the menu. He encourages others to do the same ,and he believes soy sauce is probably the easiest ingredient to incorporate. “Soy is a great enhancer. It adds a very earthy, salty element but when used in small amounts you can barely taste it,” he says.

Chef Ronny feels similarly about sriracha, claiming that it’s easy to incorporate because people are familiar with it. “It’s a brand [most people] recognize. Maybe you haven’t tried it, but you’ve seen the bottle with the red sauce, the green top and the rooster.” As we know, Chef Ronny successfully replaces the Tabasco in his Bloody Mary with sriracha, and this concept can be applied in other ways.

People are more likely to trust ingredients they’re even vaguely familiar with. On the contrary, Chef Ronny says there are also certain ingredients he still sometimes hesitates incorporating due to their extremely “un-American” flavors. “Fish sauce,” he says, “has such a pungent flavor it’s almost off-putting. It [could be] hard to convince the average person off the street that it’s not a horrible tasting ingredient, but it’s such a great flavor enhancer.” The chef feels the same way about harissa, but for different reasons. “Harissa is the Moroccan ketchup,” he says. “It has such a deep, rich profile, but it has so many ingredients in it that it can be scary to the average American palate.” Still, Chef Ronny really believes in cooking what tastes good and really believes that when enough people catch on to something good, it becomes trendy – a guarantee that, if they haven’t begun to already, fish sauce and harissa will undoubtedly find their place in the American pantry.

The future of the relationship

Wait a second. “The American pantry?” What is the American pantry, anyway? According to Chef Joycelyn, in theory, the ethnic food aisle doesn’t really exist anymore. “I’ve been to [markets] where the sriracha is stocked right next to the ketchup.” As Chef Onil affirmed, this amalgamation of cultures and flavors is truly American. Food trends follow people trends. If “same old, same old” shouldn’t exist in our relationships, why should it exist on our plates?

Chef Joycelyn told me a story that really sums it up. “A Japanese girl and a Jamaican man were walking down the street, and I thought ‘imagine what their Thanksgiving is going to be like… I want a seat at that table!’” And there you have it. Thanksgiving is so ultimately American that, year after year, we don’t touch it. Same old, same old. This past Thanksgiving, however, I got an e-mail with a recipe for an “Indian Thanksgiving” that featured a roasted curry turkey. I didn’t make it, but I’m starting to feel like naan stuffing could be very 2011. 

Vietnamese-style Curry Tofu Portobello Sandwich with Sriracha aioli & Szechuan Salt & Pepper Fries with Curry Aioli
Inspiration for Executive Chefs