The good folks at Travel + Leisure Asia allowed me to republish this essay I wrote for their September food issue, which is on newsstands now (go buy it -- writers need to eat!)
It's about labeling food, something that seems ever more slippery to me these days. But it's also about travel, and the thought processes of chefs, and what I think is (generally) a positive trend in the restaurant world: Chefs learning more about other ways of cooking, and subtly employing that knowledge. Enjoy.
In Bangkok, I run a Thai restaurant. The food we serve, in my mind, is resolutely Thai (though there are aspects to the cooking process, and a few ingredients, that are not). I have always cringed when people told me, or when I read in a review, that my restaurant serves ‘fusion’ Thai – partly because of the detractive nature of the term, and partly because I don’t believe this to be true.
Gently, I’ve tried to bend the boundaries of Thai cooking – smoking something here, curing something there, putting Thai fried chicken on a Thai coconut waffle – without breaking them. Because I, like many others chefs, have lived in fear of the word fusion. But I’m not sure this word means much at all, anymore. Or if we, as chefs and consumers, should give it much weight.
Just like the word authentic (the flimsiest food descriptor of all), fusion is a deeply misleading term. Great cooking cultures – Thai for one, but also more recent cuisines in Australia, the Americas, Goa, South Africa – have evolved because of a tendency to absorb the ideas, ingredients, and techniques of migrating cooks. So when do we stop, erm, fusing?
If one wants to cook traditional recipes, that’s just fine with me. And I firmly believe the world’s great cooking cultures should be guarded for posterity. But it doesn’t mean we all ought to cook exactly what we grew up eating. Imagine a world where cooking didn’t cross-pollinate – a tomato-less Italy, a China without chilies, a Bangkok without woks. It’s depressing.
My recent trip to Spain reinforced the notion that the fine dining world has moved beyond a fear of fusion. This began in Girona, at a restaurant called El Cellar de Can Roca.
“The first course, the amuse,” my waiter explained, “represents the chef’s most recent travels around the world,” as he presented me with spheres of food, perched on a steel structure, like gumballs roosting on a leafless tree. I wondered if there was a tinge of irony, or even jealousy, in his monotone, as he introduced this work of edible experience.
My first bite, a taste of Korea which I plucked from the top branch, rudely awoke a palate that had been lazing for days on sheep cheese and buttery ham and subtle, olive oil-soaked seafood. Suddenly, I struggled with a mouthful of pungent miso. Pow!
The next bite took us to Beirut, I believe, then Mexico, then Morocco. But it wasn’t until the chef – who was raised in his family’s Girona restaurant, studying classic Catalan food – was on more familiar ground that his cooking began to resonate. I remembered most the meal’s small, informative turns on flavor, like a delicately smoked sliver of anchovy swimming in a soup of gingered cherry and amaretto, and crispy lamb breast with forest mushrooms poking through a pillow of creamed morels, but I quickly forgot the miso ball.
Until I returned to Asia, and began to unpack my own experiences in this essay.
I would like to think that mainstream cooking – not the dreamy three-star stuff above but everyday restaurant cooking – is on the cusp of real change. A time when people will stop uttering that tired, “fusion, confusion” analogy under their breath and accept that food is essentially formless; it is an interchangeable medium that does not necessarily lose its unique character if it borrows another ingredient, or technique, from a place far away. Because now, we often venture far away. Most people didn’t used to – and most especially working-class cooks.
We talk of a global economy, of global food shortages and international migrations, but rarely do people talk about this apparition that is global cuisine. Unless it’s negative. Some of that is well-deserved, especially during the salad days of fusion, where a squirt of Sriracha or the sting of wasabi was used clumsily by uninformed cooks and promulgated by restaurant chains. Bad fusion food abounds in Bangkok, where recent culinary graduates splatter pizza or spaghetti with something that sort of tastes Thai. But serious chefs have figured out how to use each others’ arsenal of ingredients, and well.
And so, quietly, many are cooking whatever they feel like, unannounced. Because they know more about what they’re doing than we do, we don’t notice as much.
There are, as far as I can tell, two opposing schools of thought when it comes to cooking. Those that think that our culinary order hangs in the balance as soon as the simplest traditions are tweaked, and those that put miso paste in butter because it tastes really good.
And on my last trip through Spain, most of the memorable meals I ate were cooked by chefs that fell into the latter category. There was a crisp, tiny cone filled with the silky insides of a ripe tomato at Tickets, in Barcelona, that slowly rose above the ordinary with the quiet heat of grated wasabi. It was there, but you had to seek it out in your head, as Albert Adria must have when he created the dish. And a rabbit taco, an elegant little tapa stuffed with braised rabbit in a gentle cumin and chili braise, like Mexico viewed in soft, Mediterranean twilight. These geographical leaps felt nothing but natural.
There are many reasons Spain has emerged as a world leader in gastronomy – it’s a combination of great product, innovation, climate, history and a strong traditional food culture. But, in my mind, it’s the lack of dogma in their modern cooking that has allowed Spain to move so far forward, so fast. While France eased into the idea of adoption, Spain had already thrown open their doors to spices, sensations, molecular techniques and whatever else might push their food forward. Labels be damned. Delicious was the measuring stick.
Which brings me back to my original point – travel is changing the way we cook, the depth of our understanding, and the ingredients chefs choose to use in restaurants. Nowhere in Europe was this more apparent to me than in San Sebastian – a place steeped in Basque traditions, that remains open to most anything.
As I wound through the old town I passed cooking stores with hand-forged Japanese sushi knives in the windows, and Asian basket steamers. There was that old-school mishmash of Gallic and Spanish, too – the chocolatiers and cheese shops and baguettes and olive oils and hams. And then I went to Arzak for lunch.
Elena Arzak, the proprietor of this legendary Basque restaurant, led me through her 100,000 bottle wine cellar. But what fascinated me most was their spice room – 1200 different flavors, neatly catalogued, at the disposal of chefs who work exclusively on recipe development.
The meal was one of the best I’ve ever had, and often surprised me – a chunk of goat cheese was offset by the astringent glow of turmeric, silky foie gras was encased in crisp seaweed, like a lighter, umami-laced tempura. But the local products were what opened my eyes. There was a sardine speared atop a ripe strawberry, and an unspeakably delicious dish of beef tongue and dover sole. After the meal I told Juan-Mari Arzak and his daughter Elena what I loved best, and she smiled. “We have 10, sometimes 15 visiting chefs in our kitchen. They come to cook, on their vacation. And they notice simple things like you, things we think are normal they think are fantastic, and this excites me.”
That night, I wound through the famous pintxos bars of the old town, drinking wine and hopping from bar to bar. And there were so many little sidesteps on tradition that I forget them all. A scoop of mole-flavored ice cream atop a pig’s ear terrine; a pork rib braised in sweet fruit and cumin like a tagine; a grilled prawn with the subtle scent of lemongrass.
My last meal in Basque country was at Azurmendi, in Bilbao. It’s a stunning place, but what sets it apart is Chef Eneko Axta’s precise yet playful approach to Basque classics. As we slurped an oyster, for instance, a waft of sea mist drifted across the table, as water plucked from the Bay of Biscay was poured over dry ice and purple seaweed. Does that sound pretentious? Because it’s not. It’s surreal, like eating an oyster in a secreted cave.
After the meal, Axta took me upstairs to his greenhouse to show me his peas, which are picked at night, and cooked in a jelly made from the fat of the world’s best ham. “I’m coming to Bangkok this fall, I think” he said, “would you show me around, and can we cook?”
“Yes, of course.”
And if all goes right, sometime next year, long after this article is published, as diners overlook the vineyards outside of Bilbao, a waft of kaffir lime rind might slither across a white tablecloth, like a jungle vine. Here in Bangkok, a slice of raw fish might find itself perched upon a strawberry. And if we both do it right, people won’t call it fusion as they eat. They’ll nod their heads, as if it always was.