October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated Fusion cooking may currently be the food fad everyone most loves to hate, but there’s reason for this. One fusion chef described himself as being “a master of French, Mediterranean, Japanese, Chinese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Portuguese, and Californian cuisines,” which statement would surely have astounded the likes of Ferdinand Point or Auguste Escoffier, who labored for decades to master French cooking and at the end of their long careers were still learning. But according to the Web site for one fusion restaurant in Oregon, “American culinary arts have broken down the stagnant barriers of traditional cheffing and gastronomic definitions, while creating a new standard we have come to know and love as fusion cuisine.”
And then these beloved artists give us Calamari Steak With Orange Cascabel Chile Cream Sauce over Sun-dried Tomato and Artichoke Ravioli tossed with Spinach, Eggplant, and Artichoke Hearts (I’m not making this up), followed by Warm Chocolate Ganache With Salty Caramel Ice Cream and Szechuan Peppercorn Foam (not making this one up either). Pass the Spaghetti and meatballs, please.
Of course, the irony of the whole situation is that spaghetti and meatballs is fusion cooking too. New World tomatoes traveled to the Old World and were incorporated into Italian cooking in the 150Os as an inexpensive and tasty pasta sauce, which then came back with Italian immigrants to the New World to become a staple of ItalianAmerican cooking in the 1920s. Hot dogs are fusion (Old World sausage, New World bun), as are hamburgers, chili con carne, pancakes, waffles, jambalaya, gumbo, California-roll sushi, chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream, and pumpkin pie, and on and on and on.
Fusion cooking has always been with us; fusion cooking will always be with us. As long as humans travel, move, interact, communicate, discover, and change, our food will change as well. With the advent of the Internet and a true global economy, the pace of that change will only accelerate. But let’s try to make that change as easy as possible for one another.
Underrated Puerto Rican cuisine? Never tasted the delights of asopao or mofongo or feasted on pernil? It’s no wonder. Puerto Rican food is one of the great unknowns of the American culinary scene. Unless you’re from the island yourself or have Puerto Rican friends who are willing to feed you, you’ve got almost no chance of even trying this delicious cuisine. In New York City, for example, with at least 800,000 Puerto Ricans—the highest concentration in the continental United States—there are just two restaurants listed in the latest Zagat guide. That’s right, two. In fact, according to
This is a great puzzlement to anyone who has tasted Puerto Rican cooking. As one Web site plaintively asks, “Why isn’t Puerto Rican food internationally known? It is among the most flavorful foods in the world!”
Too true. Take asopao, a delicious gumbolike soup/stew, for example. While most Americans might be familiar with French bouillabaisse, asopao, one of the most popular and most traditional dishes of our own territory, is almost unknown. Why? Or how about pernil, Puerto Rican-style roast pork? In this dish the cook seasons the meat with an adobo made from garlic, oregano, peppercorns, salt, and various secret spices, then marinates the whole thing in the juice of sour wild oranges for a day or two. The result is a supernally delicious contrast between the pernil’s crisp, meaty exterior and its succulent, highly flavored interior. Ever had pernil? Unlikely. What about arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), subtly flavored with a sofrito of garlic, onions, cilantro, sweet peppers, and annatto or tomato cooked together in oil? Soulsatisfying but unknown. And how about coquito, commonly called Puerto Rican eggnog? Made with coconut milk, eggs, evaporated milk, cinnamon, water, and lots of rum, coquito is simple to make, festive, and exquisitely lethal. Unknown, again.
Puerto Rican cuisine is a sensuous blend of indigenous TainoArawak, Spanish, West African, and mainland American ingredients and techniques, intensely seasoned yet never too spicy. And, oh, it is good.