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Sorry, Wolfgang, Fusion Foods Have Been With Us for Centuries

The banh mi, ramen and other foods considered national dishes that actually have cross-cultural beginnings

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Banh mi sandwich

Do you know the colonial history behind this typically Vietnamese sandwich? Photo by Flickr user Ernesto Andrade.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Korean taco – nothing sinister about the combination of kimchi and hot sauce, nothing terribly iconoclastic about bulgogi wrapped in billowy tortillas. If anything, the Korean taco represents a creative moment in foodie culture, the blending of two seemingly disparate taste profiles into a surprisingly tasty – and palatally coherent – meal. It’s the dish-du-moment of the fusion food trend, the chic movement sometimes credited to Wolfgang Puck that gave us things such as the buffalo chicken spring roll and BBQ nachos. But to call the Korean taco – or the fusion food movement – something new would be rewriting history. “Fusion food,” the blending of culinary worlds to create new, hybrid dishes, has been around since the beginning of trade; so vast is its history that it’s almost impossible to discern the “original” iteration of fusion food. The most famous example, however, so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to connect origin to culture, is the noodle: spaghetti wouldn’t exist if the Chinese hadn’t perfected the method first.

“It’s really hard to invent new dishes, and even harder to invent new techniques,” Rachel Laudan, food historian and author of Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, explains. “Almost all foods are fusion dishes.” But there’s a difference between food we easily recognize as fusion and food whose blended past remains hidden to the casual observer. Dishes often thought of as extremely nationalized, like ramen in Japan or curry in India, often really have origins in the fusion of cuisines that met during colonial expansion and migration.

“When cultures mix, fusion is inevitable,” adds Corrine Trang, author of Food Lovers Vietnamese: A Culinary Journey of Discovery. “ wanted to eat the foods they were used to eating.” But as the hold of imperialism started to fall in the 19th and 20th centuries, a unique idea of nationalism began to take its place. As fledgling provinces struggled to prove their national might on an international scale, countries often adopted a national dish much like they adopted a flag or national anthem. Generally, dishes that were adopted as representations of a country’s “national” culture truly represented an area’s culturally diverse history. Below, we’ve compiled a list of foods whose origins exemplify the blending of cultures into a classically “fusion” dish.

Bánh mì: A typical Vietnamese street food, the bánh mì (specifically, the bánh mì thit) combines notes crunchy, salty and spicy to the delight of sandwich lovers everywhere. But this typical Vietnamese sandwich represents a prime example of fusion food. A traditional bánh mì is made up of meat (often pâté), pickled vegetables, chilies and cilantro, served on a baguette. The influence of French colonialism is clear: from the pâté to the mayonnaise, held together by the crucial French baguette, the typically Vietnamese sandwich speaks of Vietnam’s colonial past. Which is not to say that it doesn’t hold a place in Vietnam’s culinary present. “As long as there is demand you’ll always have the product. Basic business practice. Why would you take something off the market, if it sells well?” Tang asks, explaining why this vestige of colonialism enjoys such modern success. “Bánh mì is convenient and delicious. It’s their version of fast food.”

Jamaican patty: One of the most popular Jamaican foods, the patty is similar in idea to an empanada (a dish which also has cross-cultural origins): pastry encases a meaty filling animated with herbs and spices indigenous to Jamaican cuisine. But the snack “essential to Jamaican life” isn’t one hundred percent Jamaican; instead, it’s a fusion product of colonialism and migration, combining the English turnover with East Indian spices, African heat (from cayenne pepper) and the Jamaican Scotch Bonnet pepper. So while the patty might be giving the Chinese noodle a run for its money in terms of late-night street food, its complex culinary history is much less rough-and-tumble.

Vindaloo: Curry vindaloo is an omnipresent staple in any Indian restaurant’s repertoire, but this spicy stew comes from the blending of Portuguese and Goan cuisine. Goa, India’s smallest state, was under Portuguese rule for 450 years, during which time the European colonists influenced everything from architecture to cuisine, including the popular spicy stew known as vindalho (the dropped ‘h’ is merely an Anglicized spelling of the dish.) The name itself is a derivative of the Portuguese vinho (wine vinegar) and ahlo (garlic), two ingredients that give the curry its unique taste. The dish is a replication of the traditional Portuguese stew Carne de Vinha d’Alhos, which was traditionally a water-based stew. In Goa, the Portuguese revamped their traditional dish to include the chilies of the region, and today, curry vindaloo is known as one of the spicier curry dishes available. And this trend isn’t singular to vindaloo, as Laudan points out “curry, as we know it, also has largely British origins.”

Ramen: Nothing says “college student” quite like the fluorescent-orange broth of instant ramen noodles. The real dish, however, remains a Japanese culinary mainstay – and a dish that claims roots in Japan’s imperialist history. In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Japan won a series of power struggles with China, allowing the island-nation to claim various Chinese territories as their own (including Tawian and former-Chinese holdings in Korea). But land wasn’t the only way the Japanese chose to exert their imperial might over their longtime rivals. They also took their traditional Chinese noodle – saltier, chewier and more yellow due to the technique of adding alkali to salty water during the cooking process- and created a dish known as Shina soba, literally “Chinese noodle.” The name for the dish gradually tempered with time (Shina is a particularly pejorative way to describe something as Chinese) and came to be known as ramen, but its imperial history remains. As food historian Katarzyna Joanna Cwiertka writes in Modern Japanese Cuisine: Food, Power and National Identity, “by physically interacting with China through the ingestion of Chinese food and drink, the Japanese masses were brought closer to the idea of empire.”

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