I know “The Graying of America” sounds like a PBS documentary. Indeed, we are aging (especially the population of Baby Boomers) at a rapid pace, partly due to technological advances in medicine, partly due to saying “No” to super-sizing meals, with some credit to airbags and enforced speed limits. Personally I haven’t experienced any “graying” — I simply went from hirsute to alopecia in a snap…
What I’m metaphorically referring to is the blending of America from distinct, individual ethnicities to a harmonious blending of the cultures. Okay, maybe we have a way to go before it’s harmonious — at times it seems more like an Anthony Braxton composition — but we are slowly fusing once-distinct identities where one plus one actually equals three.
Growing up in the 50th, the blending of cultures wasn’t something that was special. You actually took it for granted. Many of the original immigrants who came from Asia for contracted plantation labor soon learned that America wasn’t made of gold like they were led to believe. Realizing that they wouldn’t be returning to the Motherland with bags of gold, they made the best of a trying situation and blended into their new environment.
Some groups realized early on that Hawai‘i was their new home, and some intermarried with the Hawaiian population. Other groups still hoped to return to the Motherland and married within the culture. However, as time passed, intermarriages became more commonplace; so much so that it’s common to find someone in Hawai‘i of Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese descent with some Irish, English and German with a touch of Native American.
And though these contracted laborers from Japan, China and the Philippines along with native Hawaiians were usually segregated into ethnic plantation camps, they toiled in the fields together and frequently ate their workday meals together. And discovered the culinary delights that other cultures indulged in. The beginnings of the mixed plate, plate lunch.
To blend or not to blend
I’ll be the first to admit that not all dishes need to be an amalgam of the flavors of five different cultures or even of just two different cultures. Some foods are perfect as they are — like the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. All you need is perfectly toasted bread, ripe tomatoes, fresh lettuce, bacon cooked just right, along with mayonnaise and salt. Nothing else. No need to flavor the mayonnaise with Asian spices. Or substitute Italian pancetta for the bacon. Or use fancy mesclun greens or ethnic flavored slaws for the lettuce. Leave perfection alone — like with a perfectly smoked beef brisket. It doesn’t need a fancy Asian or Middle-Eastern or European flavored dry rub. Just salt and black pepper, maybe a touch of onion and garlic powder. And never mind fancy nouveau barbecue sauces to slather on the finished meat. Great slow-smoked meats don’t really need any sauce at all.
Then again, though I love the traditional pizza margherita from Italy with its simple flavors of fresh tomatoes, fresh basil and buffalo mozzarella, I’ve also been known to indulge in a slice of Americanized meat and topping-laden pizza. I’ve likewise indulged in that crazy Austrian’s (Wolfgang Puck) wood-burning oven pizza topped with Scandinavian (gravlax) and Jewish New York deli (cream cheese, capers and red onions) ingredients. I still enjoy California Pizza Kitchen’s Thai chicken, Greek and carne asada pizzas. I might even try their Italian version of pizza with basil pesto, sun dried tomatoes and pine nuts. Wait a minute — pizza is Italian. I guess pizza has gone full circle.
And speaking of pesto, that perfect marriage of fresh basil, toasted pine nuts, fresh garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and extra virgin olive oil (and salt and pepper) that’s great as a pasta sauce or spread. Well, I’ve created my own fusion blends. I substitute fresh cilantro for the fresh basil and substitute macadamia nuts for the pine nuts for a kinda-sorta Asian-Hawaiian pesto. Taking a page from classic Chinese cuisine, I also make a green onion and ginger pesto (took the idea from cold ginger chicken) that’s great tossed in a pasta salad. It’s also great for stir frying when the recipe calls for fresh ginger.
It may be as simple as a mixed plate, plate lunch in Hawai‘i that contains chicken katsu and teriyaki meat (Japanese) next to kalbi and kim chee (Korean) alongside chow fun and ginger chicken (Chinese) and pork adobo and pancit (Filipino) with lau lau and kalua pig (Hawaiian). Or you may think you’re attending a traditional Hawaiian luau with traditional foods. But look again. The salted butterfish in the lau lau probably has some Asian roots. The chicken long rice probably does too. And I’m pretty sure the early Hawaiians didn’t have the tomatoes, round and green onions, or salted salmon for the lomi lomi salmon, so other cultures had a hand in that dish.
On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find Chef Mavro and Roy Yamaguchi with their own versions of fusion or Hawaiian regional cuisine. One of my favorite dishes from Chef Mavro features whole fish baked in a salt crust (French) served with a tomato and ogo (Gracilaria seaweed) beurre blanc (Hawaiian-French). Of course Roy Yamaguchi must be doing something right with his version of Asian fusion cuisine since he can’t even count all of his restaurants on his fingers and toes (more than 30 just in the States).
And in the middle you’ll find delicious smatterings of fusion cuisine here and there. Raymond Siu of Pah-Ke’s Chinese Restaurant offers a Chinese chicken salad that uses a miso-peanut butter based dressing in place of the usual mayonnaise-based dressing — I guess that would make it Chinese-Japanese-Hawaiian fusion cuisine. But it is the best chicken salad I’ve had from a Chinese restaurant.
Or take Gyotaku Restaurant’s Nattochos, their delicious blend of Mexican (the nacho concept) and Japanese (the ingredients). Starting with a base of crispy won ton chips in place of tortilla chips, it’s then covered with a spicy ahi poke (Hawaiian), avocado, natto, yamaimo, nori, kaiware and goma (Japanese). I’m not a big natto fan but I love these nachos… err, nattochos. I also enjoy the Hawaiian take on nachos using taro chips covered in chopped kalua (smoke steamed, cooked in an earthen pit) pig, turkey or chicken and lomi lomi salmon, then drizzled with a Sriracha flavored mayonnaise. How’s that for fusion nachos?
And speaking of Mexican fusion cuisine, I hear a popular street food Stateside comes from those Korean taco carts and mobiles. I haven’t seen any in the 50th yet, though bulgogi and kochujang in a tortilla can’t be a bad thing, especially when piled high with banchan like namul and kim chee.
The future of fusion
Asian fusion cuisine is already on a steady progression with both Asian chefs fusing Western technique into their cuisine as well as Western chefs incorporating Asian ingredients likewise. I would like to see (and taste) more Middle Eastern and East Indian flavors fused with traditional Western cuisine. But wait! I don’t have to wait for a chef or restaurant to accomplish that. I have a spice rack and a stove with various pots and pans. Have ingredients, will cook!
Ingredients are just that, they don’t care whether marinated, cooked or flavored with basil and oregano, Thai chili and coconut milk or shoyu and yuzu. A blending of various flavors and ingredients never hurt anyone. The end product of fusing various ethnic flavors is just as harmonious. Now if only mankind could be the same.
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, Hawai‘i and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.