Chicken tikka lasagne: Fusion or bizarre?
Brazilian sushi? Italian black pudding? Melding cuisines is tricky – and the results aren't always in the best possible taste, says John Walsh
Wednesday 28 January 2009
Mmmm, how delicious. Iceland, the rock-bottom-priced frozen-food chain so glamorously marketed on television by Ms Kerry Katona, has brought out a real treat for its army of heat-your-supper-in-the-oven consumers. It's chicken tikka lasagne. That's right: "Tender pieces of chicken breast in a tikka sauce layered between sheets of egg pasta, topped with a creamy sauce and Cheddar cheese."
Some diners will salivate at the thought of so many levels of tastiness combined in a single meal (and for only £1). Others will splutter all over their Armani trousers at the grotesqueness, the obscenity – no, the insult to human dignity that's implied by yoking Indian and Italian cuisines together in such a manner. Not to mention (my dear) serving lasagne with Cheddar on top.
Should we be shocked? It's happening all the time. In December, Jamie Oliver raised eyebrows when he recommended slathering the Christmas ham with jerk seasoning. Was he serious? Putting West Indian relish on traditional Gloucestershire pig? Isn't that like putting a steel band in the village choir loft?
As sometime restaurant critic of The Independent magazine, I've come across some bizarre mixed (indeed, forced) marriages – most recently at Sushinho in the King's Road, Chelsea, in south-west London, where the food combines Brazilian and Japanese influences. This cultural miscegenation takes its cue, apparently, from Sao Paolo, which has more Japanese inhabitants than anywhere outside Japan; and restaurants in the huge city's "Japan-town" suburb have brought an Oriental, sushi-like delicacy to reinventing Brazil's hearty, butch, meat-and-beans national dishes. It doesn't (as I discovered) always work. But it's not as bad as the pudding combination I tried in an Italian restaurant in November: chocolate mousse with (sweet) black pudding....
The phenomenon is called fusion cuisine and it's gradually taken over the foodie world. For 35 years, the concept of mating the ethnic foods of two different countries or regions has taken hold, from Sydney to Sausalito and from Shanghai to Shropshire. Some say it's an idea that tends to flourish only in countries (like Australia, New Zealand, America, Canada) which have yet to develop their own Great Cuisine. Others say it's the fault of ambitious young chefs who want to stray beyond the conventional preparation of dishes and seasonings, to make a name for themselves by combining scallops with wasabi.
Whatever else it's done, fusion cuisine has brought a dizzying spread of world ingredients to the modern gourmet's attention. A pungent gallimaufry of herbs, spices, marinades, pulses, salsas and eye-watering chilli sauces have been excitably combined with a dozen staples – basmati rice, jasmine rice, noodles, pasta, dumplings, potatoes, tofu, beansprouts – and jammed in, alongside a score of half-familiar vegetables: aubergines, haricots, lemongrass, coconuts and so on, in what is increasingly referred to as "the global store cupboard".
It sounds terrific. Often it is. Discovering a plate of crab and ginger ravioli, you marvel at the brilliance of the chef in putting them together. The crab's from Cromer, the ginger's from India and the ravioli from Italy, but the triple-fusion works fine. Often, it goes wrong. I'm a sucker for venison, simply cooked and attended by some creamy (Dauphinois for preference) potatoes. When a chef decides to give it a Japanese-Thai wallop of soy, honey and chilli sauce, the result is disastrous. And what kind of fusion was the black-pudding mousse au chocolat? French-Connemaran?
Fusion cuisine supposedly started in California in the 1970s when one Wolfgang Puck (a very fusion sort of name) opened the Chinois restaurant, combining French and Chinese cooking. Food historians attribute the rise of hybrid styles to the flood of immigrants from the Far East to Los Angeles and San Francisco, bringing new cooking styles, ingredients and flavours with them. Japanese-American abominations such as sushi with maple syrup were briefly in vogue; it took a whole decade for sophisticated diners to relish new flavours of lemongrass, soy sauce, shitake mushrooms, galangal and nam pla sauce in their new-wave suppers, and the idea of East-West fusion to take root.
The words "Pacific rim" took fusion cuisine to new levels of excitement (and acceptance) in the 1990s. It implied that, although they covered thousands of square miles of territory, the countries whose borders the Pacific touched, in a kind of cordon culinaire – Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan – shared a common foodie consanguinity, and their ingredients could be combined willy-nilly without fear of a taste collision. Peter Gordon, the Australian chef who started The Sugar Club in Notting Hill, was a tireless proselytiser of fusion food in the Nineties. Anything goes, he said, provided it all combines harmoniously – introducing, for example, green chillis and coriander into a chicken stew. He pointed out that supposedly "national" food is often foreign: "Italian, Spanish and French cuisines would not be what they are today, if explorers had not liked the strange foodstuffs they brought back from their voyages of discovery."
To criticise fusion as (old joke) "confusion cuisine" is to risk seeming a little fascistic about national purity and hostile to mixed-race energy. Raise an eyebrow about finding cumin and tamarind in an Irish stew, or apricots in the chilli con carne, and you may be branded an Aryan zealot. One judges cooking, of course, by its harmonious combination of tastes, not the national provenance of its ingredients. If you can happily blend elements of, say, Moroccan or Philippine cuisine into traditional British dishes like roast lamb, you will do your Sunday lunch companions a huge favour, without fatally compromising the dignity or virtue of the meat or the national amour propre.
A national cuisine takes centuries to establish, but it needs to keep changing, or we shall all die of boredom: so we must say two cheers at least to the cuisine that pulls strangers together into a factitious alliance. Mind you, that doesn't mean you can shove chicken tikka inside a flipping lasagne, or serve it with a cheesy topping. Whatever Kerry Katona says.
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