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FOR ALL THE LAUDATORY ATTENTION that chefs receive on book jackets and TV screens, cooking has never really been considered one of the creative arts. There's no Cuisinope or Culinichore among the muses. Even such past masters as Escoffier and James Beard won their well-deserved reputations not by inventing new recipes but by recognizing, revamping and perfecting traditional ones--Brillat-Savarin's celebrated declaration that the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star notwithstanding.

That's why what has come to be known as fusion cuisine has had such a hard time: it's as close to invention in the kitchen as we usually get.

But what is fusion? It's confusing. The usual definition is cooking that combines ingredients from dramatically dissimilar cuisines or cultures. Typically that means recipes in which Asian ingredients are used to shock French or American standards out of their complacency--glamorous lemongrass, galangal and mirin showing up where they're least expected, the kimonoed visiting professors at the dean's turkey dinner.

In fact, fusion has gone further, incorporating ingredients and methods from the Middle East, the Caribbean and Central and South America into menus that, when they're successful, begin to lose their national identity and become something like the diet for a culinary One World.

But there's a problem with this notion: it assumes the existence of a cuisine that hasn't been fused already. Take that weary emblem of Italian food, pasta with tomato sauce. Noodles, the story goes, were carried to Italy by Marco Polo on the backs of camels, and tomatoes, or "love apples," were shipped from the Americas. There are myriad other examples, all demonstrating that cuisines themselves are in as much flux as languages and the nations that claim them both.

Can a cuisine in flux fuse? A region would have to be impregnable--as China once was, or seemed to be--for its food to be constant enough to register the change that fusion represents.

No, what we mean when we talk about "fusion" is a particular historical circumstance having to do with late-20th-century chefs and their urge to create. Of course, most high-rent chefs offer the recipes on their menus as their own, but these dishes are usually variations (often wonderful variations) on standard themes--southwestern American, northern African, bistro French. It's not complicated: you sit down, open the menu and more or less know where you are--whether your protein will take the form of a slab or pieces; whether butter, olive oil or animal fat will smooth your way; whether the palate temperature will be Arctic cool or tropical hot; whether you'll be paying for food originally intended for the poor, the rich or the in-between.

Yet some chefs have wished to stretch their range. Aside from a few unsung oddities, the first inkling I recall of what we now call fusion came in the late Seventies in New York, Tokyo and Paris. Japanese chefs trained in France began to flirt with recipe intermarriage: tempura hollandaise! But the chef who solidified the concept of fusion, if not the term, is better known for his duck-sausage and smoked-salmon-and-caviar ("Jewish") pizzas. In 1981, Wolfgang Puck, an Austrian who had honed his cooking skills in France, created a masterpiece fusion restaurant, Spago, by combining chefs, not ingredients, in the open kitchen: Mark Peel, Kazuto Matsusaka, Nancy Silverton and, for pizzas, Ed LaDou.

Look at Spago's early fusion dishes: pizza with artichokes, shiitakes, leeks, eggplants and sage; roasted duck with pears and ginger; marinated tuna with avocado, kaiware (daikon sprouts) and sweet onions; sweetbreads sautéed crisp with mustard greens and smoked pancetta. One can hardly predict where the separating semicolons should go.

Puck was probably the first culinary postmodernist, and his earliest California restaurants--Spago in Los Angeles and Chinois on Main in Santa Monica--were the first to acknowledge that the world's appetites have become nomadic, touristic, ready to throw any and all ingredients into a carry-on and take off.

But as every true cook knows, you can't toss just anything into a wok and serve it forth. The geographic identity of some dishes may be up for grabs, but eaters accustomed to certain tastes and textures aren't going to relinquish their prejudices completely. Pre-fusion expectations of sequence, balance and contrast still apply, and restaurant-goers are loath to embrace food that's radically novel. Fusion at its most successful fuses the cross-cultural with the reassuring.

When Gray Kunz was at Lespinasse in New York City, he took one successful route to fusion by thinking of flavor ingredients from far-flung climes--spices, vinegars, herbs--as "essences" rather than punctuation and combining them with a fresh yet sober hand. The route that Tetsuya Wakuda (a sampling of whose extraordinary recipes follow) has taken at his Sydney restaurant, Tetsuya's, is superficially more traditional, but his subtle and quietly surprising dishes belong to the best of fusion cuisine.

Fusion may have been an inevitable development in tourist-friendly Australia, a nation colonized by the English but also home to a large and various Asian population. Many Tetsuya recipes use a mixture of recognizably Asian ingredients to "relocate" a recognizably Western staple, as in his roasted beef ribs softened with the sweet pungency of a sake marinade and cooked with ground coriander, turmeric, ginger and curry. The resulting dish completely loses its compass locations: it "eats" neither Western nor Eastern but simply contemporary. A more challenging innovation is the chef's use of grilled fillets of veal as a neutral Euro-base for the slight shock of a glaze of wasabi-and-sea-urchin-roe butter, but the result is the same: a secure dish that's a citizen of an integrated new world.

Buckwheat noodles and squid sautéed in olive oil and chicken stock flavored with mirin, oyster sauce, ginger and garlic. Fried sardines with bacon and shiso accompanied by endive and apple salad. See the pattern? The methods and many of the ingredients are European, but major Asian flavor notes, mostly Japanese, enrich and transform the whole into something more than the sum of its parts, either through harmony (salty plus sweet, for instance) or through cultural contrast.

Fusion works not only by artfully combining flavors but also by reminding the eater of the gap that's being breached. When the look and taste of such ingredients as nori become so familiar that they cease to challenge the Western palate--cease to seem "foreign"--then chefs may feel the urge to look elsewhere in order to invent. And fusion, having succeeded so well, will disappear.

JEFF WEINSTEIN is the fine arts editor and a food columnist at The Philadelphia Enquirer and author of Learning to Eat (Sun & Moon Press).

Published September 1998
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