You Don’t Have to Invent “Fusion” Cuisine

Apr 07, 2011

By Joan Lang

Over the years the idea of fusion food has sometimes gotten a bad rep—remember all the jokes about “con-fusion”?—but the news that Houston’s co-founder Vic Branstetter is planning to develop a South African restaurant concept is a reminder that cross-cultural cuisine has a long and logical history in the world.

Take, for example, Vietnam, whose cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Two of its most iconic and well-received foods, phở noodle soup and banh mi sandwiches—have roots in French colonialism. The French taught the Vietnamese to make both crusty bread and forcemeat mixtures like pate, both of which figure prominently in the banh mi sandwich; in fact, the word banh loosely translates as “bread” or “cake.” The existence in the sandwich of mayonnaise is also a clue to its origin, probably as a picnic food in the French countryside.

As for phở, the name may be a corruption of the French word feu, pronounced like the famous pot au feu (“pot on the fire”), which also owes its flavor to the step of browning the onions aggressively in the pot before continuing to build the broth. The abundant use of fresh herbs in both pho and the banh mi—indeed, in much of Vietnamese cuisine—is also a legacy of its French heritage.

Ever wonder about the origin of tiradito, the signature Peruvian appetizer of raw fish garnished with chile, ginger and lime? Again, think of immigration. Millions of Italian immigrants came to Latin America when the area gained independence in the 1810s–1820s, while the Japanese began arriving in the late 1800s to seek better lives for themselves.

Whether tiradito was a homesick attempt to recreate crudo, carpaccio or sashimi is the subject of much debate, but it seems certain that tiradito came about as much “fusion” foods do: new arrivals turning their beloved techniques and flavors to the ingredients of their new homes. (The Italians, by the way, are also said to have invented the tango.)


Which brings us back to the subject of 10 Degrees South and its South African menu . Like many places that have been shaped by Colonialism, South Africa also reflects its history of arrivals by Portuguese, French, Dutch, and German settlers, as well as Indians and Malaysians—themselves the product of an intensely polyglot culture. No wonder that South African food is often called the “rainbow cuisine.” Bobotie, a kind of curry, is of Malaysian descent; sosaties are beef skewers that owe their origin to satays. Boerewors sausage is based on a traditional Dutch recipe. And South Africa’s famous peri-peri sauce is derived from the piri piri chile beloved by the Portuguese. Mr. Branstetter may be on to something.