Although I am always improvising and “winging it” when it comes to cooking, I don’t much like the idea of “fusion food.”
Part of the reason I am not into culinary fusions is because I have had a lot of dishes that should have been called “confusion food.” Stuff that just seemed to be thrown together without any sense of cultural awareness or understanding because it looked or sounded good.
Looking good is not the same thing as tasting good, and for my money I’d rather eat a dish of something that looked like it came out of a retching dog and tasted just this side of heaven than a cunningly constructed tower of colorful comestibles endowed with jarring flavors that do not go together well.
This could be taken as a simple prejudice against fusion cuisine, but that is not the case.
For one thing, I think that a case could be made that some national cuisines are fusions between the food products and cooking techniques of more than one culture that have come together harmoniously. Northern Indian cookery, Northern Mexican cookery and the cuisine of Thailand are three examples of very complex culinary traditions that gain a great deal of vivacity from the fact that these countries are home to more than one cultural or ethnic group.
For example, Northern Indian foods still reflect the tastes of the Persian Mogul emperors with their emphasis on rich dairy based sauces thickened and further enriched with ground nuts, the pairing of savory with sweet in the form of meats cooked with dried fruits such as golden raisins, and the making of biryani, a rice and meat dish that is very like a Persian pillau. (They have pillau as well, in Northern India.) Thailand, on the other hand, has been a culinary crossroads for centuries, and its many cuisines reflect this background in a perfect marriage of Chinese wok cookery, the Indian emphasis on spices and curries, and the native abundance of seafood, herbs, fruits and vegetables.
In order to make a good fusion between two cuisines, one should take care to understand both cuisines and their cultural backgrounds. In this way, the cook can find the commonalities between the cooking traditions, and use those similarities to bind the fusion dish into a coherent, flavorful and realistic representation of food that is rooted in something other than a chef’s ego. It helps give the dish depth and context that a lot of fusion foods seem to lack. Innovation is always up to the moment, but it should taste as if it has centuries of tradition behind it.
The other night, I had a chunk of dry aged blade beef chuck that I wanted use to make Sichuan Beef with Turnips–a traditional braised dish that features the fire of broad-bean chile paste and ginger married to the smoky tang of black cardamom and the icy tingle of Sichuan peppercorn.
However, I noticed that I didn’t really have enough broad bean paste and I did have a bunch of leeks that were going to wither away into a disreputable heap of mushy leaves if I didn’t use them. I also lacked Chinese turnips, which are my favorites to use in the dish, but I had picked up at the farmer’s market a bunch of lovely Japanese turnips and gorgeous carrots.
I looked at the mostly full bottle of Shao Hsing wine and shrugged my shoulders. I decided to use the leeks, carrots and turnips, and what spices and bean pastes I had, and using French braising techniques, create a stew that had the basic flavors of the Sichuanese original, but tweaked with the sweetness of browned leeks and fresh carrots.
I am glad I made that decision; it turned out to be the right one. The stew turned out to be fabulous, and it had just the right blend of the richness of a French beef braised in wine and the tingling heat of a Sichuan dish meant to cool the body by causing the diner to sweat.
I had ready access to very fresh black cardamom, called cao guo by the Chinese. The large, somewhat shaggy looking pods are strongly scented, and have a smoky, almost medicinal tang to them. They are used in the cookery of Northern India, but in very sparing amounts. The only Chinese recipes I have ever seen which use them are long-cooked braised or stewed dishes, and then they are most often used in Sichuanese cooking. Here, they are also used in sparing amounts, usually only one or two per large pot of food.
Like many other ingredients in Chinese cookery, the cao guo is considered to have medicinal properties. It is considered to be a warming food, which is good for the spleen.
I decided that since it was a large piece of beef, I would use two black cardamom pods, and instead of the Sichuan peppercorn, I would use a mixture of black and white pepper. I left out the usual star anise that creates a background sweetness for the traditional stew, and instead, browned leeks that I had cut diagonally into slices that the Chinese call “horse-ear slices,” and browned them in a bit of canola oil.
Instead of blanching the beef as is done in the traditional Chinese fashion, I dusted it with flour and ground white and black pepper, and browned it along with the leeks, then added diagonally sliced chilies and thinly sliced garlic and ginger.
While I left the beef to form a nice brown crust, the mingled scents of the aromatics wafted through the kitchen in a cloud of wraith-like steam, which brought my four-footed helpers at a gallop. They danced under my feet in waves, purring and rubbing, forcing me to dodge them and nudge them out of the way as I dug around in the refrigerator for the broad bean chile paste.
I came up with a lonely jar with about two tablespoons huddled listlessly in the bottom; the recipe usually calls for four or five tablespoons.
If it was just heat that was contributed by the paste, I wouldn’t worry about it, but the fermented beans add a great deal of depth to the braising liquid. They are full of the components that create the flavor known to the Japanese as “umami:” a savory, meaty, dark flavor that is particularly luscious in a stew.
So, I dug out some plain ground bean paste which is made from fermented soybeans, and used a couple of tablespoons of that as well as wine and beef broth to deglaze the brown crust that had formed at the bottom of the pot.
Chinese black mushrooms, which are nothing but dried shiitake mushrooms, also are packed with “umami,” so I added those to the stew. And, of course, I used the soaking liquid–in this case, more wine–in order to maximize the musky-woodsy flavor of the mushrooms.
All of these ingredients simmered together for a couple of hours before I peeled, cut and added the carrots and turnips.
The Japanese turnips were so crisp and juicy that I had a hard time not gobbling them down raw myself while I was peeling them. The snow-white globes amazingly sweet with just a hint of icy bite that gave them a shivery-wintery quality that went perfectly with the carrots more mundane, earthy-autumnal sweetness.
The marriage between Chinese flavors and French technique and ingredients worked well, despite my usual misgivings about culinary fusions. At least there is precedent; both Ming Tsai and Susanna Foo deftly balance their Chinese culinary heritage with French techniques and ingredients, resulting in food that somehow manages to be both exquisitely light yet full-bodied and deep.
Led by their stellar example, and by the reactions of both Zak and Morganna, I will continue mine the rich veins of the two most influential pillars of cuisine in the world–Chinese and French culinary arts, and report back as the work continues. I don’t know what will come of my experimentations, but they are bound to be better than the flirtatious attempt at Thai tacos I made many years ago on the premise that Mexican and Thai food both featured garlic, cilantro, lime and chile, and both cuisines had a common love of street foods and snacks.
That premise wasn’t enough to support a successful fusion, to say the least. In fact, I think it was one of the worst meals I have ever made. I am comforted by the fact that it was years ago, however, when I was younger, more foolish. and possesed of judgement impaired by a bit more beer than was strictly necessary for kitchen duty.
This Chinese/French invention, though it was forced by necessity, is at least informed by extensive study and understanding of both cuisines and traditions, and as such, will hopefully prove to be a more fruitful pursuit.
3 large leeks, white and light green parts sliced thinly on the diagonal
5 tablespoons canola oil
3 pound beef chuck roast
3 tablespoons flour
freshly ground black and white pepper to taste
2 fresh ripe jalapenos thinly sliced diagonally
3 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 1/2″ chunk fresh ginger, peeled, thinly sliced
2 black cardamom pods
1 cup Shao Hsing wine or dry sherry
2 tablespoons chile broad bean paste
2 tablespoons fermented ground bean paste
1 teaspoon honey
1 quart beef stock or broth
6 Chinese black mushrooms, soaked in 1/2 cup Shao Hsing wine and 1/2 cup hot water
5 medium carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally 1/4″ thick
3 large sweet turnips, peeled and cut into 3/4″ dice
fresh cilantro for garnish
Rinse leek slices very well: put them in a large bowl, and soak in a lot of cold water to cover. Swish leeks around, then lift out and put in colander. Pour water out, rinse bowl, put leeks back in, cover with water, repeat steps at least three times. (Do not pour the water out over the leeks and drain them directly in the colander. This would just let the grit and dirt settle back on the leeks–which is quite counterproductive.)
Drain the leeks until completely dry on paper towels.
Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pot until it is nearly smoking. Add leeks, and allow to begin browning.
Season beef on both sides with liberal amounts of freshly ground white and black pepper, then dust well with flour. Put into pot on top of leeks, and allow to brown until a nice crust is formed. Turn beef over, and sprinkle the chile, garlic, ginger and cardamom over and around it. Brown beef on all sides, then remove to a plate and set aside.
Deglaze pan with wine, scraping up all browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Add bean pastes and beef stock or broth and put beef back into the pot.
Remove mushrooms from soaking liquid, and squeeze out excess water. Carefully cut off and discard stems, and cut each mushroom into quarters. Add mushrooms to pot, and carefully add all but the last little bit of the soaking liquid–that will have any bits of grit or dirt from the mushrooms in it.
Cover pot, bring to a boil, turn down heat and allow to simmer until beef is nearly fork tender. (By nearly fork tender I mean, a meat fork will go easily into the meat, but when you lift it, the meat will not slide off easily.)
Add vegeables, and remove lid, to allow liquid to reduce. Cook until meat is fully fork tender–a fork will insert easily, and then, when lifted, will slide right out of the meat. At this point, the carrots should be just tender and the turnips meltingly soft and sweet without being mushy.
By this point, the leeks will have broken down and the braising liquid will have reduced considerably; however, if you like you may add roux, or a cornstarch or flour slurry in order to thicken the juices further.
With meat fork, break up meat into serving sized chunks. Serve over steamed rice or with plain steamed buns, and garnish with cilantro, if you have it. (I think you can see from the photograph that I was out of cilantro.)
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