WTF Fusion?

Sesame Corn Toast in Mumbai

Fusion is such an odd word. It implies a mutual contribution to a final product, almost an Hegelian synthesis. In foodie terms, it’s been going on for ever. Even when you get it all involved with invasion and post-colonial history and politics, in food there’s rarely been an outright victor. Just like language, music and theatre, even if it takes a few hundred years, traditions merge and develop themselves.

“English” food is based on products (animal, vegetable and mineral) imported by waves of invaders / immigrants, along with techniques and processes for preparing them. Even just a simple thing like the fork changes how you do things – now you don’t eat with a dagger, a bit of bread and your fingers, so you can play with the textures and quantities of sauce, shapes and cuts of meat, salads. And the fork came from the French aristocracy, who had it off the Italians courtesy of marrying the Medicis. Some dishes are excellent because of regional quality of the central ingredient, local economies and cooking methods, and ideas about combinations. So when we have great slightly fatty meat, are prepared to cook a huge piece of it in one go, cook over open fires or have big domestic ovens, we evolve the Great British Roast. And we’re far enough north to have root veg to go with it and fill out the tummies of old folk and children, and tart berries to make sauces and jellies to smarten it up for the toffs. Whereas if you have lean meat, no tradition of domestic ovens, not a lot of cooking fuel, grow grains and dry sharp herbs like rosemary and are closer to the source of the Spice Route, you evolve quick cooking dishes like little grilled things on skewers, or complex stews, tagines or pilaffs you can cook in one pot by leaving them all day in the bottom of the village bread oven.

If you read old cookery books, restaurant menus, even novels, you can see that British food for centuries revelled in new produce from all over the Empire (and beyond), new tools and ideas. The Romans had no ideas about quarantine ecology, and brought herbs, vegetables, domestic and game animals that we now think of as typically English. Pheasants, celery, asparagus, bay, mint … And it went on from there. Normans, returning Crusaders, nabobs bringing home chutneys and curry powders, Spanish holiday makers from the 70s wanting paella and sangria.

We got stuck for a bit back there in the 20th century. The urbanisation of the 19th century wasn’t supported by an agriculture or food distribution industry to provide decent raw ingredients into cities, domestic cooks were de-skilled, or just didn’t have the time. Cooking for a smaller family unit in a terraced back-to-back house was completely different to cooking for a whole farmful. People started to rely on pre-made or processed foods – sausages, small chops, pies. Two wars with shortages and rationing, with an economic depression between them, left a mark.

Especially the Second World War and the drop in imported food – not just the things everyone thinks of, like bananas and oranges, but wheat, onions, garlic, olive oil. The Ministry of Food actively encouraged people to use potatoes or oats where they would have used flour, dripping for sauteeing instead of oil, vinegar for citrus. No wonder when Elizabeth David started writing about aubergines oozing oil and garlic it became a kind of soft porn.

So ever since rationing finally ended in the mid-50s, and we gradually re-established supply lines, English Fusion food has almost had to start again. There were traces still – dried fruit stuffings with meats, the ginger and marzipan and luxury fruits for the Christmas holidays, Worcestershire sauce and chutneys. But domestic use of garlic was rare, for example, and olive oil was bought from a chemist, having been filtered until it had no aroma or colour. I remember when the higher end supermarkets started selling fresh ginger, garlic and chillies, in the late 70s.

The English relationship with Indian food has always been odd. The word “curry” has meant several things over the years, with A Forme of Cury being the title of one of the first English cookbooks from the late 14th century. Cury then just meant cooked food, but it was rich with spices and sauces – some of the recipes for stews flavoured with ginger and saffron and thickened with blanched almonds could easily be served with rice as a modern korma – certainly someone raised on “meat and two veg” wouldn’t recognise it as English food. There are arguments going on all over the internet about where the word “curry” came from as meaning Indian food, most usually a sauced spiced dish. Kari is a Tamil word, but what it means now and what it meant back in the 17th century are open to debate – soup, grilled meat, blackened food (as the term is used for Cajun spiced meat). a dish made specifically of lamb or mutton, a spiced sauce … and there’s also Karai which is a pot shaped a bit like a wok and used to cook stews, that’s a more northern Indian tool.

The important thing about it is that it’s never been been perceived as part of regular “English” cuisine. It’s not a Fusion so much as a parellel world. There aren’t “English” dishes that incorporate Indian flavours – even if you’re adding curry powder to your baked beans on toast, you are making it curry-flavoured, not producing something traditionally British. And if you’re going out for a meal, chances are high you’ll go for an Indian or a Chinese – and you’ll call it that even if your local Indian restaurant has been on your High Street for nearly 50 years. Or you’ll go for a Curry, even when you know you’re going to have tandoori and a naan.You’re unlikely to serve spinach methi or tarka dhal as a side with your Sunday roast, or have chilli scrambled eggs with your black pudding.

Historically, there are two fusions between British and Indian food.

The first was Anglo-Indian food, which was the attempts of Indian (or Malay) cooks to prepare local food for English tastes and menu structures. Here’s where we get kedgeree with smoked fish, eggs and rice as a breakfast dish, from the original mixture of rice and dhal. Mulligatawny soup. And that bizarre thing called Country Captain, which is more well-known now in the Southern US as a mild chicken curry. Chutney in English is a thick cooked preserve using sugar and vinegar, spiced, and used for everything from sandwiches to a relish for cold meat and cheese – whereas a chatnai is a relish, whether it’s a freshly-ground herb / spice paste, coconut-based, or a lightly-pickled salad. The great pickles, chutneys, curry powder blends and bottled sauces come from the Anglo-Indian era, as military people and traders returned home to retire and wanted to bring a taste of India with them. There’s a w0nderful scene in Vanity Fair where Becky Sharp tries to eat a curry without her head exploding, and that’s about the time the first Indian restaurants opened in London. I’ve got a little book produced by the American Women’s Club of Bombay in the 1950s, which tells you how to cook some basic Indian dishes for Western palates, and how to use Indian ingredients to make familiar US treats. Lots of dessert dishes using mangoes, for example.

The greatest Indian / British fusion is the menu of a your bog-standard Indian restaurant in any small British town. Some things will be dependent on the regional cuisine the restaurant founder is familiar with – Bangladeshi is very common, with some Punjabi. But there are certain standard dishes that are particularly British in origin. The most well-known is Chicken Tikka Masala, supposedly created by an Indian chef in Glasgow, which is at its most basic some boneless spiced grilled chicken reheated in a mild creamy sauce. It’s become a British icon, one of our top ready-meals. You can get Chicken Tikka Lasagne from Iceland, a frozen meal-for-one for a quid, and if you ever wanted to explore the shallow end of the fusion pool, there’s where to start. Chicken Tikka crisps, dips, sandwiches, wraps, pot noodles. There are others – the onion bhaji is a classic restaurant starter. But bhajis are vegetable side dishes, not deep-fried things in batter, those are pakoras. And onion isn’t a typical pakora ingredient. Where that one sprang from is anyone’s guess. And only the British could put it in a sandwich, cold with gooseberry chutney. There are also rumours about the British origins of butter chicken, and now there’s the Glaswegian Chicken Chasni. That’s yet to make it south of the border as a standard dish, but it’s a magnificent chicken dish with a sauce made mainly from tomato ketchup and sweet mango chutney, with lemon and mint. I refuse to get started on the Balti discussion.

But these are NOT modern British dishes, in any way, shape or form. If I ate at the Benares in London, ran by Atul Kochhar, I would be sure I was eating Indian food, with a contemporary twist. The Press Club, where we ate the other night here in Melbourne, describes its cuisine as “modern Greek. It takes the best of centuries of Hellenic gastronomy and melds modern techniques, contemporary style and the finest ingredients.” yet to me it felt like modern Australian food, albeit with a Greek provenance.

There’s also a whole world out there of international junk fusion. In Bertha Brown’s bar / restaurant on Flinders Street last night we had an Athenian pizza with lamb, tzatziki and feta, and a Taj pizza with tandoori chicken, red onion and mango raita. You could have had one with Peking Duck on it (personally, for me that’s a fuse too far). Back home in Sheffield I get a constant stream of leaflets through the door advertising kebab houses that do doner pizza, or chinese takeaways that do curry sauce and chips. This is where the Chicken Tikka Lasagne comes in, the Breakfast Burrito, nachos where the tortilla chips are replaced with pork scratchings. In the UK the California Roll is seen as just another sushi format, but it’s just another classic car-crash. There’s a whole community on Live Journal dedicated to trashy food, and the stoners on there will mix anything they can find in their fridges at 3 a.m. and post photographs of it.

Although we’re in Australia, one of the current hot hot hot melting-pots for Fusion cuisine, the one that has fascinated me most so far on this trip was the Chinese food in Mumbai. Our hotel’s restaurant menu got a bit eclectic. There was an English breakfast (cooked eggs), an Indian breakfast (aloo paratha or puri and lassi), or a Continental breakfast (also known as toastbutterjam). For lunch and dinner there were Tandoori, Indian or Chinese menus. The Indian menu featured some “international” dishes (Chicken Tikka Masala was one).  Lots of vegetarian options, with fresh paneer cheese. Meat usually chicken or lamb.

Then there was the Chinese section. There’s an old immigrant Chinese community in India, mostly Cantonese and Hakka boat people. A cuisine has evolved in the same way the British Indian one has – if you were an Indian going out to eat a Chinese meal, what would you eat / not eat? and what could be developed that would retain the Chinese elements, yet appeal to you? This is a world that has a lot of vegetarians in it, and most of the meat eaters don’t eat beef or pork, so chicken, fish and prawns feature strongly. Noodles are foreign, and therefore exciting, so there are lots of Hakka dishes with noodles, prawn and egg. Tofu is a bit odd, why not use paneer? The strangest thing was that although you would think Indians would love spicy food, something about the mixture used in Szechuan food is determined to be “too hot, be careful”. So when I ordered Szechuan Paneer, I was warned several times. Was I sure? This little bowl has the Szechuan sauce, you’ll only need a little bit. I think it’s some combination of the dried red chillies and the smokiness, it hits a different part of your mouth to a fresh green chilli, and it doesn’t have the sourness of, say, a lime pickle, to counteract the oil. It was like going to an Indian restaurant and having them make sure you understood what you were getting if you ordered a vindaloo or a phall.

The Indian Chinese equivalent of the Chicken Tikka Masala is Manchurian sauce, which at it’s most basic is a vinegar, tomato and soy sauce mix thickened with cornflour. You can make it as you would start a typical Indian sauce, frying a garlic, ginger and chilli paste with some chopped onion. It goes over vegetable dumplings, deep-fried vegetable balls, or chicken, and fills the deep-seated Indian need for gravy. You can buy a ready-mix version if you want.

One delicious thing that we tried, which I really need to re-create at home, is the Sesame Corn Toasts in the picture. Just like Prawn Toasts, except the prawn paste was replaced with a thick sweet creamed corn, with the occasional crisp kernel, and sprinkled with chopped green onion. Served with a dipping bowl of the “very spicy, be careful” Chinese chilli oil.

What I need to do now is find somewhere nearer home that does Hakka / Indian food – apparently it is spreading with Indian migrant communities, just like the British took curry houses and afternoon tea, and the Americans took McDonalds. And not be so racist about Fusion. It doesn’t have to be “ethnic” meets “classic European”. Remember the Surinamese food I had in Amsterdam that merged Chinese and Indian migrant labour food with local South American. Remember the Hakka food in India. Look for the boundaries, the frontiers, and don’t forget to Boldly Go.


One Response to “WTF Fusion?”

  1. Ang Rosin Says:

    There’s an indian chinese restaurant (Masala Wok) in Liverpool city centre which sounded interesting until we went. Basically it was a buffet with some badly made chinese food and some better indian food. Most of the stuff was chicken or prawn, as you say, and the vegetarian stuff was a highlight. Really good chickpea cold sides, etc. But not worth it for the money.

    The North West and Wales are obsessed by chinese chip shop curry. I actually keep a block at home for emergency teas: I can knock up something passable in in about ten minutes. There’s an episode of Gavin and Stacey where he’s horrified that the are having Fish, Chips and curry sauce. When I first had a katsu curry I was immediately reminded of this sort of dish and when I looked it up I discovered that that itself is a fusion food.

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