Friday, February 18, 2011

Justify Your Subscription – Some Fusion of the Old and Something Brand New

Everything is fusion these days. Fusion is hot stuff. Restaurants are all over the place mixing one cuisine with another.

But in the end, what isn't fusion? Thanks to exploration, colonization, and good old-fashioned travel, no country’s cuisine is truly unique to its own borders.

Let’s take Italian food for example. Many snobs/purists complain about the Americanization of Italian food and how most Italian-American food isn’t authentic. Well, I think Italian-American food is a cuisine in its own right when done well (in other words, NOT Olive Garden). Yet think of how the tomato is so integral to the cuisine of Italy, even so-called "authentic" Italian food. The tomato is native to the Americas and not Italy!

The January issue of Food & Wine had chef Jose Andres inquiring, “If Mexico hadn't shared its chiles with China, would we have spicy Chinese food?" Which made me think, about whether or not the Szechuan-inspired dishes at our local takeout simply a form of Mexican fusion?

I never knew that there were no hot peppers native to China. How did they migrate? Years ago I watched this fascinating documentary about the possibility that European explorers were not the first non-indigenous people to set foot in the Americas. There are legends that Chinese explorers made it to the west coast and went as far as Mexico on foot. This may explain the sudden advances over short period of time in the culture of the Aztecs and also the similarities in iconography. The snakes that adorn Mexican temples look a bit like Chinese dragons. Did the explorers take hot peppers back with them?

Today it is not uncommon for there to be Asian influences in Latino cuisines. My first foray into a local Peruvian restaurant introduced me to a half dozen fried rice dishes – a clear influence on Peru’s Chinese immigrant population. This topic was expanded on nicely by We Are Never Full recently. Even though it doesn’t seem as if it should sound out of place, how strange does a Chinese-Mexican fusion sound in such a context?

Andres answered that question with these Duck Confit Tacos. In this recipe, shredded duck confit is warmed in a mixture of stock, five-spice powder, and soy sauce. Then it is rolled in a tortilla and served with a sauce of roasted tomatoes, tomatillos, and hot peppers. The duck skin is rendered into cracklings via microwave, which is reminiscent of those duck skin shards you get with Peking Duck. When you consider that duck confit itself is a European technique (or so I think but correct me if I’m wrong and they do cook duck this way in Asian cuisines), this is truly a fusion of cuisine from 3 different worlds.

I wish I had a better photo. After doing all of this work, I was tired and didn’t feel like trotting out the light box to make a pretty photo. There was no good light in the house, so I had to use a flash. One of the hallmarks of a bad blog is bad photos and I really shouldn’t post photos like this anymore.

Regardless of the photo, these tacos were so delicious I couldn’t wait to eat the leftovers the next night.

Next up I decided to try a new cuisine altogether – Laotian!

Until the February issue of Food & Wine, I knew nothing of Laotian food. I would have assumed it was similar to Vietnamese and Thai since it is also in southeast Asia. I was right too. Many of the spices are the same, although the dishes presented in the magazine were new to me.

I tried Laap, which is very much like the ground meat salads you see in Thai cuisine. This is a spicy mix of turkey, hot pepper, lemongrass, and cilantro. I like it because it’s like a deconstructed turkey burger. You know how I always struggle to make turkey burgers more interesting.

This was very similar to Thai Yum. I made the mistake of forgetting the mint though. Although it is often served with rice, F&W suggests serving it in a lettuce leaf such as endive, or as I did, romaine. I lined my lettuce leaf with tomato slices both for color and to boost the nutrition a bit.

It was a tasty dinner and was certainly much lighter than duck confit and cracklings in a tortilla. It was a nice break from some of the really rich foods I have been cooking lately.

There are a couple of other Laotian dishes I want to try from this magazine, so watch for them.


bellini valli said...

This is similar to Larb in Thai cuisine as well. The world is definitely getting smaller everyday.

katiez said...

When we first moved here I discovered duck confit - had never heard of or seen it in the US. Now it appears to be everywhere. In a taco - sounds interesting....

The Blonde Duck said...

I've never had Laoation anything!

Lo said...

There's a great restaurant in our neighborhood that serves delicious Laotian food -- including a dish that looks a great deal like your Larb :)

Love the globalization of our palates myself... everything running together into a big, beautiful episode of flavor combustion!

Sue said...

It IS so interesting where different foods come from and how they migrate across different borders.

The duck tacos sound SO awesome. Of course, duck "fused" with anything is good!