Young chefs now take credit for popularizing "fusion" cuisine. But the merging of global flavors was birthed—by default—long ago in the kitchens of immigrant cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
Photo via Flickr user varintsai
When I was growing up in the 70s, the term "fusion" meant bad jazz. In the 80s, "fusion" meant bad food. Hell, it was almost a dirty word at that point; it evoked strange amalgams of ingredients that had no business being together on a plate, let alone in your mouth.
If you were a Korean kid growing up in Los Angeles and working in your folks' Mexican grocery store in the middle of the San Fernando Valley, Korean tacos weren't some new culinary wonderment. It was just what you had for lunch before going back to doing inventory or running the cash register.
As a Korean-American, though, the fusion genre that I can talk about all day is Asian fusion. You know, the now-official cuisine that probably originated when somebody—who was really desperate—sliced some Vienna sausages into their cup of instant noodles, or when they added a couple of slices of American cheese to their pile of hot rice. Even when I started writing about Korean cuisine professionally in the 90s, I was a purist at heart and stayed away from any kind of recipes that married Korean food with anything else. I mean, it was hard enough at that time to get the non-Korean public to wrap their heads around Korean blood sausages and kimchi, let alone watering down the flavors of my homeland by putting it between some limp hamburger buns.
So, when Roy Choi and Kogi started popularizing modern Korean fusion cuisine, I was immediately skeptical. But I couldn't just sit in the side lines, shaking my head and watching. Everyone wanted to get my opinion on the new food craze. It wasn't just because I had been writing about Korean food for so damn long, but I had also written a Mexican cookbook. When someone wanted to talk about Korean tacos, I got a phone call. The New York Times rang. The Washington Post emailed. A reporter from a podunk paper in Indiana wanted me to weigh in.
And during that time, you might have heard me on morning commute shows in Denver or Kansas City or Philadelphia laughing. "Korean tacos?" I'd say, chuckling. "That's old news." Everyone was acting like it was some kind of new invention. Even before we had a Mexican market, we were eating galbi with pico de gallo salsa.
Of course, this kind of default way of mixing cuisines could only have happened in Los Angeles, where a customary Sunday afternoon would find Mexican and Korean families grilling meats in Griffith Park—each group eyeing the others' fires, checking out the spread, and later, sharing kimchi and carne asada, bulgogi, and salsa. Remember, this was a time long before the terms "Korean barbecue" or "carne asada" were loaded with the culinary cache that they now carry, when we didn't have to label everything with some fancy culinary keyword-eventually-turned-trending-hashtag. A Korean-inflected carne asada didn't have to be some new gourmet wonderment—it was just damn good.
Young Korean-American chefs now take credit for popularizing this new "fusion" cuisine. But the merging of global flavors was birthed long ago in the back storerooms and kitchens of immigrant cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
Centuries ago, immigrants were throwing noodles into curry or adding chile peppers that were first domesticated in Mexico into the very first farmed varieties of rice in China, making culinary magic happen by accident. People from two different continents rubbed together like two pieces of flint starting a fire. No one can take credit for inventing that flame. It was survival. Sharing a meal was a way to understand each others' cultures. And sometimes it just happened to result in something delicious.
I can personally attest to this fusion by default. Soon after we moved to Los Angeles from Seoul, by way of Pennsylvania, my parents bought a pizza joint in Inglewood and, naturally, hired a cook from Mexico. Let's break that down: A Korean family owned an Italian pizza joint in a historically black neighborhood, and our main pizza chef is Mexican. It was the typical LA story; Koreans and Mexicans working hand-in-hand was as natural as eating kimchi and carnitas together. Again, this was in the 80s. We made our own pizzas—extra large extravaganzas piled high with sausages, mushrooms, and the ripest kimchi available. My dad's slices, in particular, would be covered in silvery anchovies we'd gingerly take out from their little tins.
We were eating fusion long before it was hip and before there was such a thing as "gourmet" pizza—or long before it was defined, at least. We weren't trendsetters. We weren't hip or cool. We were just Korean, and couldn't imagine a meal without kimchi.