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Asian Fusion Cooking - August 2006 Newsletter


Fusion has become a buzz word for foodies seeking something that smells, looks and tastes sophisticated.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, trying a new Chinese restaurant or sushi bar was seen as the trendy, must-do activity among the upscale and urban crowd. Inevitably, Asian restaurant owners began catering more to Americans’ tastes, from utilizing avocado to make California sushi rolls to ensuring Chinese take-out menus included westernized favorites such as chop suey, egg rolls and fortune cookies. But, in the last 30 years or so, Asian cuisine has influenced a new, dominating tradition that requires creativity more than catering.

In the culinary industry, “fusion” stands for the melting pot cuisine that results from blending different cultures’ culinary traditions. Many in the restaurant industry credit famed restaurateur and chef Wolfgang Puck for leading the fusion charge during the 1970s. The Austrian-born Puck opened his own restaurant, Ma Maison, in Los Angeles in 1975. While catering to a star-studded crowd, Puck became a celebrity himself for combining French and Asian culinary nuances with ingredients of California cuisine. These innovations occurred at a time when more immigrants were coming and an awareness of international cuisine was expanding. Hence, fusion cooking has usually been viewed as a contemporary and high class eating trend.

What makes a dish “fusion” is how well it mingles ingredients and styles from the Asian and Western palates. Simply mixing things together may result in bad tasting food. Nowadays, learning elements of both Asian and western cookery is a standard for chefs in training, especially if they want to attract a wider audience. Besides studying the flavors of both regions, chefs are taking liberties with recipes.

Incorporating ingredients from the Pacific Rim and Southeast Asia with foods not traditionally associated with Asian cuisine can spawn tasty dishes and make a tried-and-true entrée a sudden novelty. Part of the fun for a cook is cross-pollinating traditionally European foods and herbs with those from the Orient.

There are many foods, herbs, spices and sauces that chefs borrow from Asian cultures to concoct a fusion dish. Some of the ingredients from Chinese culture that are mixed with anything from ahi tuna to filet mignon include five-spice powder (an aromatic blend of star anise, Szechwan peppercorns, clove, fennel, and cinnamon), hoisin sauce (a mixture of soybean paste, sugar, garlic, and vinegar), sesame oil, and of course, soy sauce. Among the Japanese flavorings heavily utilized in fusion cuisine are miso (a thick, soybean-based paste), mirin (a rice wine flavored with sugar), and seaweed or nori. Southeast Asian culinary staples spilling over into fusion cuisine include coconut milk, lemongrass, fish sauce (see our July newsletter), Thai chiles, and Thai basil.

When it comes to restaurants offering original fusion dishes of Californian, European and Asian tastes, no two menus look alike. By not feeling enslaved to any particular cuisine or tradition, chefs can come up with some of the most interesting combinations. Some examples of what one can find on an entrée list: salmon seasoned with miso, pork loin with cilantro sauce, or a Chinese duck and mango salad. Even bar beverages are getting an Asian twist: sake is often requested for cocktail mixers.

Another reason fusion cuisine has taken off is its perception as a healthy alternative when dining out. At a time when Americans are worrying about the war against childhood and adult obesity, more Westerners are opening up to Asian touches in their food because of the healthy ingredients. For instance, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Web site, diets with four daily soy servings can reduce levels of "bad cholesterol" that build up in blood vessels by as much as 10 percent. It is also a healthy way to satisfy daily protein requirements. Soy, of course, is the basis for tofu—which is grilled or poached for fusion delicacies. Soy also gives us miso, which holds minerals that boost the immune system and energy level.

Cooking fusion dishes with Asian methods also contributes to the idea of good health. In Asian cultures, steaming and stir-frying are often the preferred cooking method. Steaming is an oil-free way to tenderize vegetables or meats. Stir-frying, meanwhile, requires very little oil to get food cooking, unlike American, Southern-fried cookery which requires foods to be drenched in oil.

Ming Tsai, owner of Blue Ginger restaurant in Boston and host of East Meets West with Ming Tsai on the Food Network, is also lauded for helping to popularize fusion food. On TV and in his cookbooks, Tsai has tried to demonstrate that one does not need to be a four-star chef to stir up savory fusion dishes at a relatively quick pace. If you are not familiar with Asian ingredients, check out the reference category in the book section of Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen. There, you’ll find books on typical Japanese and Chinese ingredients.

In his 2003 cookbook, Simply Ming, Tsai recommends keeping certain “flavor bases” on hand. Thus, even a novice to fusion cooking can mix and match these bases with a plethora of ingredients. Here are three distinct and aromatic bases that would enhance any dish. They are easy to make at home. And if you’re worried about getting clothes dirty, peruse the Asian-theme aprons we have in stock.

Curry-Ginger Oil
1 quart grapeseed or canola oil
½ cup peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 cup Madras curry powder

1. In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the oil with the ginger and heat over medium heat until the oil is fragrant and the ginger just begins to color, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool completely, about 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, place a large, heavy sauté pan over medium ehat. Add the curry powder to the dry skillet and toast, stirring, until the curry powder smokes slightly, 8-10 minutes. Whisk in the ginger and oil, remove from the stove, and cool completely, 30 to 40 minutes.

3. Transfer the oil and spices to a 1- to 1 ½ -quart glass jar, scraping the pan well. Allow the mixture to stand until the oil and curry powder have separated completely, about 4 hours or overnight. The oil is now ready to use. Store in the refrigerator. Makes 1 quart. Lasts 1 month, refrigerated. Toss veggies like zucchini, onions or peppers with the oil, season them with salt and pepper, and bake them on a baking sheet that’s been preheated in a 400°F oven. Tsai uses this oil for recipes such as Curry-Ginger Sweet Potato Fries.

Asian Pesto
2 jalapeño chiles, stemmed and seeded
8 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon sugar
1 heaping tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 cup roasted salted macadamia nuts or roasted salted peanuts
Zest of 2 lemons
2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh basil leaves, packed
1 cup fresh mint leaves, packed
½ cup fresh cilantro leaves, packed
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a blender or food processor, combine the chiles, garlic, sugar, ginger, nuts zest, and 1 cup of the oil and blend until smooth. Add the basil, mint, and cilantro and blend while slowly adding the remaining oil until a thick puree is formed. Season with salt and pepper. Store in a tightly covered jar and refrigerate.

Makes about 3 ½ cups. Lasts 2 weeks, refrigerated.

Tsai suggests mixing equal ratios of this pesto with cream cheese for a yummy chip dip. This pesto can also serve as a spread in sandwiches. Some of the recipes Tsai uses the pesto for include turkey spaghetti and chicken salad with orzo pasta.

Hoisin-Lime Sauce

½ cup plus 2 tablespoons grapeseed or canola oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
2 cups hoisin sauce
½ cup fresh lime juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1. Heat a wok or large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the 2 tablespoons of oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add the garlic and ginger and sauté until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the hoisin sauce and stir to prevent burning. Cook, stirring for 1 minute, then add the lime juice.
2. Transfer the mixture to a blender and blend, drizzling in the ½ cup oil. Season with salt and pepper. Cool thoroughly and use or store. Makes about 2 cups. Last 2 weeks refrigerated. Spread this sauce on tortillas, use it for dipping chicken fingers, or drizzle it over stir-fries. Tsai has used this sauce to make Asian Sloppy Joes and Hoisin-Roasted Duck With Sweet Potatoes.

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