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It has been decades since fusion cuisine hit the food scene, and most—if not all—chefs still refuse to be associated with it. Is it really that bad?

The word “fusion” is defined in the dictionary as “the process or result of joining two or more things together to form a single entity.” It is a general term used in science pertaining to a chemical process, or it can also be a word used to describe the blending of more intangible things such as ideologies. However, in the culinary world, when one uses the word “fusion” to describe a cuisine, the reaction is often nothing short of squeamish, sometimes even violent.

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Manila-based chef Josh Boutwood of Helm, Ember, The Test Kitchen and Savage admits that his food is often categorised under fusion, pointing out that his cooking style is not representative of a single culture (“For instance, I don’t have an Italian restaurant”), and yet he says the word “fusion” is “cringe-y.” Boutwood explains: "It gives this nostalgic memory of the nineties or early 2000s TV chefs that really coined the word ‘fusion’ where they took multiple cuisines and combined it into one. I feel like that term fusion did more damage than good.” Classically-trained chef Aaron Isip—who recently launched his private dining Balai Palma that offers, among others, his ode to the seafood tower on a bed of sinigang-flavoured ice—tends to agree, saying the word was “misused.” He holds chefs worldwide accountable for “ghastly, unnatural combinations of flavours that don’t really work together—from Asia and Europe—just to say it is ‘fusion’.” 

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“Quite a bit of chefs despise the word ‘fusion,’” observes chef Don Baldosano, while not necessarily counting himself among them. Surprising, since his private dining concept Linamnam is built upon the foundation of local cooking techniques, foraged Philippine fauna, and lesser-known Filipino dishes that he discovered during his travels around the country. Baldosano does not consider himself a purist and admits that “good food can come from anywhere.” Then adds: “But I do appreciate authentic food and those who work to keep them alive.”

Since “fusion” is abhorrent, is it safe to say that “authenticity” remains the goal? Boutwood answers with another question. “If I were to define ‘authenticity’ as something original, I mean,” he pauses,” does it exist nowadays? That's challenging. I feel like my recipes are authentic because I created them.” So authenticity is not anymore about the food’s provenance or origin? “Yes, I think it is deeper than that,” Boutwood agrees. “It is more rooted in who the chef is and how they portray their cuisine and food.”

Isip echoes this belief: “I believe a certain type of cuisine could be authentic based on the history and influence of its chef. Nowadays, more and more chefs have different styles of cooking influenced by other countries thanks to travel. Also, let’s not forget that ‘authenticity’ is different from ‘tradition.’” I realize now that the latter is what Baldosano really means when pertaining to the authenticity of food, saying that it is “vital as it is the only way to preserve one’s food culture. I think knowing the origin of food is more important than it used to be as with the emergence of knowledge from different cuisines and cultures, some traditional dishes are now clouded due to convenience and interest.”

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Still, lines have become blurred considerably and it is undeniable that the concept of cross-culture cuisine is heavily applied by chefs today, if only with a more deliberate style and techniques utilized with laser-like intent. Baldesano and Isip both look to French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten as the enduring icon of fusion cuisine, while both also admit that fusion very much exists under different labels. “I’m certain fusion cuisine is here to stay,” Badesano declares, “Especially with chefs trying to learn from other cultures for inspiration. There is nothing wrong with fusion of dishes as long as the food is delicious, has soul, and isn’t bastardized.” Again, Isip still cautions against using the word “fusion” as it has been “practically banned and banished from the culinary world.” But, admits that “its ethos—a combination of different cuisines from different countries—has always been present in cooking.” Boutwood goes as far as saying that fusion cuisine is “dead” but adds still that “the characteristics and blueprint of fusion cuisine will remain.”

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While the glory days of fusion cuisine have undeniably come and gone, it is safe to say that it was never a mistake. I believe that it was a necessary evil meant to pave the way for what chefs are doing today. Fusion cuisine made it acceptable to combine flavours and ingredients that would have formerly been considered sacrilegious by the watchdogs of traditional cooking. If Wolfgang Puck feared Italian scorn and never put smoked salmon, caviar, and creme fraiche on pizza, perhaps we would have never experienced the luxurious umami of creamy mentaiko pasta. Or if Nobu Matsuhisa and Roy Yamaguchi opted to open traditional sushi bars instead of merging Japanese cuisine with those of their home countries, leche de tigre and poke bowls would not be as prolific as they are today. That would have been a shame, don’t you think? While many might have squandered the word and permanently tarnished it, those who did it justice used this period of experimentation conscientiously and broke down walls meant to isolate and constrain. “Fusion” might now be a bad word in the culinary world, but it would be cathartic to look back at it with gratitude rather than contempt.

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