Fusion is no longer a dirty word

State of the Plate: Restaurant menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse examines how foods and flavors are evolving in the kitchen. Chains are demolishing "culinary silos." The trend is driving more authenticity on menus.
Shaking Beef
California Pizza Kitchen's Shaking Beef with Pasta. | Photo courtesy of California Pizza Kitchen.

State of the Plate

It makes perfect sense that the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster anointed “authentic” as their Word of the Year for 2023. The press release that accompanied its unveiling noted that in an era of deepfakes, artificial intelligence and post-truth, lookups for the word reached new heights over the past 12 months.

By happy and timely coincidence, authenticity also loomed large and received title billing at the Culinary Institute of America’s 25th annual Worlds of Flavor confab, Authenticity, Flavor and the Future. No deepfakes here, the conference eschewed dogma to focus on the real world and examine how foods and flavors are evolving in the global kitchen.

Fusion is no longer a dirty word. Once demonized as the antithesis of presumed menu authenticity, numerous chefs and speakers on the CIA program used the term freely to describe their dishes; in so doing, they provided a healthy dose of reality.

Few topics in modern-day gastronomy have generated more heated debate and editorial navel gazing than the concept of fusion, the free mixing of culinary elements from disparate cultures that would not traditionally wind up on the same plate.

Restaurant lore has it that fusion cuisine was born here in the U.S. when chef Wolfgang Puck boldly went where no chef had gone before: He put smoked salmon on a pizza. The rest was history for Puck and his contemporaries working in California in the 1980s.

This and other dishes like Puck’s equally influential Chinese Chicken Salad opened the floodgates to a wave of imitators. Many of these wannabes mixed ingredients and techniques with such feckless, reckless abandon and with so little culinary finesse that the term “con-fusion” was coined to describe the unhappy results.

The upshot was that even though fusion became a driving menu trend of our time, it remained the culinary phenomenon that dare not speak its name. At least until recently.

strawberry shortcake

Strawberry Shortcake Sapin-Sapin. | Photo courtesy of theCulinary Institute of America. 

Traditions are made to be broken. In a welcome breath of fresh air, Nic Sharma, award-winning author and opening presenter on the CIA program, maintains that the future of flavor includes bridging food cultures and creating new food narratives. In other words, fusion.

The concept was brought to life by the speakers who followed, like Cantonese-American chef Christine Lau. She runs lauded Kimika in New York City, where she dishes up her take on Itameshi, the fusion of Japanese and Italian elements. She spoke of the commonalities between the two cuisines and zeroed in on comfort in the form of broths and noodles. Her dishes are “authentically me,” she asserts, with an emphasis on appealing flavor and texture, as with her Crispy Rice Cake Lasagna.

Her co-presenter, Abi Balingit, a Filipino-American baker and cookbook author, told the audience that she’s inspired by the lack of culinary silos on the American dining scene and energized by the free intermingling of the foods of different cultures and communities. Her Strawberry Shortcake Sapin-Sapin, a combo of the strawberry-shortcake ice cream bars she enjoyed as a child and a classic layered Filipino dessert, proved her point.

Chains are points of introduction. These kinds of mashups are nothing new in the chain-restaurant context. In fact, chains have been the primary demolishers of culinary silos, even as they’ve built their business upon being approachable and accessible to a mass audience.

 They haven’t claimed authenticity, but they have provided consumers with their first tastes of the unfamiliar in a comfortable environment. And while they’ve been dismissed by purists and ignored, if not castigated, by critics, they’ve consistently proved to be most reliable leading indicators of food trends in this country.

A sampling of menus from 1998 reveals that Houlihan’s offered Mango Chutney and Korean-style Ginger, Soy and Roasted Garlic sauce, both well in advance of the subsequent Indian- and Korean-food boomlets. T.G.I. Friday’s menued sophisticated Sun-Dried Tomato Mayo, as well as Hoisin-Peanut Dressing. And from the limited-service perspective, White Castle promoted Jalapeño Cheeseburgers, while Au Bon Pain featured a Mediterranean-inflected Kalamata Olive Spread.  

Current menus are equally cosmopolitan.

California Pizza Kitchen, which for decades has played a leading role in the introduction of global flavors to American diners, recently introduced Shaking Beef with Pasta, a play on the Vietnamese classic.

The item is a good object lesson in menu mainstreaming, since savvy menu developers know that American diners will try almost anything if you throw it on a bed of pasta—or in CPK’s case, a pizza crust. The familiar pasta or pizza provide the culinary safety net that disarms diners and encourages them to take a small bite of the unknown.

East also meets West in limited service, courtesy of Del Taco, which has launched a trio of birrias to take advantage of the burgeoning popularity of the Mexican stew. A standout option is Shredded Beef Birria Ramen, in which the toothsome dipping sauce is transformed into broth and paired with custom-made ramen noodles. The tasty result has transformed the second largest Mexican QSR brand into the largest QSR ramen brand, according to a company spokesperson.

Tacos have also proved to be reliable international flavor carriers. Torchy’s Tacos’ Raj Taco borrowed from the Indian pantry with a mélange of characteristic spices, raita, or yogurt, sauce and diced mango. Looking to the Mediterranean, Bartaco’s Falafel Taco is served with tzatziki, in this case, Greek-style yogurt sauce.

But the hands-down winner in the international-taco derby is Velvet Taco, where the WTF, Weekly Taco Feature, regularly pushes the global-flavor envelope far beyond expectations. The recent Pork Belly Banh Mi Taco, for example, included pickled vegetables, Napa slaw, Sriracha aioli, cilantro and more in a flour tortilla.

Del Taco

Del Taco's Shredded Beef Birria Ramen. | Photo courtesy of Del Taco.

Foodservice is a very big tent. The key takeaway from both the CIA conference and also the above examples is that there is plenty of room for dishes of all kinds that fall along the culinary continuum that stretches from the truly authentic to the purely fanciful.

The hubbub around fusion has finally been put to rest, though there are ongoing efforts to reboot the term. Last year’s unfortunate candidate, “chaos” cuisine, with its image of back-of-house food fights, has been replaced with smarter alternatives like cross-cultural cooking, third-culture cuisine and culinary pluralism.

But it’s still fusion, and it remains the foundation of American cookery, baked into our culinary landscape since the Pilgrims set food on American soil and foraged for unfamiliar local foodstuffs to (re)create their English meals. 

At the same time, menu authenticity, especially as an acknowledgment of country of origin and a means of consumer education, will pick up speed. The CIA offered a session on how to give culinary credit where it’s due, and a recent Eater article hailed the “small but important change” underway at Korean-American restaurants, which is the growing use of the dishes’ original Korean names.

These are small but important steps to ensure that in the global kitchen, nothing gets lost in translation.

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