Experts say it was celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck who was responsible for turning cuisine-mixing into a trend when he opened Chinois on Main in Santa Monica in the early ‘80s. A few years later, Norman Van Aken branded it “fusion”, a term borrowed from jazz music.
As with most fads “East-meets-West” cuisine rankled as quickly as it spread, bloating with mediocrity and at times absurdity. With the internet still quite latent at the time, its reputation only trickled down to Singapore less than a decade ago, after which local professionals made sure to steer clear from what was by then considered an F-word — it wasn’t allowed on a signboard, not on the menu and probably not even in kitchen chatter.
Today, however, chefs are re-embracing fusion, not as the “cheap thrill” it was before, but as an age-old cooking technique. “All cuisine is at heart a form of fusion,” Sara Dickerman wrote on Slate in 2012, especially true in a mongrel city, where no one culture’s dish is spared from the influence of another. Iconic Singapore meals like char kway teow, chilli crab and fish head curry all have roots in Singapore, Malaysia and as far as India. But these winning combinations were not some “flash in the pan” ideas — they were the result of generation after generation of hand-me-down knowledge, plus a great respect for tradition. Naturally, there are rules.
“Different ingredients have different characters and tastes. When they clash with or conceal the flavour of another ingredient, you have to reject the combination. You only want to fuse elements that complement each other,” shares Emil Halim, co-founder of the forwardly named East 8 New York Fusion Tapas & Bar.
In support, Nuvo (top pic) head chef Mark Richards notes the qualities of a restaurant that doesn’t do fusion right, qualities that soured the cuisine’s reputation in the first place: “A carelessly designed menu that doesn’t create the right balance of cuisines, clashing their flavours, and worse, a restaurant that uses the word ‘fusion’ in its name or menu only for the sake of modernity”.
Luckily, chefs in Singapore are so familiar with the rules, they’ve even been able to bend them with some success. While some are adamant that to get fusion cuisine right you must never try to mix more than two cultures in one dish, others are taking local food — already complex examples of culinary synthesis — to the next level.
Shen Tan is one such chef. Though “a little leery” of describing her cuisine as fusion, she’s hardly averse to it as a technique. In 2011, the former hawker stall owner founded Wok & Barrel, which quickly became a household name in what is now known as Mod Sin, or modern Singaporean cuisine. (Think bak chor mee pasta and pulut hitam pudding with coconut ice-cream and butterscotch sauce.) Now Tan runs a kitchen consultancy with names like Arterial and Ujong — both strong Mod Sin options — in her portfolio.
Despite its unfortunately gimmicky name, Mod Sin sounds like it’s here to stay, and in a big way. Says Chin Hui Wen, chief maker at Eastern Granola, which mixes the American granola recipe with Asian flavours like Milo and satay, “We’re already used to blending different flavours (Chinese, Malay and Indian, for example). The current generation of chefs is just taking into account more international cuisines when coming up with new dishes. It makes sense as we’ve become a more cosmopolitan place.”
Dempsey restaurant Pidgin is another good ambassador for Mod Sin. While chef-owner Adrian Ling is like Shen Tan not fond of the “fusion” label (“it sounds impersonal and unappealing”), he’s proud of it as his signature technique. And it’s not just his menu — made up of dishes like bak kwa mac and cheese, and ngoh hiang prawn cake — that represents this. Pidgin itself means a new common language developed a community of different backgrounds.
Even more adamant not to let a fad gone bad mar the excitement of good technique is Jimmy Chok, owner of Bistro Soori. “Fusion,” he told TIME, “is the only way to describe my cooking. Don’t call it a dirty word. I will be upset.
So is there a new dirty word now that the bad rep of fusion has run its course?
Ling thinks many chefs despise the word “molecular” as much as he does “fusion” and he’s right, at least where the more experimental chefs are concerned.
Currently Singapore’s favourite import Ryan Clift, says, “No one called my food ‘molecular’ the 10 years I ran Vue de Monde, the number one restaurant in Australia at the time. Since I’ve moved to Singapore I’ve been labelled that a lot and I don’t understand why.”
We sort of can — after all it’s at Clift’s The Tippling Club that one can find dishes like monkfish curry (which looks absolutely nothing like its name) and foie gras with cold confit apple — but to Chef, it’s just cooking.
“My food is very product-driven, no different from Julien’s (Royer) and Andre’s (Chiang). It’s just that a few years ago a lot of us adopted science as part of our cooking. Why? To make the food taste better. And at the end of the day, it makes the customer’s experience better.”
Which is probably what fusion was always meant for, if only people didn’t insist on screwing it up for a quick buck. Luckily, Clift says Singapore folks “learn fast” and “appreciate things in a better way”.
And that’s how you can have nice things.