Try this: Andrew Coppolino's guide to fusion food

From Japanese-Korean crossovers to southeastern Chinese cooking with an Indian twist, fusion dishes are a staple in many Waterloo region restaurants.

Most fusion dishes are borne out of foods and cooking techniques shared between cultures

Waterloo region has no shortage of fusion dishes like this pork belly banh mi. Food columnist Andrew Coppolino recommends Givral Deli, Wooden Boat Food Company and Bao Sandwich Bar to try one out. (Andrew Coppolino)

The term fusion cuisine gets bandied around with some frequency.

In fact, it's a phrase that has perhaps been rightly bashed when describing something like a cheeseburger wonton and implies chefs slapping together ingredients somewhat haphazardly. 

Think of California cuisine; decades ago Wolfgang Puck put smoked salmon and roe on wood-fired pizza and fusion in "California cuisine" became a trend.

The California roll, though popular, was not originally part of a sushi menu in Japan: it came about in the 1970s in the U.S. as a sort of "gateway sushi" with California avocado (but no raw fish) created to entice Americans to try it.

But you can find in food culture much deeper relationships and historical alliances of foods and techniques that have borrowed and copied from one another — and in more sinister ways like colonialism and hegemony. 

Given that context, it's interesting to think about the connections, many examples of which we have locally. 

In Waterloo region, we may think immediately of our Germanic past and the influence on our food culture that started with Pennsylvania-Dutch settlers to the area in the early years of the 19th century. 

Jacob's Grill in St. Jacobs makes a pizza that acknowledges that heritage and not just at Oktoberfest: it has summer sausage and apple-butter sauce on the menu all year round. The Fat Sparrow Group of restaurants makes good use of these classic Waterloo County fare ingredients, including sauerkraut (then again, sauerkraut was a Chinese invention).

We can also reach much further back; Miijidaa in Guelph has included bannock (a style of bread so named by explorers but likely invented by Indigenous Canadians) on its menu.

It also carries dishes based on the "three sisters" ingredients of squash, maize and beans — plants nurtured by Canada's indigenous peoples.

In its food and name (Miijidaa means "let's eat!" in Ojibway), the restaurant pays homage to our history. 

Filipino cuisine flies under the radar and is under-represented locally, but it draws on Central American, Spanish, Chinese and regional Filipino ingredients and techniques. At Nuestro 88, you can eat spring rolls with chorizo served with chicharron.   

Filipino dishes like Pancit, often draw on Central American, Spanish, Chinese and regional Filipino ingredients and techniques.

Just about everyone loves barbecue, and we have access to some good venues such as Lancaster Smokehouse, Q BBQ Public House, SOS BBQ and Camp 31.

It's interesting to recognize, as you munch on ribs and pulled pork, that our pit barbecue was the "barbacoa" of an ancient Haitian people called the Taino, who were wiped out by European explorers centuries ago.

The technique today is pretty much dominated by the southern U.S., but it dates to cultures much older.

Every culture has a flatbread, whether that is pizza or pita. Inventively, Chic Pea Pita and Grill is a Middle Eastern restaurant that has taken its traditional ingredients and flavours and put them in a section of the menu called "Turkish Pizzeria" with a half-dozen selections.

The sujuk (a spicy salami-like sausage) is particularly good. Arabesque Family Restaurant also has a section of these pizza-like "manaeesh."

There is also a crossover with Korean and Japanese dishes and often the nationalities of the cooks and restaurant owners. Korean dishes often migrate onto sushi menus and vice versa. 

Ken, the owner and chef at the popular Ken Sushi House, often cited as one of the Region's best, goes by both Yim and Hayashi surnames. On the menu, you'll find the usual sushi and sashimi suspects but also the Korean bowl hwe dup bap of chopped raw fish along with bulgogi and kalbi. It makes for a delicious mix. 

And we can include in the mix Izna and Kinkaku Izakaya (and their soon-to-be-opened location in Uptown Waterloo).

Vietnamese cuisine takes a cue from colonial France serving delicious "satays" (from the French sauté) and its famous banh mi sandwich, which includes mayonnaise and a baguette.

The term 'fusion food' has had a rap in some circles, but the mix of cultures can often lead to some delicious results. (Andrew Coppolino)

After the fall of Saigon, enterprising Vietnamese cooks tweaked the ingredients and created food trucks and stalls to suit their needs and arranged the platter into a sandwich.

Three of the best places for banh mi locally are Givral Deli, Wooden Boat Food Company and Bao Sandwich Bar.  

The foundation of French cookery is ubiquitous in dining. Loloan Lobby Bar and Bhima's Warung in Waterloo, the latter celebrating an amazing 25 years in business, use parts of that foundation for creating unique dishes with Asian ingredients and techniques.

Immediately coming to mind are the foie gras potstickers with peanut dipping sauce or a dessert of jackfruit and crème Anglaise at Bhima's. Loloan will serve you hue-style pho consommé and a foie gras terrine with kumquat sambal.

Hakka Hut and Shinwa Asian prepare Chili Chicken and Manchurian pakoras: "hakka" dishes that represent southeastern Chinese cooking with an Indian twist.

And while the cooking of the vastly populated subcontinent is highly regional, most Indian restaurants prepare a vindaloo, a hot curry dish of meat marinated in wine and garlic. Still, that word is derived from the Portuguese "vinha d'alhos."

Cooks in the western Indian Goa province, which was once a Portuguese colony, tweaked the dish to their needs and the ingredients at hand. 

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.


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