Is it time for a fusion cuisine comeback? Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage think so
Food can 'bring down barriers wherever they exist,' says celebrity chef
Originally published on Oct. 16, 2020
The trend for fusion cuisine may have become less popular over the years, but Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage want to remind people of its potential, both in the kitchen, and across divides.
"It's a word that people don't really like, but I think Yotam and I are trying to embrace it, sort of trying to bring it back," said Belfrage, who works with Ottolenghi in his test kitchen and is co-author of the new book Ottolenghi Flavour, released this week in Canada.
"As a recipe developer creating recipes, I think the only way forward is fusion," she told The Current's Matt Galloway.
"Not just putting things together willy nilly, but really thinking about what goes together, breaking things down into their flavours and mixing and matching considerately — and it really yields some of the best results."
Fusion cooking — a style of cooking that combines elements from different cultures or countries — has roots dating back to the 1970s, but became something of a cliche as time passed. It also faced accusations of cultural insensitivity or appropriation. Last year, a new London restaurant from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay was criticized for fusing cuisines from across all of Asia, and accused of paying little regard to their cultural contexts or relationships to one another.
Ottolenghi told Galloway that in the beginning, "everybody wanted to do it, and not everybody did it in a considerate and clever way."
"I would never want to not cook food from any other culture because I think that's what we've been doing from the dawn of cooking … that's just how great cuisines have evolved over the years," said Ottolenghi, who has spent 20 years promoting the culinary delights of vegetables through his books and restaurants.
"But on the other hand, it's extremely important to recognize whose food you're cooking, whether it's an individual or a whole culture or subculture, and give credit."
The new book includes a twist on a recipe for cacio e pepe. Ottolenghi said he wanted to include more Middle Eastern ingredients and flavours in the book, and Belfrage suggesting adding za'atar to the classic Italian dish of pasta with cheese and pepper.
"I was ever so slightly sceptical because it's such a classic and, you know, it's like playing with classics comes at a risk — you can infuriate people," Ottolenghi said.
But he said the "proof lies in the pudding."
"It's very rich and creamy and za'atar, like marjoram, like oregano, like all these hard herbs, go so well with rich and creamy and buttery things," he said.
"In a sense, it's a no-brainer, but it takes a little bit of courage to be able to do that."
Food is 'language that everybody speaks'
Ottolenghi said that there's amazing potential to "spread knowledge through food," and it's always been part of the way that he discovers the world."
"Whenever I go to a place, the first thing I do is find out where the interesting food is, where the restaurants are," he said.
"It's a great tool because it's a language that everybody speaks."
He gave the example of Xi'an Expression, a Chinese restaurant he and Belfrage have visited in London.
The restaurant serves a cucumber salad that is inspired by food in the city of Xi'an in central China,
He's tried to replicate the salad at home by looking up ingredients local to the region, he said, and in doing so he's inadvertently learned a lot about life in the Chinese city.
"When you cook someone else's food, you definitely learn something about them," he said.
"It's a very powerful way to bring down barriers wherever they exist."
Recipes from Flavour, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage
SWEET AND SOUR ONION PETALS
Serves four, as a starter or as part of a mezze spread
These onions — sweet inside, charred at the edges, and swimming in a tart pomegranate syrup — started their life at Testi, a north London Turkish restaurant that we love, where a similar dish is made by charring onions next to lamb on the grill, then tossing them in şalgam, a juice made from the sour-salty brine of fermented purple carrots and turnips, and finally sweetening them with pomegranate molasses. The bittersweet onions are served alongside the meat, cutting through its fattiness like a sharp knife.
Our onions are made with reduced pomegranate juice instead of molasses and şalgam. They would obviously sit well alongside grilled meats, but we find them totally delicious also in a vegetarian context, with or without the goat cheese, which is optional. They will go really well with hummus (like our hummus with lemon, fried garlic, and chile, an eggplant salad (see eggplant with herbs and crispy garlic), and some bread.
- 1 lb 2 oz/500g golf ball–size red onions (about 12), peeled, then halved lengthwise
- 5 tbsp/75ml olive oil
- table salt
- 1⅔ cups/400ml pomegranate juice (100% pure)
- ⅓ cup/10g chives, finely chopped
- 2½ oz/70g young and creamy rindless goat cheese, broken into 3⁄4-inch/2-cm pieces (optional)
- ⅔ tsp Urfa chile flakes (or the same amount of crushed ancho or chipotle chiles)
1. Preheat the oven to 425F/200C fan. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Heat a large nonstick frying pan on high heat until very hot. Toss the onions with 2 tbsp of the olive oil and ¼ tsp salt and place them, cut-side down and spread apart, in the hot pan. Place a saucepan on top to weight the onions down and create an even char, then decrease the heat to medium-high and cook, undisturbed, for about 6 minutes, or until the cut sides are deeply charred. Transfer the onions to the prepared baking sheet, charred-side up, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until softened. (If your onions are larger than golf ball–size, this may take longer.) Set aside to cool.
3. Meanwhile, put the pomegranate juice into a medium saucepan on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about 12 minutes, or until the liquid has reduced to about 5 tbsp/75ml and is the consistency of a loose maple syrup. Set aside to cool; it will thicken as it sits.
4. Combine the chives with the remaining 3 tbsp olive oil and a good pinch of salt and set aside.
5. Pour the pomegranate syrup onto a large platter with a lip and swirl it around to cover most of the plate. Use your hands to loosely separate the onions into individual petals, then place them haphazardly over the syrup. Dot with the goat cheese, if using, then spoon on the chive oil and finish with the Urfa chile flakes before serving.
BERRY PLATTER WITH SHEEP MILK LABNEH AND ORANGE OIL
This display of the season's best can double up as a light dessert or as a brunch centerpiece. You can make your own labneh but it requires draining the yogurt for a good 24 hours, or you can make everything easily on the day using store-bought labneh or some Greek-style yogurt mixed with a little heavy cream. The berries you use are totally up to you, depending on what's good and not too expensive. You can use fewer types, or some frozen berries, if you like, especially for those that get blitzed in the recipe. You'll make more oil than you need; store it in a glass jar to drizzle over salads or lightly cooked vegetables.
- 3⅔ cups/900g sheep milk yogurt or cow milk yogurt
- ½ tsp table salt
- 7 tbsp/105ml good-quality olive oil
- ⅓ oz/10g lemon thyme sprigs, plus a few whole thyme leaves
- 1 orange: finely shave the peel to get 6 strips
- 1⅓ cups/200g blackberries
- 2 cups/250g raspberries
- 3 cups/300g strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise (or quartered if they're larger)
- ¼ cup/50g superfine sugar
- 1 lime: finely zest to get 1 tsp, then juice to get 1 tbsp
- 1¼ cups/200g blueberries
- ⅔ cup/150g cherries, pitted
1. For the labneh: Line a colander with a piece of muslin large enough to hang over the sides and place the colander over a bowl. Put the yogurt and salt into a medium bowl and mix well to combine. Transfer the yogurt to the muslin and fold over the sides to completely encase the yogurt. Place a heavy weight over the muslin (a few cans or jars will do) and transfer to the fridge to drain for at least 24 hours or up to 48 hours.
2. Meanwhile, put the olive oil into a small saucepan, for which you have a lid, on medium heat. Heat gently for about 7 minutes, or until tiny air bubbles form. Remove from the heat, add the lemon thyme sprigs and orange strips, and then cover and let infuse, ideally overnight, though 30 minutes will also do the job.
3. Put ⅓ cup/50g of the blackberries, 3⁄4 cup/100g of the raspberries, and ⅓ cup/100g of the strawberries into the bowl of a small food processor along with the sugar and lime juice and blitz until completely smooth. Put all the remaining berries and the cherries into a large bowl along with the blitzed fruit and gently combine. (You can serve straight away or leave in the fridge for a few hours, bringing back to room temperature before serving.)
4. Spread the labneh out on a large platter. Spoon in the berries, then sprinkle with the lime zest. Drizzle with 2 tbsp of the infused oil, dot with a couple of the orange strips and whole thyme leaves, and serve at once.
Excerpted from Ottolenghi Flavour by Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage. Text copyright © 2020 Yotam Ottolenghi and Ixta Belfrage. Photographs copyright © 2020 by Jonathan Lovekin, except page 211 @ Louise Hagger. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Nishant Choksi. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Julie Crysler.