The Continuing Melting Pot
I hate fusion!
You've heard me say that before. And I stand by it. Of all the culinary buzzwords ever invented, "fusion" is the silliest.
In the first place, all it does is try and codify a self-evident fact: that when you mix two or more culinary traditions what results is an amalgam. A melting pot of flavors. The combination may be more than the sum of its parts. Or it may be less. If successful, it could be part of a whole new cuisine. And if not, not. Either way, we don't need a word to describe a process that's been going on since people moved out of their caves.
In the second, more meaningful place, fusion far too often describes an attempt to pump up an otherwise unremarkable Western dish by infusing it with Asian flavors. As a result, for many people, "fusion" merely translates as "bad food."
Then comes Suvir Saran, who puts a lie to all that. In his second book (his first, Indian Home Cooking, became an instant hit) long-time ChefTalk member Saran applies Indian spicing techniques to more familiar dishes. "Applying the knowledge of spices I learned in my native India to American dishes," he says, "is what I like to call American masala. It's my reality and it's how I cook at home." Thus, the name of his newest book.
Using lessons learned in both his home kitchen, and at Devi, his Michelin-starred New York restaurant, Saran follows one basic concept: "There is no reason why these techniques (using spices to create layers of flavor) can't be applied to chicken wings and meat loaf, a roast turkey or enchiladas.
"Using spices to their full advantage is the secret to making dishes that are already a part of your repertoire really sing."
A high-sounding goal to be sure. But is the reality any different than other "fusion" cuisines? The answer is an unqualified you betcha!" Saran takes both the very familiar and the somewhat exotic, and perks it up another notch or three.
Examine, for instance, his take on the American classic Macaroni & Cheese. While there are numerous versions of this casserole, and it's suddenly becoming gourmet (is there a celebrity chef who hasn't touted it lately?), it's remains just Mac &, right? Not when it includes ingredients like rosemary, thyme, spicy mustard, and at least five different cheeses, as Saran's recipe does.
Or try his Spicy-Sweet Chicken Wings, which include garam masala, ground cumin, and paprika along with the more usual cayenne. You might forget all about Buffalo Wings.
Saran's recipes are, most emphatically, not attempts to turn American food into Indian. Rather they are ways of making standard dishes a little more exciting. For example, Cardamom-Roasted Cauliflower doesn't take that dish into unexplored territory. It merely flavors it in a slightly different manner, adding cardamom, coriander, and cumin to the mix. But he isn't particularly heavy-handed with the "new" spices. Thus, it becomes another flavorful version of roast cauliflower, rather than a radically different taste.
American Masala is pretty much organized along standard cookbook lines---making the book, itself, as well as the recipes, familiar. Chapter one deals with the specialized chutneys, pickles, and spice blends used throughout the book, and is the only thing a typical cook would find overly exotic---or hard to find. This, too, reflects Saran's approach to home cooking. "I rely mostly on supermarket staples. And I don't expect other home cooks to go searching high and low for specialty ingredients."
What he does, in the first chapter, is recognize that garam masala, as such, might not be available locally. But the ingredients for it are. So he shows you how to mix your own blend, and thus always have it on hand when needed.
To be sure, there are a few recipes that call for specialty products. For instance, Sweet Potato Chaat calls for chaat masala, a popular Indian seasoning that can include more than 20 spices and other ingredients. It's not the sort of thing you find at the local Kroger, though, so will have to search it out at an Asian grocery or on line.
Overall, however, Saran stays true to his goal of using readily available products. Even the more exotic entries, such as his version of the North African soup Chicken-Chickpea Harira, use readily available ingredients, or blends he instructs you in making.
The rest of the book---amply illustrated with Ben Fink's photos that make the dishes look even better than they are---is arranged by types of dish including snacks and starters, salads, soups and stews, and so on through the list, ending in desserts.
I especially like the homey notes Saran includes with each recipe. Sometimes they discuss how the dish came about. Sometimes he refers to friends or family who introduced him to it. And sometimes there's chatty culinary history.
Take his Shrimp Balchao Bruschetta, which has become one of our favorite snacks. In his notes he points out that "Portugal once governed Goa (a city in southeastern India), and like many Goan recipes this one is heavily influenced by Portuguese ingredients like vinegar and bread."
Goan food can be very spicy. Not necessarily hot (although some of it can take the roof of your mouth off), but spicy nonetheless. For instance, a typical Goan recipe for fish cakes, enough to make just four servings, can include 10 garlic cloves, 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, 3 chili peppers, 2-3 teaspoons garam masala, plus assorted other herbs and spices.
Saran lightens this a bit (and suggests you can cool it down even more by reducing or eliminating the cayenne and dried red chilies in his recipe). And makes it truly indulgent by serving it on buttered brioche toast rounds.
Hmmmmmm? Can we say fusioned fusion? Goan cuisine already is a fusion of Portuguese and Indian foodways, donchasee. Then Saran recombines it withâ€¦â€¦
Well, you can see why I hate fusion.
Shrimp Balchao Bruschetta