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Restaurateur Rohini Dey on fusion cuisine

Rohini Dey

Rohini Dey

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Updated: January 22, 2014 12:32PM

As a result of my Indian-Latin melding at Vermilion, I’ve heard many a sanctimonious reaction to “fusion cuisine” from those who believe that culinary purity is the Holy Grail: “fusion is confusion,” “in authenticity lies culinary salvation,” “regional is the answer,” “the more arcane the better.” I’ve heard it from critics, chefs, consumers and colleagues — who doesn’t have an unsolicited opinion on restaurants?

But this opinion still surprises me. This is a country that readily embraces all cuisines. Japanese food is now pedestrian (when sushi hits the 7-Eleven shelves, it can’t be considered exotic); Mexican, Mediterranean, Chinese and Thai are mainstream; Scandinavian, Vietnamese and Korean are on the rise. Chefs are tossing global ingredients — saffron, yuzu, curry powder, fish sauce, bok choy, cumin, turmeric, miso, sambals — into their own cuisines, apparently committing blasphemy and sacrilege. I won’t even get into molecular gastronomy.

My beef is with defining “authenticity.” I cook Indian food at home today very differently from my mother or her mother. My vivid memories of my Didima (grandmother) — who dedicated her life to feeding her family — are in her crisp cotton sari in the kitchen, which was separated from the main house by an open courtyard. She would oversee the help all day, executing four heavy meals, sitting on the floor with her bonti (large vertical curved blade in a wooden base, placed firmly between her feet), deftly chopping fish, meat or vegetables (knives, graters, peelers, blenders were unthinkable).

I adored my Didima’s cooking and emulate her recipes. But now both my mother in Delhi and me in Chicago are liberal with bottled and dry masala pastes and mixes, frozen vegetables, store-bought dosa or uttapam bases, even frozen Indian breads. And we’re very comfortable with all the kitchen gizmos at our disposal. It’s made our cooking easier, more varied and far more accessible. Inarguably vastly different from the way my Didima cooked, but who’s to argue we are any less authentic?

Mexican cuisine champion Rick Bayless offers a refreshingly contrasting opinion to food purists. “Cuisine is a growing organism, and within it new traditions constantly emerge, generally for the better,” he says. “My plating, ingredients and approach to Mexican food are quintessentially mine — though they’re thoroughly rooted in tradition. Does the fact that it’s Mexican cuisine through my eyes make it any less Mexican, as long as it resonates with that inimitable Mexican spirit?”

How far back is authentic enough for those who insist on culinary purity? Will the caveman days before the advent of fire do? Before the Silk Route, Armadas and spice trades tarnished authenticity by introducing new ingredients? Bombarded by global influences, cross migration, new ingredients and techniques — and the urge to experiment — the evolution of food is inevitable in every culture.

Not being strapped by rigid rules, recipes or dogma is what has made food our playground. I see nothing wrong in that; in fact, it’s my definition of culinary progress. Those of us privileged to opine on dining out have to be very aware we deal in a luxurious indulgence, absolving us of any adherence to a strict moral code. Food is not religion. It’s time to embrace a Darwinian evolution.

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