Logical Asian-Latin Fusion

June 20, 2012

8 Min Read
Logical Asian-Latin Fusion

Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, Culinary Editor & Community Director of Content

In some circles, fusion is a dirty word. It can instill visions of days in the not-so-distant past when chefs traveled experimental routes in the name of creativity and brought far-flung combinations to life, often in absurdly layered displays of plated pomp and circumstance. All too often, it was art for arts sake, smacking of postmodern snobbishness, and fell by the culinary wayside.

But when fusion comes in the form of a food truckand, most poignantly, one of the first truly popular food trucks, at thatfrom a streetwise chef of Asian heritage who grew up in a Latino-dominated neighborhood, the logical possibility of organic fusion takes on a more-realistic, everyday sheen.

Of course, this depicts none other than Roy Choi, who put Korean tacos on the map with his Kogi BBQ truck in Los Angeles. And the rest is history.

But the concept of realistic, logical Asian-Latin fusion is far from fading. In fact, this trend is just beginning to gain serious momentum in the United States, and for all the right reasons.

Different Country, Same Pantry

Part of the logical draw of Asian-Latin fusion cuisine is the pantry similarities. There are so many crossover ingredients and dishes in the two cuisines, says Barbara Zatto, director of culinary and sales manager West, Mikan Americas Food Ingredients Division. For example, both cuisines combine chiles for heat and juxtaposing of other flavors; both use tamarind and coconut for sweet and savory applications; and coriander and its cilantro leaves cross the border interchangeably providing the same flavor highlights in Mexican and Southeast Asian cuisines.

Chad Clevenger, executive chef, Alma Cocina, Atlanta, echoes these sentiments. Asian-Latin cuisines use a lot of various spices to fuse the cuisines together. Chiles, garlic, citrus fruits, tropical fruits, herbs and other spices help build flavor profiles for fusion dishes. Most dishes tend to have similar flavors, high spice levels and high acidity which melds them well to each other.

Robert Danhi, chef, educator, photographer, author and principal of Chef Danhi & Co. and Mortar and Press, estimates that nearly 50% of Asian and Latin American pantries are identical in spices, yet may vary in flavor and form based on the growing region, he says, citing spices such as cumin, coriander and black pepper as key crossovers, and, of course, the use of cinnamon in savory dishes. Herbs such as cilantro and mint are two heroes. He also notes that both groups make use of banana leaves for wrapping then grilling. Culantro (Eryngium foetidum)aka, saw-tooth herb and recaois common to both Asian and Latin countries, and is used in salads. The Vietnamese serve it with pho in the north, and grilled meats as you progress south. In Puerto Rico, it goes into soups and stews, as well as sofrito.

The similarities dont end with herbs and spices. Pork is a key protein both cuisines have in common, says Zatto, short ribs, spare ribs, pork belly and pork as a filling in spring rolls, dumplings, gyoza, samosas and empanadas. Head-to-tail cooking occurs in both traditional Asian and Latin cooking.

Zatto also notes that both Asian and Latin American cuisines have their own take on filled savory pastries. Latin versions surface in tapas staples like empanadillas (little empanadas), and Asian dim sum has its bao (stuffed steamed buns), and both share the wonderful tradition of small plates, she says.

Both Asian and Latin American condiments often feature pickled vegetables, notes Zatto. And, she says, a natural order of flavors is apparent in both Asian and Latin cuisines in the use of sweet, hot, sour (tangy), umami.

Melting Pot Fusion

As previously mentioned, Kogi BBQ helped launch the Korean-Mexican trend, notably via Chois bulgogi Short Rib Taco and Kimchi Quesadilla. The Korean taco trend continued, and independent Korean taco joints appeared from coast to coast.

Now its catching on at the chain level, with T.G.I. Fridays menuing Korean Steak Tacos: corn tortillas filled with strips of marinated Black Angus flatiron steak topped with ginger-lime slaw, cucumbers, fresh cilantro, basil and sriracha, served with jasmine rice pilaf. Most recently, the former corporate chef for Romanos Macaroni Grill and Hooters of America, Scott Kinsey, opened an upstart Asian-Latin fusion concept called Taqueria Tsunami. He currently has two locations in Atlanta and is scouting for two more; hes also been approached with offers to open units in other cities (see Former Hooters Chefs New Concept is Asian-Latin Fusion, Nations Restaurant News).

Chef Bill Kims Belly Shack in Chicago melds aspects of Korean and Puerto Rican cuisines (his heritage is South Korean, his wife, Yvonne Cadiz-Kimhis partner at Belly Shack and other venturesPuerto Rican). Belly Shacks Boricua sandwich features marinated tofu, beef or chicken with hoisin BBQ sauce on crispy slices of plantainthe latter aspect likely inspired by the jibarito sandwich made famous by Puerto Rican (and Chicago-based) restaurateur Juan Peter Figueroa.

At chef-owner Richard Sandovals Zengo in Washington, D.C., Asian-Latin fusion is the name of the game. Some examples from the shared plates menu include Achiote-Hoisin Pork Arepas, Tuna Wonton Tacos, and Peking Duck Tacos.

Vermillion, with locations in Chicago and New York, bills itself as the melding of contemporary Indian and Latin American cuisines, perhaps born out of founder and owner Rohini Deys Indian heritage and subsequent stint of study for her Ph.D. at the University of Texas. Examples of the concept are evident on the restaurants tapas menu, such as the Duck Vindaloo Arepa (brushed with pomegranate molasses and served with curry leaf mango) and the Cilantro Tamarind Shrimp (served on koshimbir, a cold salad made with mung beans and daikon).

And trucks (far from passé) continue the Asian-Latin progressionoften handheld, but not exclusively in taco form. Los Saigon, in Los Angeles, serves up L.A.-flavored bánh mì like its signature Chino Latino with carne asada, pickled daikon and carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, jalapeños, and Los Saigon sauce on a baguette.

Fusion As Historical Evolution

Logically overlapping ingredients and American melting-pot cultural acculturation make perfect sense as organic inspirations for Asian-Latin fusion. But some cultures have naturally evolved as Asian-Latin fusions. One of the most prominent, Peruvian cuisine, is currently building steam in the United States.

Peruvian food may be the quintessential Latin fusion, says Zatto, starting when the Incas shared indigenous ingredients with new ingredients brought over by the Spaniards. The fusion continued with the arrival of Chinese, Italians, West Africans and Japanese. Americans are familiar with ceviches and raw fish preparations, and I believe traditional dishes such as papa la huancaina and variations on anticuchos could easily adapt for American tastes. (Papa la huancaina features boiled potatoes covered with a spicy, creamysometimes a bit sweetcheese sauce, served cold; antichuchos are skewered and grilled meats, marinated in aji chiles, vinegar, cumin, garlic and other ingredients.) Anticuchos can especially take off with the food truck movement. She notes that Peruvian cuisine has caught on with restaurateurs in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Peru has limited ingredients available in its home country, so Spanish, Chinese and Japanese ingredients were incorporated into their cuisine, says Clevenger. Tiradito is the perfect example of a ceviche-inspired dish gaining popularity. Its prepared in the Peruvian style, but uses Japanese techniques of sashimi and is served with chiles and acidic sauce.

Ceviches also appear in Asiamost notably in the Philippines, with its history of Spanish influence. Danhi is partial to Filipino kinilaw, a ceviche of vinegar and/or lime juice, fish, chiles, onions or shallots, and green mango, among other variations. Most interestingly, they sometimes add a splash of coconut milk just before serving for a bit of sweetness.

During an appearance on the Today show, globetrotter and Bizarre Foods host Andrew Zimmern made the prediction that Filipino food would be the next big ethic cuisine to gain traction in the United States. I want to go on recordthis is not something thats hot now somewhere and will get hot everywhere else, he said. Its just starting. I think its going to take another year and a half to get up to critical mass He went on to note that the Filipinos combine the best of Chinese, Thai and Japanese cuisines with Spanish culinary techniques. The Spanish were a colonial power there for 500 years, and they left behind adobo and cooking in vinegartechniques that, applied to those tropical Asian ingredients, are miraculous (see Bizarre Foods host sees Pinoy food fad in U.S. on ABS-CBN.com).

Danhi sees a good example of natural Asian-Latin fusion in Filipino adobo. The Filipino adobo and its cousin adobo of Latin America, he says, are both rich with black pepper, chiles, annatto and vinegarSpanish by way of the Philippines.

Annatto (from achiote, Bixa orellana), appearing like odd-shaped red brick pebbles, enables the Vietnamese to lay a brilliant color foundation to stews, not dissimilar to the Philippine traditional cooks who use some in adobo to give it a rich hue, says Danhi. It seems as if the Latin contingent is more apt to grind in combination with other spice, such as pepper, garlic, oregano and cumin, to create more than just a colorant paste, referred to as achiote pastethe paste most commonly used for meat marinades, especially for those destined for a banana leaf warp and long and slow cook, like the Yucatan cochinita pibil.

Considering the wide range of potential Asian-Latin permutations, with various countries from Asia and Latin America fusing to create newbut logicalculinary offerings, along with the ongoing blending of cultures in cities across America, this trend could be ramping up for some time to come.

To peruse a range of Asian-Latin concept in picture form, including some of the dishes mentioned in this article, visit the Asian-Latin Fusion Foods Image Gallery.


Subscribe and receive the latest insights on the health and nutrition industry.
Join 37,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like