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 art’s sake, smacking of postmodern snobbishness, and fell by the culinary wayside.
But when fusion comes in the form of a food truck—and, most poignantly, one of the first truly popular food trucks, at that—from 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 recao—is 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 don’t 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 Choi’s bulgogi Short Rib Taco and Kimchi Quesadilla. The Korean taco trend continued, and independent Korean taco joints appeared from coast to coast.