Chefs and Restaurants
I Call My Food Personal, Not Fusion
“I hate the ‘F’ word,” says Samantha Fore. “I think it diminishes the value of what we do as chefs.” Fore is the chef/owner of Tuk Tuk Sri Lankan Bites, a pop-up in Lexington, Ky., where she was born after her parents immigrated to America from Sri Lanka in the early 1970s. She’s asked about fusion a lot. “If I’m making an okra dish I grew up with, the fact that I cook in the American South does not make it a fusion dish,” she says. “But people are so eager to attach that label to it. I’m just bringing something different to the table that isn’t traditional to the average diner. But I don’t think a fusion moniker gives it the credit it deserves.”
Unsurprisingly, when I asked Raleigh chef Cheetie Kumar—born in America and raised both in India and the Bronx—about people using the “F” word to describe her cuisine, she echoes Fore’s words: “It’s not fusion; it’s just a collection of experiences,” she explains. When Kumar, a longtime musician and co-owner of a bar/music venue in Raleigh, embarked on adding a restaurant to the mix, she didn’t want to open an “Indian restaurant.” Like a lot of chefs, she just wanted to cook what she liked in hopes that others would like it, too. Sure, she had some traditional Indian street foods like kati rolls and pakoras on her menu, but she also had bibimbap, because she was really into Korean food. And after touring throughout Europe, she became enamored with the Basque style of eating and sought to incorporate those elements into her cooking, in her own way. The food at her restaurant Garland is indeed a collection of her experiences.
I can relate. For almost a decade, I have been cooking food inspired by my country of origin—India—but my food is not fusion. When I have been asked what region of India my food is from, my answer is quite simply, “Oakland, California.” My food is not a reach to grasp something from the past, or from halfway across the world. My food is of here and now. It’s just like me: too Indian to be considered American, too American to be considered Indian. We are the generation in between.
Farhan Momin started his path towards cooking while in high school. The son of restaurant and butcher shop owners in Decatur, Ga., he knew his parents were determined that he go to college and become a dentist. They wanted him to have more than the back-breaking work of the restaurant industry in his future. But he insisted on taking culinary vocational classes in high school, and in many ways, found his people there. It was an environment where he could share his rich cultural background and make connections with other students, make friends. In college at Emory (while continuing to pursue a career in dentistry) Momin created snacks for himself and others using a contraband sandwich press, tortillas, and his mom’s leftover chicken or lamb curry. To him, a chicken curry quesadilla isn’t fusion, but a “logical progression” that later became the prototype for Atlanta Halal, his first pop-up.
Logical progression is the cornerstone of creativity and innovation in cooking. I will always remember one of my French chef/instructors at Le Cordon Bleu explaining this concept. “What does a rabbit eat? Carrots. So let’s put roasted carrots in the dish.” It is the same type of logic and thinking that led Fore to create the Instagram darling dish of last summer, her roasted curry tomato pie. The dish was Southern, seasonal, and filled with Sri Lankan flavors all at once. It wasn’t a fusion; it was simply her personal expression on a plate.
In 2016, I was invited to be on a panel about Indian cuisine with the great Indian actress and food icon Madhur Jaffrey. She kicked off the discussion by stating that what we as chefs of Indian origin needed to do was stop trying to appeal to American palates and instead dig deeper into the foods of our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. But although I find tremendous inspiration from exploring the lesser known corners of Indian home cooking, I had to disagree with the notion that anything that appeals to the American palate is not “real Indian food.” I am an American, so I’m appealing to my own palate. Does that mean I’m not a “real Indian”?
Growing up, I always felt a sort of hybrid existence, like I was just not quite right. I was too foreign to be fully accepted by my peers in Ohio, and yet too American to be comfortable when visiting India. Our parents dubbed us ABCDs, “American-Born Confused Desis.” Having immigrated to the U.S. as grown adults, even they were perplexed by our state of limbo. This term was later reclaimed by my generation as “American-Born Confident Desis,” but most of us preferred to just roll our eyes about the whole phrase.
But when I started cooking professionally, I put that feeling in my food, just like many other second-generation chefs. The reactions from the public were sometimes charged and dismissive, as they tried a style of Indian food that didn’t sound, look, or taste like the food they had come to know in more traditional curry houses in the Bay Area. But there were plenty of second-generation Desis out there who came and thought, “Oh, yeah, I totally get that.”
As basic as it sounds, second-generation immigrants are our own thing. So, our food is its own thing, too. It’s not fusion, it’s not a mash-up…it’s our experience, our flavors, our learned techniques from various cultures, our hybridized upbringing on a plate. And it’s delicious.
Preeti Mistry is a dosa waffle maker and the author of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook: Indian Spice, Oakland Soul, written with Sarah Henry. She is opening Juhu Chinese Menu and Juhu Snacks and Sweets in Oakland in summer 2020.