Why We Need To Stop Labeling Asian-Latinx Food As “Fusion”
I’m Japanese & Uruguayan, and here’s why the term “fusion” obscures the culinary stories of Asian and Latinx communities.
As the daughter of a Japanese-American father and Uruguayan mother, growing up in the predominantly white suburbs of Boston, I was often put in the position of explaining myself. Among my teachers and peers, I was considered a "cultural curiosity." I was subject to chauvinist assumptions about my background, the foods I ate at home, and my personal interests. In reality, I was raised eating a hodgepodge of cuisines, including my Japanese-American grandmother's fruit salad with supremed grapefruit, canned mandarin oranges, and maraschino cherries, and my Uruguayan grandmother's steak milanesas and tortilla de papas. How all of these foods ended up on my dinner table is not straightforward and provides a window into my family members' particular tastes. At the same time, it speaks to our shared experiences of the diaspora, migration, and cultural history. In the food and beverage industry, where I work, "fusion" is the catch-all term used to describe the cuisine that combines ingredients and culinary traditions from different regions and cultures. However, the notion of "fusion" obscures the stories — lots of them — of people of diverse backgrounds whose lives and cuisines have been marked by shared colonial histories and trade routes.
Humberto Leon, co-founder of the fashion line Opening Ceremony and former creative director of Kenzo, opened the Los Angeles restaurant Chifa LA last November with his mother Wendy Leon, sister Ricardina Leon, and her husband John Liu. Growing up with a Peruvian father and Chinese mother in the predominantly Mexican neighborhood of Highland Park in Los Angeles — which Leon recalled to me over the phone was "not Asian enough for his Asian friends and not Latino enough for his Latino friends," Leon felt it was important for his restaurant to be specific enough to tell his family story. "Chifa" is a word synonymous with Chinese food in Peru, and Leon described it to me as a capacious concept that includes everything from the traditional Chinese food Leon's mother used to prepare for members of her immigrant community in Peru to the popular versions of fried rice and wontons beloved by Peruvians. In the case of Chifa LA, Leon and his family used the word "Chifa" to encompass "the idea of having dishes that sat parallel to each other at a table rather than a fusion." Classic Peruvian dishes like anticuchos (skewered beef hearts) and pollo ala brasa (roast chicken) share table space with Sichuan Mapo Tofu, and traditional Cantonese Zongzi (rice dumplings), all within a sumptuous space Leon designed for a celebration, outfitted with T-back green velvet chairs, seafoam and white marble tables, and green-speckled terrazzo floors. As he's gotten older, Leon, who is 45 years old, admits that he's feeling "anti-assimilation, anti-feeling like I need to fit in, and more so because I'm both a Peruvian and Chinese person living in America, and that is my contribution. That's my culture."
Eduardo Nakatani is a Japanese-Mexican chef from Mexico City. His grandfather Yoshigei Nakatani was the Japanese visionary and entrepreneur, who in the 1950s, created what is today one of the most ubiquitous and beloved Mexican snack foods: the Japanese peanut. At the time of Nakatani's grandfather's migration to Mexico, there were little to no Japanese products. This scarcity was the mother of invention, driving Yoshigei to create a kind of pseudo-soy sauce: a mix of piloncillo (raw sugar), guajillo chile, salt, and caramel coloring he used to season the peanuts. The sauce went superbly well with his version of sashimi: thin-sliced deli ham. A self-described "terrible student," Edo Nakatani grew up working at the family's Nipon Japanese peanut factory. After having a transcendent experience eating larb for the first time in Los Angeles in the 1980s, he decided to pursue cooking as a vocation. He trained in classical French technique and didn't consider cooking professionally until he was hired to work at an East-meets-West restaurant concept called MP Café Bistrot by Mexican celebrity chef Mónica Patiño. Rather than taking a purist's approach to Asian cuisines, Nakatani developed a line of Mexican chile-based salsas (Salsas Iki) that speak to how he grew up eating Japanese food at home—with a little extra kick. Nakatani's column in the Mexico City-based magazine Hoja Santa, titled "Bombas de unami" (Umami bombs), embraces all of the ways in which different Asian cuisines have made their way into Mexican dishes and vice versa. In his recipe for a Thai soft shell crab omelet burrito, Nakatani writes: "All cuisine is mestizaje. As in all other disciplines, there is no authenticity in cooking, or perhaps the only authenticity is its miscellaneous nature. Everything belongs to all of us."
Spanish colonial history and the 250-year old Manila Galeon trade route long connected the Philippines to Mexico. It's little surprise that the cuisines would intersect. Chef Angela Dimayuga, raised by two Filipino immigrants in a Mexican neighborhood in San José, California, recalls growing up drinking hot chocolate prepared from Mexican Abuelita tablets accompanied by her father's rice. However, It wasn't until she was an adult, upon encountering Filipino tablea for the first time, that she had the "aha" moment that connected her father's predilection for hot chocolate (Tsokolate) with his cultural roots in a milk-producing region of the Philippines. Dimayuga and her co-author—The New York Times food writer and critic Ligaya Mishan—have spent the past few years researching, writing, and cooking through Dimayuga's family recipes (most of which come from her matrilineal line in Pampanga) and recipes of the chef's own invention to create the upcoming book: Filipinix: Heritage Recipes from the Diaspora (2021). This book, which Mishan described to me as being "about abundance," does not attempt to be a definitive account of Filipino cuisine. Instead, it is the artifact of Dimayuga's deeply personal exploration of her identity through diaspora cuisine.
Reflecting on the book's title, Dimayuga considers how her upbringing was informed by her relationship with both Asian and Latinx communities in Northern California. "Specifically as an American, using the term Filipinx is a self-identifier important to me and my community because of the variance in gender that it opens up and how it expresses my experience in solidarity with the Latinx community," she said. Mishan added, "What I like about Filipinx is that it seems completely right for a book that is about the diaspora because it's a word that originated here in the United States, and it speaks immediately to that experience. It feels really comforting to have a name for the experience that we've had here growing up in America."
We must look to these unique experiences when we think about identity as it relates to food. "Fusion," unlike "Filipinx," does a lousy job of naming our experiences and our foods. While some people might assume that these foods are some whitewashed attempt to appropriate from both cultures or some manufacturing of two mutually exclusive identities, it is, in fact, a profound expression of communities that have been long glossed over. Asian-Latinx identities encompass rich multidimensionality derived from historical linkages, and food is a generous point of entry for making those connections. In my own experience, food has acted as a portal for accessing memory, knowledge of myself and my ancestors. A meal of a tortilla de papas may seem to be just that, but when I tune in, I can picture my late grandmother in her Montevideo kitchen cooking while singing tangos. I know that with this food, I am connected to her and to the history of her predecessors who migrated to Uruguay from Galicia in the 19th century.