Dining services takes on fusion dishes
Written by: Jenna DiMaggio
For as long as humans have exchanged information, the idea of fusion cuisine as a form of cultural exchange has and remains an essential way of sharing culture.
Fusion foods are dishes that combine ingredients and techniques of multiple cultures, typically created from these cultures interacting, such as through trade or immigration.
Foodways show signs of trade and discovery, and they hold national and political significance.
A classic example is the origin of hummus, with people living in the Levant, Egypt and Turkey all claiming it as their own. A sign of hospitality, a meal staple, and in modernity a symbol of Palestinian and Israeli identities alike, hummus, like all foods, can be appropriated and adopted.
Fusion foods can also a sign of presence, as Cold War New York saw immigrants from China serve General Tso’s chicken for the first time, making it a dish existing at the intersection of diasporic connection, post-WWII immigration and anxieties about communism under Mao.
On the flip side, both the Mai Tai and the crab rangoon was created by a French-Canadian Californian who used so-called “exotic” names and flavors to profit off of Orientalist perceptions of the East, especially by those who served in the Pacific Theater.
With the prevalence of recipes like tabbouleh arepas and Caribbean hot pot, this trend towards fusion cuisine shows no signs of slowing down.
Recently, University of Maryland Dining Services has introduced a variety of Latinx-inspired food, such as chipotle hummus and quesadillas with fillings ranging from cheeseburger to buffalo chicken.
However, there remain different perspectives on fusion cuisine, especially how it relates to ideas of authenticity and cultural exchange.
As someone who dines regularly on campus, the first time I encountered the now-everyday chipotle hummus, I was, to say the least, pretty confused.
In my mind, the smoky and pungent vinegar-based flavors of canned chipotle peppers (which I learned are actually jalapeños,first cultivated in Xalapa in coastal Mexico) would easily clash with the earthy sesame and nutty olive oil that are essential to hummus.
Upon finally trying, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone; however, the garlic and tang seem to be themes connecting the chipotle flavoring usually used in a cream-based dip and the hummus.
On a flavor level, it makes sense that someone thought to connect the flavors, and although this dish didn’t spring out of any one cultural connection between Mediterranean and Latin American cultures, variations on hummus have been around for as long as the dish itself.
There’s no aim at authenticity here, but neither is there any to necessarily reinvent the wheel; perhaps UMD’s version isn’t terrific, but it’s a brave attempt to expose students to different cuisines.
For the quesadillas, of the two the more off-putting option, I tried to think of them as they would be marketed to college students: savory, fast food-adjacent finger foods that draw on familiar flavors and format to deliver a new experience.
Most college students are familiar with quesadillas and grilled cheese.
\While the dish originated in Mexico, it has been adapted into the U.S. cuisine as well, with the most notable change being the ubiquity of cheese, something not essential to the dish as it is served in Mexico.
UMD Dining Services typically serve three varieties of quesadillas, one with just a cheese blend, one with cheese and some variety of vegetables, and a third one including meat, sometimes a plain chicken-based filling, and sometimes a more daring cheeseburger or buffalo-inspired combination.
The key word here is inspiring: once again, these quesadillas do not claim to be authentic to either the quesadilla tradition nor those of their fillings, yet aim to create something different: a handheld and Americanized dish that draws on childhood flavors and textures to create a seemingly new food.
By that metric, I would consider UMD Dining Services attempts to rejuvenate familiar combinations of food not only a popular (the meat filling quesadillas are gone surprisingly quickly every day) but a technical success also.
The university’s dining halls have made strides in the realm of culinary fusion. Although their examples of culinary fusion differ from traditional instances of this happening, they are still successful in that they introduce and combine new flavors and experiences into already existing dishes.
Although their products might not be the most tasty iterations, their creativity is above all refreshing.