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“Just Don’t Call It Fusion” – In Defense of International Cuisine

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Many chefs and diners still remember a time when restaurateurs and food pundits were pushing those buzzwords around: “Asian Fusion”, “Caribbean Fusion”, “Fusion Flare”, etc. In the 90s, and well through to the 2000s, the term was inescapable, built into the menus of chain restaurants, sports bars and even fine-dining spots.

But ask most chefs now and they’ll balk at the term. Now synonymous with lazy mash-ups, and earnest attempts to shoehorn Asian flavor profiles into European dishes, “Fusion” has fallen out of favor. But its spiritual successor – International Cuisine – is still enjoying a renaissance. What’s the difference between the two, and how can one be derided while the other is applauded?

This post will take a closer look International cuisine – what it is, what makes it different from fusion, and why it’s an important concept on the contemporary table.

What is International Cuisine?

When a menu, or review site, lists a restaurant’s type of cuisine as “international”, what they really mean is that the notion of culinary nationalism or regionalism is absent from the menu. Rather than being constricted by geography, the food draws influences from across the globe, whether in flavor combinations, techniques or presentation.

International Cuisine, therefore, isn’t so much a category as it is a lack of category – for instance, if you were to make a reservation at SARA Restaurant in the multicultural city of Toronto, and choose the tasting menu, you might find Japanese raw fish applications rubbing elbows with Jewish latkes and Vietnamese nuoc mam broccoli. Whatever tastes good – that’s the only constraint in international food.

Tasty food

The Difference Between Fusion and International Cuisine

You’d be forgiven for conflating international cuisine with fusion food, but the latter is a more simplistic form of cuisine. We’ve all seen the attempts: Peking duck sliders, pulled pork spaghetti Bolognese, jerk chicken mac and cheese, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these dishes, per se, but they are ultimately rooted in an essentialist understanding of national cuisines.

Fusion mashes two disparate elements together, sometimes to great success, and sometimes purely for kicks. It takes popular, well-known dishes and drops them on top of each other. International cuisine, meanwhile, draws influence more from diverse global techniques and flavor profiles than complete dishes.

Many Seats at the Table

What is so heartening about international cuisine is that it treats food as an equalizer, a blank slate upon which everyone can put their unique cultural stamp. The fact that international cuisine is concerned with sharing ideas, receiving ideas and presenting new points of view makes it an exemplary kind of contemporary cooking. The world is becoming smaller, and its borders are increasingly eroding – it’s time for a cuisine that allows everyone an equal seat at the table. Something that’s worth stressing: fusion food isn’t necessarily bad food. It can be quite tasty, in fact. But if you want to understand many chefs’ aversion to the term, as well as why so many chefs have embraced its successor, international cuisine, you have to look at the fundamental differences between the two. Fusion cuisine is a two-way conversation, sometimes an argument; International cuisine is a round-table discussion.

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