Cooking Without Borders

Purists may scoff, but many chefs are crisscrossing continents in cuisine to create eclectic, multicultural dishes

THINK for a moment about the word ''Fusion.'' What comes to mind? Cool jazz, glass art, nuclear physics? Now try relating it to food. This comes easily to cookbook author Hugh Carpenter, who is passionate about ''fusion food'' -- cooking that melds spices and ingredients of diverse cultures.

And he's not alone. Many of today's star chefs -- from Mark Militello in Miami to Charlie Trotter in Chicago -- are mixing eclectic flavors, techniques, and presentation ideas in a way that might have been unthinkable 10 years ago. Some home cooks are also blending East and West into a single meal.

In ''Fusion Food Cookbook'' (1994, Artisan, 232 pp.), which Mr. Carpenter wrote with his wife, Teri Sandison, he describes the cuisine: ''brushing skewers of beef tenderloin with a traditional Caribbean jerk barbecue sauce; matching spicy Southwest fried chicken with a sunny ginger-apricot sauce; or drizzling watermelon and sweet red onion salad with a raspberry vinaigrette.'' Carpenter likens it to ''cooking without boundaries.''

This approach may seem revolutionary, but it actually goes back to the days of Columbus, he explains. In the years after his arrival in America, ''the Spanish and Portuguese inaugurated a huge global interchange of foods.''

A similar interchange has revitalized fusion cooking today. ''We've become a much smaller globe gastronomically,'' Carpenter said by telephone from his home in Napa Valley, Calif. He contributes this to several factors: Shipping by air has boosted availability of ethnic ingredients in supermarkets; the middle class is traveling more; and the huge influx into the United States of Asians and Hispanics is introducing new flavors at restaurants and markets. (It is estimated that Asians will account for 10 percent of America's population and Latinos 22 percent by the year 2050.)

The trend is also emerging abroad. For example, Carpenter says Paris boasts a staggering number of culinary influences -- including Moroccan, Israeli, and Spanish. Many French restaurants are breaking from tradition to use ginger and coconut juice in their sauces. And in Australia, indigenous fare is often seasoned with Chinese spices.

In the states, the shift has been especially dramatic within the past 10 years, Carpenter says. ''We wouldn't have even known what a portabello mushroom was back then.'' He adds: ''The wonder of living in America is that we're being enriched by a surge of ethnic restaurants. Their foods eventually spill into our kitchens.''

This spillover process is often accelerated by a cookbook like Carpenter's, which brings into the home innovative cross-cultural dishes such as Roast Turkey Breast MediterAsian, Chinois Butterflied Leg of Lamb, and Szechwan Huevos Ranch-eros. Ms. Sandison's mouth-watering photographs also entice cooks to experiment -- which is the name of the game, Carpenter says.

But not everyone is enthusiastically tossing lemongrass into rice pilaf or drizzling sesame oil onto pasta. Purists call it ''confusion food.'' They worry that all this mixing and melding will cause the foods of the world to lose their distinction.

Classic French chefs are among the most wary. Pierre Franey, who began his distinguished career (perhaps best known for his ''60-Minute Gourmet'' column in the New York Times) cooking in his native France in 1934, is dismayed by many of today's chefs who bombard the palate. Cumin, coriander, and balsamic vinegar are among those ingredients that are used on ''almost everything,'' he says disapprovingly.

Mr. Franey insists that a cook must be well-versed in one culture's cuisine before dipping into the spice bin of another's -- and even then, not overdo it. ''People might call me old-fashioned. I'm for mixing flavors, but not to an extreme; you've got to respect the ethnic cuisines of each country,'' he says.

Queen of cuisine Julia Child is also a voice for tradition. ''I'm heartily tired of creative cooking -- you can't even go to a restaurant and get a lamb chop anymore,'' she said recently.

Many restaurateurs who embrace the concept of fusion food, shun the term, opting to describe menus as ''multicultural.'' ''We're trying to get the oddness out of it,'' says Clark Wolf, co-owner of the Markham in New York. ''People have become savvy about this food. It's now considered American. It's what nouvelle cuisine was supposed to be.''

What cuisine will emerge next? Some say Brazilian. Others predict Cuban cuisine will wriggle its way outside of Miami and New York. Many don't bother with food forecasting. But one thing's for sure, says Carpenter: The most enduring culinary trends follow fluxes in population. So, like it or not, fusion food is probably here to stay.

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