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There's curry from the Indians, noodles from the Chinese, roti from the Muslims, coconut milk from the Thais, fish sauce from the Indonesians and Vietnamese, and belechan from the Malaysians. The English also left their mark. Malaysians still drop everything at four o'clock each day and have a cup of tea. "We also have more languages and more holidays than anybody else," Daniel laughs. Malaysia is the most ethnically diverse country in the world. So when you sample Malaysia's "pan-Asian fusion cuisine," you're tasting an authentic expression of a national culture.
"Fusion cuisine" is a silly fad, concocted by modern chefs with limited skills and overactive imaginations, many chefs and critics contend. "Different cultures have different constellations of spices that they use to put their own labels on certain common foods," food historian Elizabeth Rozin observes in an article in Smithsonian magazine. When you combine these spices incoherently, cooking loses its cultural integrity. In seminars, Rozin illustrates her point by passing out paper cups containing six samples of chicken broth.
Curry chicken noodle lunch special: $4.25
Fook-kien lam mien: $5.95
Malaysian eggplant: $6.95
Nasi lemak: $4.95
Malaysian fried crab: $12.95
Tamarind prawn: $12.95
Curry beef: $7.95
Each cup of broth conjures up a culture. Ginger and sesame are instantly recognizable as Chinese flavors; southern Italy is represented by olive oil, garlic, tomato and oregano, a mixture that smells like pizza; the Thai sample has coconut, lime, coriander, lemongrass and hot pepper; an Egyptian mix includes cumin, lemon, garlic and mint; Indian is ginger and coriander; and the Mexican soup tastes like chiles, oregano and cumin.
Rozin catalogs examples of what she considers the worst in fusion cuisine. "I once had something called Siamese tacos. For me, the combination of the strong corn flavor from the tortilla and the Thai spices used for the pork filling was awful," she told the seminar.
On the other hand, when the conquistadors brought tomatoes back to the Mediterranean from Mexico, maybe tomato sauce was so novel and radical it was considered bad fusion cooking, she admits. And there lies the crux of the controversy. While some see fusion cuisine as a contrivance that is ruining the public's appreciation of traditional ethnic cooking styles, others see it as the experimentation that's occurring on the leading edge of a new multicultural approach to cooking.
And then there are those who are trying to turn back the clock. When the Houston Chronicle's new food editor, John DeMers, ventured beyond the Junior League fare that former food editor Ann Criswell was known for, he horrified some Chronicle readers. DeMers reported that the most frequent question he got in his first year on the job was "Why do you write about so many weird recipes with so many weird ingredients?"
Some Houstonians, it seems, are struggling to keep pace with the rapid change in our cultural demographics. In 1970 Harris County was 69 percent white. The Asian population has increased sixfold since then, and Hispanics now outnumber Anglos, who make up only about a third of the population. As Rice sociologist Stephen Klineberg puts it, "In the past 25 years, Houston has gone from being a biracial Southern city, dominated by a white, male business establishment, to one of the most culturally diverse cities in America."
The Pacific Rim Caesar salad with wasabi tempura rock shrimp at benjy's, a hip restaurant in the Rice Village, uses crunchy fried wonton noodles instead of croutons. The Caesar dressing is made with the traditional egg yolk and anchovies, with ginger, wasabi and lemongrass added for a Pacific twist. The shrimp are fried in tempura batter, tossed with romaine and then presented on a plate decorated with stripes of soy paste. It's one of the tastiest (and priciest) Caesar salads I've had in a long time.
Benjy's "surf and turf" features dark and flavorful hoisin-marinated flank steak cut into strips and plump sautéed rock shrimp served atop a bed of slippery rice noodles with fresh snow pea shoots in a spicy Thai coconut and red curry sauce. Both dishes are excellent -- they're also two of the most popular dishes the restaurant serves.
The floors at benjy's are stained concrete, and the walls are painted in a sophisticated assortment of muted colors, including cocoa, teal and dove-gray. The servers are extremely attractive. The crowd at lunchtime on a weekday is mainly white and dressed in chic designer clothes. My dining companion describes them as "the Paper City set."
"The clientele we have is experimental and knowledgeable. They are looking for something unusual -- not a chicken-fried steak," says benjy's executive chef, Stephen Milstein, who grew up Jewish in Toronto.
I ask Milstein if fusion cuisine is a fad that's on its way out. He says the style is here to stay despite some problems with its reputation. "People bad-mouth fusion because it's flooded the market -- every Tom, Dick and Harry is doing it," he says. "And they're putting stuff together that doesn't make sense."
So how do you know what makes sense?
Milstein says he hones his sense of what works in the realm of Asian flavors by eating at lots of mom-and-pop Asian restaurants out on Bellaire Boulevard. (I tell him to check out Malaysia Restaurant.) And he tempers these flavors within the style he has learned in his French classical training. "There are certain things that don't fly in Houston. You have to be mild," he says.