Fusion on the Other Side of the World
Michael Potowski, manager and executive chef at Rickshaw [2810 Westheimer, (713)942-7272], is a genuine exponent of Asian/ European cuisine. With a Japanese mother and a Lithuanian father, Potowski grew up in Japan and studied cooking in Japan and the United States, including study at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston. His last name is, in fact, a Polish spelling of his Lithuanian family name, Patakas. Further fusion. (The Baltic Lithuanians are, in fact, a separate linguistic and ethnic group from the Slavic Poles, their partners in a sizable empire in Eastern Europe during several centuries prior to the rise of the Swedish and Russian states in the period after the Reformation.) His mother ran a wholesale seafood business in Japan, and he first worked in a Japanese restaurant at age 12.
Q. With all the interest in the United States in fusion cuisine, which combines East Asian and European techniques and ingredients, is there a similar movement in Asia?
A. Fusion cuisine is the mix of Asian and European, with Asian ingredients and European techniques, or the opposite. I worked in an Italian-French restaurant in Japan. We made dishes that were adapted to Japanese taste. Japanese restaurants use stuff from all over the world. The best stuff. I don't think there are that many people who want to go to a pure French or pure Japanese restaurant in Japan. If you go to a fusion restaurant, you can get new flavors.Wolfgang Puck is the greatest practitioner of fusion. Italian food, for Japanese, is too heavy.
But yes, Japanese do go for fusion cuisine. They eat a lot of mayonnaise in Japan. There is a brand, Kewpie mayonnaise, which comes in a plastic tube with a picture of a Kewpie doll on the package. It is a little more sharp and tart than French mayonnaise. It is used on sushi and other dishes, like natto, or stinky beans, which are soybeans cooked in water and then left to ferment for several hours. The beans are slimy. I had them with yamaimo, or cooked Japanese sweet potato, which is also slimy, but the combination was great.
Even the Mexican restaurants -- there are a few of them in Japan -- are fusion. For the Japanese, the smell of a cooking corn tortilla is terrible. The cheese in Tex-Mex is also a problem. When I do eat cheese, I get a bad stomachache. Mexican food in Japan avoids those products. But a Mexican restaurant in Tokyo, with a French-trained Japanese chef, was good. He used some Latin American dishes on the menu. There were tacos with pineapple, which sounded odd, but the flavors worked together.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.