Recently, while in the US of A, not the Mecca of gastronomy by any standards, in a small New Jersey town, I had some very impressive Thai-French fare.
Now there are many firsts there: the food was great and although that may not be a first in the US, it is definitely rare for restaurants there which normally have tremendous quantities but seldom write -home - about quality.
But more importantly, it was a very adventurous joint for a small town - this wasn't even close enough to be a pseudo-NYC suburb - and the fact that there were punters enough to fill it up on a Tuesday night.
Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, the fusion was between an Asian cuisine and the mothership of Haute Gastronomie, French.
Before we delve any further, let me be the first to admit that I am partial towards French food. It's not that I don't like Italian (I am sure I was Italian in one of my incarnations, but then, who wasn't), or have anything to detest about any other food from Lebanon to Japan, up or down and back all around.
But given how a certain stretch of my formative years was spent there, it is only natural to have this inherent affinity.
By extension then, given how I first attended college in Mumbai, I still savour a good bhajji-pao and fancy myself to be quite the connoisseur of the good joints.
But back to Somerville and this lovely joint called, Origins - there are three (Morristown and Basking ridge being the other two) so look them up and try them if opportunity ever allows - and they had what appeared to be mostly Thai food with a few French smatterings for effect.
But on closer inspection the Thai fare, although distinctly recognisable and authentic, has something that appears and feels different. It isn't when you order that the French influence becomes apparent but rather when the dishes start turning up.
The presentation for one is altered, it looks very neatly settled with almost a starkness to it that is very reminiscent of what the French do.
The salmon, for example, came neatly piled on a bed of carefully concealed accompaniments.
Then the flavours and textures hit you: nothing overcooked but left rather fresh and crisp, as if to let the intrinsic flavours of the main ingredient waft through in spite of the sauces and accompaniments.
The seared tuna was more European in every way save for the flavours which were entirely Thai-inspired. And then, as the dishes rolled in (and rather quickly, out) one is left satiated and yet wanting more.
But I didn't start filling the space today with the intent of a restaurant review (although, if it were one, Origin would certainly merit a high score) but rather to shed light on how when two cuisines blend successfully, the resulting offspring is something to be reckoned with.
Once again, let me be the first to admit that "fusion" today is the dirty "F" word, one that represents more failed (and flavourless) attempts than the successful ones, a word that is used by megalomaniac self-possessed chefs who think anything they stir will turn to sauce and let their zany imaginations get the better of them.
That is not the fusion I am on about, even though they are what populate the market. But again, this isn't about numbers and therefore statistics mean not much to me.
The few treasured gems of places scattered around the world which manage fusion in a manner where the idea is to be able to blend influences without compromise or concessions are the ones I am waxing eloquent about.
These places have managed to take a cuisine and then give it a new definition, an interpretation if you will, and the world is only too hungry to be served.
Here are a few favourites.
1. Tetsuya: The first chef to use French influences in Japanese cooking created quite the stir in the culinary world and since then there have been endless spin-offs (actually, rip-offs).
Today, reservations can take months and in spite of decades of existence, the wait doesn't seem to wane.
2. Gaggan: Gaggan Anand is not for petty tricks in the kitchen under the garb of fusion. He will enthral you, push you to your sensory limits and just when you think you've had enough, he'll push a little more.
The result is you come away impressed both by the food and the personality, which reflects strongly in the food he serves.
3. Quilon: Sriram Aylur was the first to shy away form the "F" word, preferring instead to use the term "progressive". But that was long ago when I first met him and since then even this word has become much abused, and he might not be a fan of it anymore.
Just like I avoid the word "foodie". But he remains the only chef in the world to hold a Michelin star for coastal Indian food (cooked with French techniques to preserve flavours and textures without disturbing authenticity).
4. Akira Back: Being a Korean-origin chef, Akira Back's eponymous restaurant at the JW Marriott in New Delhi does Japanese food with a twist. It is hotter and spicier for one. Try it and you shall see how a cuisine so classic can still have room for alterations.
5. Indian Accent: This is definitely not fusion in the traditional sense (Delhi would never accept it, was the sentiment just a few years ago). For one, the food is truly old school and traditional.
What then makes the difference is that chef Manish Mehrotra will present it in a manner that elevates Indian cuisine to a level worthy of receiving a star, you know which one I'm talking about.
The list is global and fairly varied but the one thing I know that all these places share, the one thing that unites the people behind these amazing establishments, that in spite of some of them being great friends of mine, all these chefs would still want to murder me for having used the "F" word in connection with their restaurant and calling them great proponents of the style.
Well progressive, evolutionary, adaptive…whatever the nomenclature, they are all yummy!