Fusion foods: a Bite Out of History

Asian Australian relationships with our cultural foods are varied and complex. While many recipes and practices can be traced back generations – true products of a unique culture, tradition, and history – others have arisen out of a long and complicated relationship with the West. Just like the plethora of modern Asian-fusion restaurants in the ‘hipper’ suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, these dishes denote an intimate mixing of cultures and people. Perhaps unlike contemporary fusion foods, many of these dishes have been integrated neatly into the cuisine, with many forgetting the stories of colonisation, war, and pain they were founded on.

An early example of Asian-fusion food is Curry Vindaloo. From 1510 to 1961, the province of Goa, located in Southwest India, was under Portuguese rule, as it became the civic centre of the Portuguese empire in Asia (Brittanica, 2018). Derived from the dish ‘carne de vinha d’alhos’, which translates to ‘meat of wine and garlic’, vindaloo is a pork curry cooked with palm vinegar, a substitution to the wine vinegar the Portuguese used, and Kashmiri chilis, which gives it its signature heat (Menon, 2020). Now, vindaloo is a staple in most Indian restaurants, having established itself as the token ‘spicy curry’ (Menon, 2020). 

Similarly, the Bánh Mì incorporates French elements into a Vietnamese sandwich, from the pâté to the mayonnaise, to the baguette that packages other fillings such as pickled daikon, carrots and cilantro. From the 1880s to 1954, France occupied and colonised Vietnam, importing French foods to enforce a cultural hierarchy between them and the Vietnamese (Stanley, 2016). 

However, following the start of World War I, German-owned import companies were seized by the French, and, in the absence of thousands of French who had left to fight in the war, the Vietnamese were given access to European bread, cheese, and meats (Stanley, 2016). While this marked the conception of the Bánh Mì, the sandwich that we enjoy today is often traced to Mr and Mrs Le’s family’s restaurant, Hoà Mã, who made it an affordable staple in Saigon following the division of Vietnam in 1954 (Stanley, 2016). 

Popularised through war, Spam has also found its way into being a staple in many Asian cuisines. Created by Barbara Funamura in Hawai’i, the Spam Musubi took canned meat, which American armies sent to Japanese incarceration camps between 1942 and 1945, and combined it with the traditional Japanese onigiri (Li, 2019). 

Giving a nod to its origins in its name, Budae Jjigae, or Army Stew, was similarly created out of wartime scarcity and American interaction with Asian populations after the Korean War (Bamman, 2017). As the story goes, Koreans realised large amounts of edible food scraps were being thrown away by American soldiers. Finding spam, cheese, and sausages in the scraps, these were combined with traditional ingredients such as rice cakes and kimchi (Bamman, 2017). 

These foods, along with many other fusion dishes, are a testament to the resourcefulness and perseverance of Asian people. As diasporas of these communities have formed in Australia and all across the Western world, more people than ever before can be exposed to these foods and histories. So, next time you take a bite of your favourite Bánh Mì, made fresh from a stall in Cabramatta, or order Budae Jjigae on your next trip to Strathfield, know that you are taking a bite out of history. 

Bamman, Mattie John, (2017), The Korean Comfort Food at the Intersection of War and Peace, Article.

Brittanica, (2018), Portuguese India, Encyclopedia Entry. 

Li, Ang, (2019), Asian American Chefs Are Embracing Spam. But How Did the Canned Meat Make Its Way Into Their Cultures?, Article. 

Menon, Smitha, (2020), How did the Goan vindaloo get to you?, Article. 

Stanley, Simon, (2016), The Sandwich that Ate the World, Article.

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