Shoshanna Cohen is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. As a runner, hedonist, and culture geek, she is interested in food as fuel, as pleasure, and as language, sometimes all at once. She blogs about food and drinks at Socktails and about running at Nice Shorts.

A fusion slaw

A slaw for pro-cultural evolutionaries

March 1, 2011

I’m having an incredibly conflicted moment. I know it’s no longer OK to admire "fusion cuisine" — it’s so 1990s, and the whole Asian-cultural-appropriation thing is so insensitive. Still, I happen really to like dishes made with ginger, sesame, and green onions, and I don’t feel a need for them to come from any one specific geographic source.

Quite the contrary, in fact. I think that white people who are obsessed with finding and replicating the most precise authentic traditions from other ethnicities are kind of pretentious. (They’re also ignoring the reality that cultures are fluid and dynamic, changing and appropriating one another all the time, and that’s a good thing.) I’m not saying I’m pro-exploitation or pro-boiling things down to the lowest common denominator. But I am pro-cultural evolution.

And whether you call it “pan-Asian cooking” or “fusion cuisine,” it’s an authentic American cultural strain in its own right, albeit one that originated in hotel restaurants and American housewife magazines, not in anybody’s grandmother’s kitchen in the Old Country.

Cabbage is in season; make slaw.

Just because something is cheesy and modern doesn’t mean it isn’t culture, in the most basic sense of the word. (And just because someone somewhere thinks he’s honoring an ethnic tradition the way it is “supposed” to be doesn’t mean his cooking is going to be authentic or necessarily even good. I’m talking to you, wannabe Jewish delis with crap chicken soup.)

I have a certain nostalgic fondness for fusion. Partly, I think, because I came of age in the 1990s. But mostly it’s because, as tacky as the trend seems now, it emphasized bright, flavorful ingredients and often healthy preparations, in contrast to the heavy, European-influenced, meat-focused cooking that’s popular right now. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, either. I dig a good slab of cured pork fat as much as the next lardo lover.)

So I’m not going to apologize for having recently rediscovered one of my favorite salads: “Cultural Mongrel Cabbage Slaw.” It has vaguely Asian ingredients, like sesame and rice vinegar. It has no discernible national heritage, other than perhaps the Internet, whence I have adapted it. And you know what? It’s really good.

More about this slaw: It’s really good to bring to a potluck because (a) it travels well, (b) it’s vegan, so everybody can eat it, and (c) it’s not fattening. Everybody will be happy with it, as long as you don’t call it Asian slaw.

It also keeps well for a few days and is really good with spicy garbanzo beans on the side, and maybe a fried egg and maybe some roasted broccoli. So bring on the 1990s. It’s so Portland, after all.

Related recipe: Cultural Mongrel Cabbage Slaw

There are 12 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Mar 1, 2011 at 5:05 PM PST

Hi, The link doesn’t work. Would love to see the recipe. Thanks!

2. by Kim on Mar 1, 2011 at 8:12 PM PST

Sorry, anon. That link is fixed now.

3. by anonymous on Mar 2, 2011 at 2:22 AM PST

Still doesn’t work :(

4. by anonymous on Mar 2, 2011 at 2:56 AM PST,ctype=recipe,q=cabbage+slaw/324693 this should work

5. by anonymous on Mar 2, 2011 at 6:15 AM PST

Thanks for fixing the link! Looks great and will get the ingredients today.

6. by Kim on Mar 2, 2011 at 9:42 AM PST

Oh my, are we ever link-challenged around here today. But it’s fixed now! (Honest.)

7. by WildFlower Chef Suzi on Mar 2, 2011 at 2:08 PM PST

On “fusion” the chefs in Portland and around Oregon who jumped into the fray were trying too hard in my opinion. They were marrying tastes best left strangers like dried fruit Waldorf salads claiming a Native American fusion with chestnuts that took a half an hour to chew. The whole Pan-Asian thing got reduced to ginger in everything. It is difficult to define what makes this current resurgence of creativity different but my guess is simply the availability of everything. Still, “foam” will never again pass my lips.

8. by anonymous on Mar 2, 2011 at 3:11 PM PST

A friend used to refer to “fusion” cuisine as “confusion”. Unfortunately that was often a more appropriate description.

9. by Linear Girl on Mar 3, 2011 at 10:23 AM PST

Isn’t funny how we can miss out on things that are “trendy” because we’re busy eating and creating good food? I think that living on the West Coast with lots of new Asian immigrants makes fusion (with a small “f”) less of a bad word and more an accurate description. Maybe Fusion was tacky in the restaurants, but in our home kitchens it’s a matter of making Asian style food with American/Western ingredients. Or Western style food with an Asian flair. I can’t find rau ram for my Vietnamese salad? Okay, I’ll use cilantro, mint and basil instead. Instead of grilling giant steaks for a cookout maybe I’m grilling small bits of meat/fowl/fish and adding them to salads. That same salad might be served with grilled bread instead of rice, but maybe the salad has grilled pineapple, too. Instead of peach ice cream for dessert we might have peach-ginger sorbet (yes, I like ginger, dang it, and I won’t stop eating it just because it’s passe). If you don’t worry about what it’s called or what someone else thinks is hot/not, you can just eat good food.

10. by debra daniels-zeller on Mar 4, 2011 at 8:57 AM PST

I guess I don’t really get the rant about “fusion” cuisine. One of my favorite books in the early 1990s by Bharti Kirchner called The Bold Vegetarian is filled with creative “fusion” type recipes that I still use today. For some cooks it’s all about flavors and the way they transform simple dishes. Labels are the last thing on my mind when I cook.

11. by Fasenfest on Mar 5, 2011 at 8:08 AM PST

American cooking is nothing but fusion. Immigrant took old recipes and adapted them to local ingredients. That’s it. But always, always, always, moderation and a good palate is required to keep fusion from going rococo. Young chefs imagine that more is more when, often, it is just too much.

12. by Shoshanna Cohen on Mar 5, 2011 at 8:31 PM PST

Thanks for all of your thoughts, I love reading these! Fasenfest, I especially like your rococo analogy, so true.

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