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A Primer on Fusion Cooking

Cool, bright papaya and spicy hot black beans. An Italian pasta sauce with a curried overtone. A Middle Eastern dip with Mexican flair. Each combination brings an unexpected, delightful fusion of flavors!

So what exactly is fusion cooking? Fusion cooking sometimes means taking locally available ingredients and dressing them up with ethnic flair—like a harvest of fresh Brussels sprouts served with a spicy Vietnamese sauce. Other times it involves melding ingredients and techniques from different cultures—such as Chinese vegetables stir fried with Mexican spices, or a French omelet sprinkled with Asian seasonings.

Fusion may mean East meets West, or it may combine the various cuisines of one large region, like Indian, East and Southeast Asian, or Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian fare. Sometimes it’s simply the result of unusual combinations, like cool fruits and spicy grains, meats, or seafood. One constant, though, is the liberal use of a wide variety of spices.

Fusion cooking is fun by definition. So, where does one start?

Begin with much less than you think you’ll need, then taste—and season—as you go. For starters, try 1/8 (for very pungent spices) to 1/4 teaspoon of a spice for a dish that serves four. In most cases, you’ll wind up with at least twice as much spice by the time your dish is ready to serve, but since it’s impossible to remove (and easy to add) spice, a light hand makes sense. Keep in mind when making ingredient substitutions that it takes about half the quantity of dried herbs and spices as fresh. (That’s because oils are concentrated in the drying process.)

You can always make an extra portion of your main dish and remove it before seasoning for experimenting. (Take aside a cup of plain pasta, or rice, for example, and play with flavors without jeopardizing the evening’s dinner!) Another easy way to sample new flavors is by making flavored butters. Simply add herbs or spices to melted butter (or butter whipped with oil) and use on breads, vegetables, fish, grains, pasta, and many other dishes. Traditional butter seasonings include parsley, lemon pepper, thyme, marjoram, garlic, basil, oregano, chervil, tarragon and dill weed. But you can combine any spice at all with butter to test drive some ideas: a curry butter for your green beans, or a cardamom butter for your pumpkin bread, for example.

If you’re thinking ethnic combos, though, the following guidelines might be helpful. (Be sure to take advantage of ethnic spice blends, too.)

Asian: chili peppers, chili powder, cilantro, cinnamon, curry powder, garlic, ginger, mustard, orange peel, sea salt, star anise

French: basil, bay, cinnamon, chervil, cloves, coriander, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, lavender, marjoram, mustard, nutmeg, paprika, parsley, peppercorns, rosemary, saffron, sage, savory, tarragon, thyme, turmeric

Italian: basil, bay, chives, fennel, garlic, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme

Indian: cardamom, cayenne, chili peppers, cinnamon, cilantro, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, mustard seed, nutmeg, peppercorns, saffron, star anise, turmeric

Mexican: allspice, annatto seed, cayenne, chili peppers, chili powder, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, mint, nutmeg, oregano, sage, thyme

If you’re reluctant to concoct your own dishes, you might want to start with the recipe below. Once you enjoy the results of your unusual combinations, though, you’ll probably be eager to think outside the recipe box.

Guacahummus: There’s just no good way to combine the names of these two recipes as smoothly as their ingredients meld. Make this combo of Mexican guacamole and Middle Eastern hummus just as mild or as wild as you like.

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