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Kansas City Star Food Editor Jill Silva talks about the concept behind creating this year's Food Issue cover, including a time lapse video showing how we used seed art to put a global spin on the cover image.
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Kansas City Star Food Editor Jill Silva talks about the concept behind creating this year's Food Issue cover, including a time lapse video showing how we used seed art to put a global spin on the cover image.

The Food Issue

KC Fusion: It’s all about cultural mashups that taste good

By Jill Wendholt Silva

March 07, 2016 02:00 AM

Plenty of chefs curse the F-word.

Maybe that’s because “fusion” cuisine was tainted by one too many lumpy interpretations of wasabi mashed potatoes, an example of a dish some ridiculed as an unforgivable food Frankenstein of the 1990s.

Yet oddly, fewer chefs today snigger at Korean tacos, a currently popular cultural mashup.

For a bit of modern perspective, scan the ingredients in our recipe for Korean Gochujang Pork Tacos: Thinly sliced pork shoulder roast is marinated in locally made gochujang from Born With Seoul, folded in corn tortillas and topped with a daikon kimchi.

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The zippy gochujang — a Hoot Foods product produced by Korean-born Angela Hong and her family — is a rich and pungent condiment made in Prairie Village.

Similar to Sriracha, the Thai chili hot sauce that was popularized in this country by a Vietnamese-American, gochujang may be poised to become the next hot Asian hot sauce, some trend-watchers predict. Hong can only hope gochujang is on that same trajectory, as Sriracha is now nearly as ubiquitous on American tables as ketchup.

That sort of delicious success story is possible because America is a true melting pot of culinary ingredients and techniques, and probably always will be.

“I was born into and focused on one cuisine, but America is the antithesis of that because it’s made of immigrants. It’s true, and befits young chefs that are American to reflect that,” says Lidia Bastianich, author of “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine.”

Bastianich arrived in New York City as a teenager in the late 1950s and has become one of the nation’s most successful restaurateurs. Born in Istria, a northern-most region of Italy now part of Croatia, Bastianich points to her Italian as well as Austro-Hungarian, Moorish, Spanish and North African influences.

Throughout history, the “occupiers leave their flavors; eventually every culture has the gift of making it their own,” says Bastianich, who owns Lidia’s Kansas City in the Crossroads. Examples on her menu and in her cookbooks include such non-Italian-sounding foods as stuffed cabbage, strudel, goulash and spaetzle. “My Italian is strong enough that I absorb this,” she says.

“Fusion is OK as a term, but it’s risky in a sense, because you have to prove yourself, and ultimately it must taste good,” she says. “Ramen is ramen. People recognize it because it’s been around. But ramen mixed with, say, beets, is much riskier.”

The majority of chefs in Kansas City restaurants — and across the country — have some measure of classical French training under their belts. Increasingly, chefs are using that base as their own point of departure, sometimes paying homage to traditional dishes while other times putting their own spin on a world cuisine.

By our tally, no fewer than four ramen shops will have opened between October and April. Chef Patrick Curtis of Shio Ramen Shop will feature shio, a typical Japanese salt broth, but he’ll also play around with some fusion interpretations, perhaps putting together a corned beef and cabbage version for when the St. Patrick’s Day parade snakes by his shop at 3601 Broadway.

When American-born chefs cross into foreign territory, tension over authenticity and cultural appropriation sometimes bubbles to the surface.

Linzi Weilert has never been to Germany, yet for the past two years she and her Italian-American mother have run Beethoven’s #9 in Paola, Kan., a dining destination for an increasing number of Kansas City food enthusiasts.

The menu is heavy on schnitzel, sauerbraten and cabbage in several forms, including the Kansas Russian Mennonite favorite bierox. But the restaurant also serves a popular lasagna and red velvet cake, a dessert many would consider a Midwestern classic.

Even though Weilert had worked at a number of high-profile Kansas City restaurants, she admits to initial trepidation about taking the reins from the German couple who had owned the restaurant for two decades.

“It was a little terrifying to take over, but I know how to cook and make things taste good, and I know how to run a kitchen,” she says. “If you make whatever food you are making taste good — even if it is not historically how Germans make it — you’re OK.”

Truth is, if you squint hard enough, even dishes most of us would consider American classics — like doughnuts, waffles, New York-style bagels and barbecue — trace their origins to immigrants.

“It’s not like we’re trying to reinvent the wheel,” says Jake Randall, owner of the Doughnut Lounge in Westport, a gourmet doughnut shop that explores entree-style “noduts” and American craft cocktail pairings. “We’re just trying to push ourselves.”

That statement echoes the sort of fusion mindset simmering in kitchens across Kansas City. If it tastes good, no one really cares what you call it — or whether it is served on a plate, in a cocktail glass or on a platter lined with banana leaves.

Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor. Reach her at 816-234-4395; Facebook at jsilva and chowtownkc; Twitter and Instagram @kcstarfood and chowtownkc.