At the end of October, I found an unexpected gift waiting for me at the bottom of my freezer. Hidden under a scoop of sliced sourdough and a box of wedding cake was a bundle of beef ribs wrapped in purple butcher’s paper – a forgotten remnant of one ambitious weekend dinner plan or another. , overlooked for the convenience of roti takeout or pizza delivery. Unwrapping the bundle, I marveled at the pale streaks of grease streaking the crimson flesh, bold and elegant like an ink painting of a mountainside.
It was like an opportunity to make the Sunday sauce. The cooking process is slow and intentional that provides a meditative bookend to the week: meats are seared until they form a dark outer crust, leaving sizzling treats stuck to the bottom of the pan in a sort of pointillist thermal image. Everything is covered in vibrant tomato just before the charred bits burn off, and over several hours the dish moves toward a sort of equilibrium, where the sharp edges of the tomato are rounded and the meat deforms under its own weight. But the ribs would also have been perfect for one of my favorite dishes in the world: niu rou mian, a Taiwanese beef noodle soup. Its broth blends deeply salty and fermented elements like soy sauce and doubanjiang with the medicinal flavors of ginger and star anise and the numbing properties of Sichuan pepper. My partner was returning home that evening after a weekend in the country, and I wanted to comfort her with a special dinner; I just couldn’t decide which one. There wasn’t enough meat to make both dishes – or was there?
That’s when the visions began: first a rich Sunday sauce with the intensely flavorful broth of niu rou mian as a base, then an imaginary nonna, bludgeoning me with her rolling pin for my sins against Italian cuisine. (Have you seen how ruthless italians can be in the comment sections?) Still, as I considered the choice, all I could see were commonalities: roasted fennel and tomato are classic complements, and niu rou mian would have enough seeds star anise and fennel to pull out that flavor profile in a ragù; Since beef shank is the preferred cut for niu rou mian, what was it if not a mala osso buco? I knew what had to be done. I had to commit to the F-word.
In the mid-1980s, chef Norman Van Aken came across a book at the Old Island Bookstore in Key West, Florida that would clarify his philosophy of cooking and inspire the birth of a cursed word in the lexicon of food culture. He felt a click when he read the last lines of the prologue of “Culture and cuisine: a journey through the history of food”, a 1982 book written by the French intellectual Jean-François Revel. “The gastronomic soap opera written by the centuries has as its ‘intrigue’ the constant battle between the good amateur cook and the thinking chef”, writes Revel. “A lover’s quarrel which, as in all good adventure novels, ends, after many stormy scenes, in a wedding.” In the margins, Van Aken scribbled two words: “A Fusion!
Of course, fusion—the combining of culturally disparate culinary traditions, ingredients, and methodologies—had preceded “Aha!” by Van Aken. moment by millennia. Throughout the history of human interaction, you can find case studies of newly imported products and cultures that have become essential to a kitchen within a generation. But, as the term gained popularity in the 80s, it became shorthand for a specific type of cross-pollination: exotic, non-French ingredients supported in a way that’s never been seen before the imposing, if not quite new, French culinary standard. Fusion, with its evocations of conceptual but half-hearted experimentation, would come to carry negative connotations: fuzzy, tacky, disrespectful. It turns out that things don’t just taste magically better under a “refined” French lens.
But the last two decades of popular food culture have seen a rationale for merging. Finding the connection point between cuisines can produce smart and inspired dishes; it can also lead cooks into unintended cultural detours. David Chang’s Momofuku pork buns, which have spawned imitations around the world, were conceived as a way to reuse leftover pork belly from his equally influential ramen; Chang had no idea at the time that the dish he had created was gua bao, a quintessential Taiwanese snack with historical roots in China’s Fujian province. Chefs at some of America’s most exciting new restaurants are discovering unexpected ranges of flavor across kitchens: my mind reels at the thought of Los Angeles’ Yangban Society kimchi pozole, or wun tun en brodo, a seafood tortellini wonton soup. bathed in superior chinese broth, enriched with parmesan cheese and citrus – at bonnie’s in brooklyn.
In my own kitchen, the pandemic years were a golden era of fusion cuisine, as my partner and I chased our finicky cravings into the furthest corners of the pantry. These wacky patterns usually start with vaguely defined desires – like thought experiments for us to reverse engineer. During a holiday cookie swap last winter, my partner wondered if we could build our contribution around fish sauce caramel, a rich, salty-sweet condiment common in Vietnamese cuisine. Wanting to keep the holiday spirit alive, my mind turned to gingerbread, with ginger as a keyword: What if we made cookies infused with the flavors of pho? We soaked charred ginger, star anise, cloves, cilantro, and a cinnamon stick in eight ounces of melted butter for half an hour, left it in the freezer to harden, and we made everything else according to the Stella Parks sugar cookie recipe. The result was an oddly satisfying dessert that would have mystified my sweet-averse Vietnamese parents. (And it was a success at the cookie exchange, much to our amusement.)
Honoring your appetite sometimes requires making unexpected gestures. As I write this, leftover mapo tofu from last night is being reheated in the kitchen; it will serve as “chili” on the hot dog that I will have for lunch. Traditionalists might call it blasphemy, but I see it differently. Regional dishes are defined by their form and flavor, and the most enduring ones survive the passage of time through repetition, defined not just by a rigid set of ingredients, but by memory and experience. At its best, fusion cuisine takes a treasured pattern and presents it from multiple angles at once. The thrill of the act is not in forcing dissimilar things together, but in finding unlikely commonalities. Is it blasphemy? In a way, I would say there is no greater sign of respect.
Taiwanese Sunday Sauce (and Monday Beef Noodle Soup)
This recipe (adapted from Richard Ho’s Beef-Noodle Soup Recipe), by design, actually yields two different dishes: by making the base for the Sunday gravy, you will also have made the broth for the beef-noodle soup. Taiwanese noodles, so whether the soup or the sauce is enjoyed first is up to you. This recipe can be followed with a large Dutch oven or an electric pressure cooker.
- 4 tbsp. canola oil, or enough to cover the bottom of a large saucepan
- 2 pounds. short rib or shank of beef (boneless cut or osso-buco)
- 2 inches. piece of ginger, sliced
- 1 in. piece of galangal, sliced (optional)
- 1 bunch (or 5 stalks) green onions, coarsely chopped
- 8 crushed garlic cloves
- 2½ tsp. doubanjiang (spicy fermented bean paste from Sichuan, a wonderfully versatile staple that has become my not-so-secret ingredient in chili, vegetarian or otherwise. If not readily available, some of the best are available online at the market of Mala. )
- 1 tbsp. tomato paste
- ½ cup soy sauce
- ¼ cup dark soy sauce
- 1 cup of Shaoxing cooking wine
- 2 inches. cube of rock sugar or 2½ tsp. cane sugar
- 1 apple, coarsely chopped
- 1 yellow onion, quartered
- 1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 celery stalks, coarsely chopped
- 2 star anise pods
- 2 tbsp. Sichuan pepper
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 C. fennel seeds
- 1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes
- 2 tbsp. Chinese or Taiwanese black vinegar or balsamic vinegar, plus extra for serving
- 1 lb spaghetti
- 1 lb Chinese wheat noodles
Optional additional ingredients, for garnish:
- Grated parmesan
- Basil, chopped
- Cilantro, chopped
- Shallots, sliced
- Marinated mustard greens, chopped
1. Over high heat, coat the bottom of a large saucepan with canola oil, until the oil swirls and shimmers. Sear the shanks in slices, allowing each side to form a brown crust, about 2 minutes per side. Lower the heat (or, if using an electric pressure cooker, turn it off) as needed to avoid burns or excessive smoke. Once browned, place the meat on a large plate. Reduce heat to medium-high.
2. Add the ginger, galangal (if using), scallions and garlic to the pot and stir constantly, coating each item with oil and golden spots on the bottom. Cook for 3 minutes or until the aromatics begin to develop their own golden patina.