How the shawarma gave birth to tacos al pastor – and why fusion food is here to stay

We now have ramen burgers and high-end experimentation, but the origins of fusion food go way, way back

WJKM7C Shawarma  tacos al pastor gyro or gyros fresh roll of lavash (pita bread) chicken beef shawarma falafel RecipeTin Eats Filled with grilled meat, vegetables. Alamy

From Tresind and Farzi Cafe to All'Onda, Tamba and 99 Sushi, "fusion" restaurants con­tinue to pop up through­out the UAE. How­ev­er, while it's one of the key trends ad­ver­tised by mod­ern res­tau­rants, fu­sion cui­sine is noth­ing new. In fact, fu­sion is the ba­sis of most pop­u­lar cui­sines.

Founder of fusion: Wolfgang Puck

Chef Wolf­gang Puck, who runs Santa Mon­i­ca res­tau­rant Chinois, is cred­it­ed as being the founder of the trend. The California eatery opened in 1983 and fea­tured Asian in­gre­di­ents pre­pared us­ing trad­ition­al French cooking meth­ods.

"I start­ed the East meets West fu­sion trend out on the West Coast with Chinois," Puck says. "I don't be­lieve they would have taken so well to it in New York. But after the suc­cess of Chinois they were able to jus­ti­fy the open­ing of China Grill in Man­hat­tan."

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, May 06, 2014 - Tuna tartare, Wasabi, Ginger, Togarashi Crisps, Tosa Soy by Wolfgang Puck, chef and restaurateur visiting Dubai to open his steakhouse Cut at Address Downtown. ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper ) Samantha Wood - Arts & Life

Chef Nobu takes over

A few years lat­er, Jap­a­nese chef Nobu Matsuhisa, who had been run­ning a su­shi bar in Peru, ap­plied Latin American in­flu­en­ces to his epon­y­mous Bev­er­ly Hills res­tau­rant. By do­ing so, he set a new stand­ard for su­shi and gave us the re­nowned miso-marinated black cod.

These days, stum­bling upon an un­usu­al com­bi­na­tion of in­gre­di­ents is what dic­tates a sea­son's "it" dish, from wa­sa­bi mashed po­ta­toes to ra­men bur­gers. Ex­peri­men­ta­tion is huge­ly en­cour­aged be­cause, who knows, per­haps you'll cre­ate some­thing that helps you stand out in an in­creas­ing­ly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket, or that makes your place, or you, fam­ous. In 2013, in New York, French pas­try chef Dominique An­sel cre­at­ed the cronut – a crois­sant-­doughnut hy­brid – and queues formed around the block.

Tresind leads the way in Dubai

In the UAE, Tresind Stu­dio in Dubai has been lead­ing the charge for high-end fu­sion din­ing.

Steak curry at Tresind Studio with five different curry sauces

A port­man­teau of "tres" – French for very – and "In­di­an", it ap­plies French tech­niques to In­di­an cooking for a tru­ly de­li­cious tast­ing menu. "It's dif­fi­cult to com­bine two an­cient cui­sines," says Tresind head chef Himanshu Saini, who is of In­di­an herit­age and trained in French cooking. "The best pos­sible way is to find the com­mon ground for both in terms of fla­vour, tech­nique and in­gre­di­ents."

Even with­in a spe­cif­ic cui­sine, such as In­di­an, most menus now are a mix. "Do­ing just a re­gion­al-cen­tric menu is dif­fi­cult to pull off in a city like Dubai," Saini says. "But serv­ing a mix of dish­es from dif­fer­ent parts of India doesn't di­lute the cui­sine as long as the au­then­tic­ity of fla­vours is main­tained."

Asian food a big draw

Like­wise, chef Yang Tao of Zhen Wei at Caesars Palace Bluewaters Dubai, says the mer­ging of Asian cui­sines is a way to broad­en the appeal. "Quite often, Asian fla­vours such as Chi­nese, Ko­re­an, In­do­ne­sian, Jap­a­nese and Thai be­come a foun­da­tion for fus­ing South American, French, American and many more styles of cooking, which has helped to wid­en the glob­al reach and at­trac­tion," he says. "The rea­son Asian fu­sion cui­sine has cre­at­ed a buzz worldwide is due to its wide range of fla­vours, styles of cooking and the abil­ity to blend with other cui­sines."

Spring apple sticky rice cakes at Zhen Wei

Tao ex­plains that one way to make fu­sion work is to pre­serve the trad­ition­al ways of cooking au­then­tic dish­es, us­ing clas­sic in­gre­di­ents and then reimagine the pres­en­ta­tion. "We make clas­sic dim sum adding mod­ern touch­es with unique shapes and in­gre­di­ents, like div­er scal­lops, black truf­fles and cav­i­ar, but re­tain clas­sics like Peking duck along with other items be­ing pre­pared the trad­ition­al way in the woks."

The chicken tikka masala controversy

While Puck may be cred­it­ed as the fath­er of fu­sion, an in­crease in glob­al trav­el and trade is the major rea­son for the rise of fu­sion cui­sine and many of the dish­es we now con­sid­er to be cu­li­nary sta­ples are a re­sult of this. In 2011, a Poul­try World sur­vey re­vealed that chick­en tik­ka ma­sa­la was the most pop­u­lar dish in the UK, where it was served before it ever made it to India. The dish was cre­at­ed in a res­tau­rant in Scot­land after a din­er com­plained that his chick­en was too dry, with the chef mak­ing a sauce from to­ma­to soup and spices to pour on top. The din­er loved it, word spread and an in­sti­tu­tion was born.

E1A735 A delicious bowl of creamy chicken tikka masala with rice, lemons, and naan bread. Alamy

The dish is now ­regu­lar­ly used as an il­lus­tra­tion of mul­ti­cul­tur­al Britain and how it takes and adapts ex­ter­nal in­flu­en­ces, or it serves as an ex­am­ple of postcolonial plun­der and cul­tur­al ap­pro­pri­a­tion – take your pick.

Like­wise, the Ja­mai­can pat­ty is a re­sult of the Brit­ish Em­pire ex­pand­ing to that part of the world and intro­du­cing the Cor­nish pasty, with In­di­an work­ers in the Carib­bean adding curry and cum­in, as well as the lo­cal Scotch bon­net pep­per. Else­where, the to­ma­to – a key in­gredi­ent for margherita piz­zas and many other Ital­ian dish­es – only ar­rived in Na­ples in the late 16th cen­tury, after the Span­ish colo­nised the Amer­icas.

Pasta is from the Arab world? As is the taco...

And while the story goes that Marco Polo in­tro­duced pas­ta to Italy from Chinawhich was ac­tual­ly the re­sult of an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign – it was Arabs who brought in pas­ta via the Emir­ate of Sicily in the ninth cen­tury. Cof­fee made its way to Eu­rope via the Ara­bi­an Peninsula, while the fam­ous ta­cos al pas­tor were cre­at­ed in Pueb­la, Mex­i­co, dur­ing the 1930s by Leb­a­nese im­mi­grants who in­tro­duced the re­gion to the clas­sic sha­warma. Many of the great dish­es in Mex­ican street food can be traced back to the sha­warma.

In many ways, the UAE is full of peo­ple who cre­ate their own fu­sion meals ev­ery week­end with our ubi­qui­tous in­ter­na­tion­al brunch­es. There, on the plates of the buf­fet graz­ers, the lion roll lies next to the lamb – along­side many other things that prob­a­bly shouldn't be on the same plate.

In­ten­tion­al fu­sion, though, is fast be­com­ing the norm as we be­come world­-wise din­ers, con­sum­ing an in­creas­ing­ly glob­al cui­sine. What we are see­ing is the con­tinu­a­tion of a proc­ess that start­ed cen­tu­ries ago. It's a lit­tle more pro­nounced and con­scious­ly fu­sion, with the odd standout dish, but these days it's ac­tual­ly more dif­fi­cult to find some­thing that is not a re­sult of mixed cul­tures.