I am undecided about fusion food. You know, the marrying of cuisines. Sometimes it works, and when it does, it can lead to exciting new flavours and frontiers. That is, indeed, one way in which how we eat evolves. But the marrying of cuisines can be a fraught endeavour. It can unite cultures, build a civilisation—or it can make for a dodgy meal.
One of the first things to be affected wherever cultures meet is food. I was reminded of this recently when eating a Vietnamese bánh mi, which involves a short baguette, borrowed from French colonisers, stuffed with pork or—since this is India, chicken was an option—pickled vegetables, mayo or soy, cucumber, coriander or cilantro.
In India, the most prominent example of fusion is, of course, the biryani, which evolved—and continues to evolve—over centuries as invaders and merchants brought with them ingredients and ideas. The word itself has roots in “birian”, a Persian word for something that is fried before cooking. Today’s Indian biryanis are much spicier than the original versions from the Persians or Turks and there are more versions than there are states: In south India alone, we have the Dindigul, Ambur, Arcot, Hyderabadi, Bhatkali, Moplah and so many more.
At home, the influences on the native food of my home state of Goa include Portuguese, African and Brazilian, giving rise to vindaloo, xacuti, balchao, caldin, rechado, chourico, assad, bebinca and pao.
Speaking of the pao, the most beloved street food of western India, the vada pav is a classic example of how the bread of Portuguese colonisers became the perfect home to a spicy, deep-fried Maharashtrian potato vada. The erstwhile Portuguese Estado da Índia was proving ground for a variety of iconic fusion food, marrying the culinary traditions of not just coloniser and colonised but the cuisines of various colonised people, exchanged when they met in the entrepôts of the empire.
The idea for this column came from a fusion idea from the wife one hectic Sunday. I was tired after driving the daughter to an early morning tuition class and going on a Sunday run while she struggled with exponents. I was also due to drive her to choir practice and I was struggling for dinner ideas.
We had a particular soft and fluffy home-made dosa that morning and something from that lit a bulb in her head. “Why don’t you make a dosa taco?” the wife suggested, having just read about their inventor, Vipul Gupta, a chef in the US, who was struck by the idea during an Indian destination wedding in Mexico. My first instinct was to snort.
While I admire and appreciate India’s fused culinary traditions, I am leery of modern avatars. Fusion food in new India, I regret to report, is neither here nor there. I regard much of it as a smorgasbord of desperation, served up by chefs or restaurateurs who want to be different and stand out in an era of intense competition.
I am, as you might guess, no fan of the older Schezwan dosa or gobi Manchurian; nor of the newer ice-cream dosa or chocolate shawarmas—no joke, both are available in Bengaluru. I can understand and celebrate a gradual, easy merging of culinary traditions but I cannot comprehend how smashing two cuisines together for the sake of it makes sense.
So, dosa taco?
I paced up and down for a bit, as I tend to do when I am trying to think my way through what to cook. I usually do a virtual mixing in my brain: imagining my way through ingredients and spices, calling on my sensory faculties to explore what they might taste like before I decide.
It could work, I decided. There was leftover sausage. If that was tossed with a salsa, garnished with fresh basil and mint, present in the fridge, it was worth a try.
As I was ruminating, my mother informed me that a relative from Goa (and a reader of this column), Triveni Potekar, was visiting. Triveni had brought with her a little gift pack—Goa sausages or chourico, fried oysters and prawns, which she had made herself. The recipe closely followed my own: Marinate in red-chilli powder, turmeric, lemon juice, salt and a bit of garam masala (even if you don’t use garam masala, that’s fine). It’s a simple, basic and time-tested Goan recipe for seafood.
Here was an idea for easy, organic fusion, the west with the south. Many in my family like a warm dosa with leftover fish curry in the morning. I do too, and so does my daughter. Coincidentally, there was fish curry in the fridge as well, so we were quite ready for a fusion meal.
Apart from the dosa-salsa, we had dosa with the oysters, prawn and fish curry. It was all rather wonderful—and somewhat ironic that the idea came from the sole vegetarian in the family. That, literally, is the essence of marrying cultures.
Dosa with sausage salsa
Salsa serves 4 people
2 sausages (pork or chicken), fried and chopped
Half a large onion, finely chopped
3 tomatoes, chopped
2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped
2 tsp coriander, finely chopped
1 tsp mint, finely chopped
3 leaves of basil, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Toss all the ingredients together. Place on half a small taco-sized dosa, made fresh. Eat immediately, otherwise the dosa will become soggy.
Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11 on Twitter.