Cultural Crossroads or Culinary Fads? - Mash-Up Week


By Rebecca Seidel

A fusion roll at SushiSamba. Photo courtesy of Nicole Yeary.

Chefs have long been drawn to the idea of fusion cooking: merging cuisines from different cultures into a single culinary experience. Lately though, fusion seems to be gaining greater momentum than ever–more and more food vendors are trying to bank on unexpected culinary combinations, from sashimi-filled tacos to kimchi-topped hot dogs. (Both of these are, unsurprisingly, available at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn.)

Reaching to opposite sides of the planet for ingredients, spices, and cooking techniques has exciting possibilities, but it also poses challenges. You want something that’s more than the sum of its parts, but that doesn’t diminish the food’s multiple origins. Are those chipotle-infused sushi rolls pieces of culinary art, or are they over-stretching cultural and culinary traditions?

While poor attempts at fusion can easily be dismissed as gimmicky, food that draws genuine inspiration from different cultures will keep people coming back for more. You be the judge: get thee to Smorgasburg (or save up some cash for Restaurant Week) and check out these NYC culinary mash-ups for yourself.

[Disclaimer: This list is very Manhattan-centric. For more cultural fusion experiences than can be narrowed down into a list, take the 7 Train to go restaurant hopping in Jackson Heights or Flushing.]

1. SushiSamba
87 7th Avenue South, West Village, NYC
(with other locations nationwide)

Merging Japanese, Brazilian, and Peruvian cuisine, Sushi Samba offers a full-on culinary extravaganza. The restaurant’s About page explains that these cultures’ foods came together in the early 20th century, when Japanese emigrants traveled to South America: “This cultural phenomenon launched a culinary coup. Hearty moquecas and colorful seviches found a place at the table alongside simple miso soup and tender sashimi.”

With its airy atmosphere, abundant outdoor seating, and colorful walls, this restaurant is as much about celebrating cultural fusion as it is about celebrating… well, everything. Try their multi-course tasting menu for the full range of flavors this cultural trifecta offers.

An Asiadog Selection. Photo by Molly Freeman.

2. Asiadog
66 Kenmare Street, Soho, NYC

Asiadogs are what they sound like: hot dogs with Asian-inspired toppings. The philosophy behind them is pretty simple: “Born from a love of NYC, we wanted to push the limits of one of its most popular street foods by adding our own personal touch with super-fresh ingredients.”

You can top your beef, chicken, or veggie dog with kimchi and seaweed flakes, Asian sesame slaw, or Japanese curry–or make it banh-mi style with pickled carrots and cilantro. With a store in SoHo and pop-up stands in other parts of the city, Asiadog has been giving the Coney Island classic a makeover since 2008.

3. Taka Taka
330 West Broadway

In one section of Taka Taka’s menu, “Sushi Caliente,” you can find a sushi roll featuring “breaded plantain slices rolled over shrimp, cucumber and chipotle sauce.” One of the appetizers, Crispy Rice Cakes, consists of “fried sushi rice squares tipped with spicy tuna tartar, guacamole and masago.”

If that’s not enough for you to process, this restaurant (whose catchphrase is “Mexican sushi and Japanese tacos”) also has a sushi conveyor belt. They’re common in Japan, but you don’t see many of those in American sushi restaurants–let alone American restaurants serving “Mexican sushi.”

4. Zengo
622 3rd Avenue, NYC

Owned by Mexico City-born chef Richard Sandoval, Zengo prides itself on blending Latin and Asian cuisines. Some of the fusion on the menu is subtle, but there are also more obvious cross-cultural offerings like Thai chicken empanadas and Kung Pao lamb chops asado. With a separate gluten-free and vegetarian menu available–not to mention a stock of over 400 tequilas that’s fittingly called La Biblioteca–Zengo is armed for a variety of visitors.

4. Dieci
228 East 10th Street, East Village, NYC

Those battling between a hankering for Japanese food and a craving for pasta are in luck. Dieci’s menu includes fetuccini with uni (sea urchin) cream sauce, ramen bolognese, and a miso black cod dish with mushroom risotto. Things you need upon arriving: preparedness for unexpectedly great flavor combinations, a desire to be cozy (it’s a small place), and fairly deep pockets.

6. Takumi Taco

Although Takumi Taco is always on the move, its mission stays consistent: to keep bringing their Japanese-inspired tacos to customers wherever they go. Inside a crispy taco shell, you can get a variety of fillings, including spicy tuna sashimi, miso marinated chicken, and tofu with jicama and avocado. For your Japanese taco fix, you can catch Takumi Taco at Smorgasburg or Madison Square Eats. Or, if you want everyone to love you forever, have their taco cart cater your next party.