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Food Culture 101

What do you need to know about food culture if you are just getting started with your culinary adventures? There are a few simple things to keep in mind to get the most mileage out of your kitchen, your ingredients, and your finished recipes.

Food Culture 101

Authentic Cultural Food Versus “Inspired By” Food

It would be easy to assume that among today’s most famous celeb chefs like Gordon Ramsey or internet cooking channels like the Babish Culinary Universe, authenticity is king. But believe it or not, in recent years there’s been a general trend toward “inspired-by” type cooking and with good reason.

Authentic Japanese, Indian, Taiwanese, Thai, Korean, and Chinese cooking all rely heavily on ingredients that may not travel well, or are not available in all areas of the United States. That makes traditional cooking far more challenging.

Indian, Pakistani, and Greek food all feature staple ingredients that may be easier to locally source; replicating the authentic dishes from these regions is easier depending on where you live.

Part of the concern for borrowing from other countries has to do with cultural appropriation; it’s very important to acknowledge and respect the source code, so to speak, of the food you’re inspired by. Credit where credit is due, as the old saying goes.

Getting The Right Results From Your Cooking

The key to good cooking is consistency and predictability. If you can’t get a hold of pistachios on a regular basis, it’s hard to commit to making pistachio ice cream for a family event. If rhubarb is plentiful and you can always count on having enough around, you might be able to add rhubarb pie to your repertoire.

Food inspired by the cultures of Mexico, Africa, and Jamaica (just to name a few we haven’t already named) will taste close to the real thing with many of the flavors you would expect from jerk chicken in your fusion jerk chicken nacho recipe. But without the pressure of getting the dish exactly right according to the traditional approach.

Fusion or inspired-by dishes can take the best of both words from two very different food cultures, and combine them into something just as amazing as either culture alone. The Korean-Mexican taco fusion craze that hit America in the 00s (the “oughts”) and beyond is a great example.

Combining Sambaal and Gochujang sauces with cilantro, cheese, shrimp, and other taco fillings is an idea always worth looking into. The same as Indian-inspired street food like curry chicken subs and the always-awesome Greek taco (gyro meat and sauce inside a tortilla with cheese and rice) are just some of the options you can explore.

Inspired-By Food Versus Food Hacks

Some things that contribute to a fusion meal or an inspired-by-meal don’t always have to be extra ingredients. Sometimes it’s technique or a food hack that does the trick.

For example, if you boil seaweed, remove it from the heat and plunge it into an ice bath, it typically turns bright green, which is how Japanese seaweed salad gets its brighter color.

Prepping your ingredients at room temperature is a common food hack, as is soaking some ingredients ahead of your food prep–soaking rice is a good example of a food hack that is both utilitarian (it helps leech out dirt and dust particles) and aesthetically pleasing (the rice turns out softer).

Some food hacks aren’t for the meal itself, but anticipate the meal. Some in Japan believe that a cup of green tea following a meal with a lot of garlic contributes to fresher breath. Eating ginger between helpings from a sushi tray is meant as a palette cleanser, and the espresso at the end of a big heavy Italian meal may be as much to counteract the sleep-inducing nature of all those carbs as it is about the enjoyment of the meal.

Making Typical Meals More “Fusion”

The key to making the food you are already familiar with more interesting (and isn’t that the basis of all food culture?) is to learn what ingredients from world food culture might go well in the dishes you are already interested in.

One way to do this is to study the “flavor profile” of your favorite American food compared to that of other cultures. The humble can of chicken soup can be converted into a more Thai or Vietnamese-inspired option by adding some lime juice, cilantro, some cabbage and some red onion . All of those additional ingredients can be found in both Thai soups and Vietnamese varieties.

Cilantro, onion, and cumin are two major ingredients in Mexican cuisine. If you are having any kind of beef or chicken that’s acceptable over rice or in a tortilla, adding these ingredients could really change your food experience.

Want to make a plate of nachos something different altogether? Get a package of curry powder and sprinkle it like salt over your nachos at any stage of the cooking process (before, during, or after) and throw in some diced onions sauteed in garlic as well. You’ll definitely start to see where we’re going with this article.

Flavor Pairings, Salt, And Sugar

Naturally, not all ingredients and seasonings work well when added to all dishes. Mushroom powder, the secret weapon when making Vietnamese Pho inspired dishes, would likely feel a bit out of place in a spaghetti sauce, and we don’t know anyone who has tried adding ginger to a lasagna. And some pairings come with a higher sodium count than others, so if you need to watch the sodium, it’s smart to read the labels on all ingredients.

For example, you may find a recipe calling for soy sauce, mushroom powder, fish sauce, and plain old salt. All of these ingredients add a level of sodium you’ll want to be mindful of when pairing with other ingredients.

There are lots of “ramen upgrade” hacks that involve adding soy sauce and fish sauce, but prepackaged ramen already has a high amount of sodium. Check those labels first.

Added sugars can also be a problem, especially for those using substitutes in the recipe. In some cases the added sugar is more of an aesthetic problem (too sweet versus not sweet enough) but when it comes to baking, the sugar issue gets a bit trickier.

Sugar/Carbs In Fusion Food

Rice, rice flour, rice dough, wheat dough, and other important food staples can be high in carbs or sugars, making it tough for people who need to maintain blood sugar levels to cook certain cultural foods or culturally inspired food. Fortunately there are plenty of options to substitute quinoa for white rice, to swap out natural sweeteners for the sugar in sushi rice, dipping sauces, etc.

Indian food in particular has plenty of existing options including lentils and other legume and bean-based meals. Imagine a savory curry pizza made with a cauliflower crust, or a rice bowl made from quinoa…just two basic examples but it’s an important issue to be mindful of when you are trying to substitute ingredients to make your meals more carb-smart.

Easy Food Culture Hacks You Can Try

Lime juice, cilantro, and cumin have already been covered above, but there are plenty of other flavor combinations to experiment with. Pizza fans can start by swapping out the protein in their favorite pie with a chicken korma, carnitas, or gyro meat.

If you are a fan of fall weather foods like chili, you can easily swap out the beef in your favorite chili recipe for Jamaican jerk chicken instead.

Adding Kimchi to a submarine sandwich instead of plain old boring lettuce is another example of how you can ease into fusion food and “inspired-by food”. In some cases, you will need to find the secret ingredient for the flavors you are trying to match.

Some don’t realize that fish sauce is that extra umami flavor you get on a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich the same way some don’t realize that a truly good eggplant parmesan may contain a combination of both basil and oregano to just the right effect. One or the other will do fine, but both together with a very small hint of rosemary could make all the difference.

Food Culture 101: Fusion Recipes To Try

One of the popular food trends over the past several years is fusion food concepts. The blending of different food cultures to create new, unique flavors. Here is a list of fun fusion recipes to try.

Monique McArthur
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