I’m going to develop a theory of the stages of culinary globalization, based on not much more than walking around and eating, so bear with me.
Let’s call the first wave the exchange of ingredients after 1492 — when New World plants were first incorporated into Old World cuisine (like introducing tomatoes to Italy, chili peppers to China). And the second wave the exchange of people — the great 19th and 20th century waves of immigration that shifted populations around, and meant that you could eat more than one country’s food in any given country (Thai restaurants in America, Italian restaurants in Japan). I would like to venture that we are now starting the third wave. Unfortunately I have not yet come up with the perfect catchphrase for this yet, but it’s something like the great recombination, or the remixing of cuisines.
The vanguard of this third wave are not your straightforward ethnic restaurants of the last wave. Rather, they are the products of the last wave: cuisines that have been transformed so much by their relocation to a second country, that they are now distinctive enough to be re-exported as a new cuisine all their own. I first noticed this trend when I walked by a Japanese hot-dog restaurant in Hong Kong a few years ago. Hot dogs are American. But no American would recognize what’s being served in this place: the hot dog has been transformed and reimagined. And now a Japanese hot dog is a distinct enough thing that it can go abroad on its own. There are three cultural layers in that restaurant: America / Japan / Hong Kong. Another example came last year wandering through a mall in Xiamen, where I spotted an ad for a “California-style” sushi restaurant. And indeed, we all know that California-style sushi is not quite the same thing as the Japanese original. Again three layers: Japan / America / China.
Today this was driven home to me again when my wife and I had lunch at a steak-and-salad-bar place in the neighborhood we just moved into. It was a lot like Sizzler: big steaks and lavish all-you-can-eat “salad” bar with a lot more than just salad. But it was not American at all: it was a branch of a Korean restaurant. So three layers: America / Korea / China. While there was plenty of Caesar salad and the usual suspects, there were also things that let you know you were not in Kansas anymore, like the blueberry pizza or the mix-your-own rice bowls. Again an American cuisine that has been subtly remixed (and probably improved) by passing through another culture. I can’t help but feel we are going to see a lot more of this culinary remixing. And I haven’t even tried the crazy Korean pizza place yet…