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Alimentary, My Dear

The Power of Fusion

By Tamia Nelson

May 4, 2004

Awhile back, you couldn't open a glossy "lifestyle" magazine without finding a feature on Pacific Rim cooking. The cuisines of Asia took America by storm, and hot on the heels of the Pacific Rim fad came fusion cooking. It may sound like something out of a physics lab, but that's not what fusion's about. It's just a trendy word for the marriage of ingredients, flavors, and cooking methods from different — and often widely divergent — culinary traditions. Notwithstanding the recent hype, this isn't a new idea. People have been borrowing other folks' recipes for thousands of years, adapting them to their own needs and local ingredients.

Here's just one example from the not-too-distant past. When American GIs returned from Europe after World War II, they brought a taste for regional Italian dishes with them. Not surprisingly, "Italian" restaurants and pizzerias soon opened their doors all over the States. Still, the pasta and pizza that these home-grown trattorias served up usually bore only a passing resemblance to their Old World counterparts. Hoping to lure Mom and Pop to their restaurants, small-town cooks mixed and matched "traditional" Italian ingredients and standard American fare — adding meatballs to spaghetti with tomato sauce, for example. Long before fusion cooking found its way into the headlines of the foodie press, it was business as usual on Main Street USA.

Nor is this the end of the story. The Old World dishes that American cooks adapted were themselves born of the melding of European ingredients with foods from somewhere else. The tomatoes that flavor so many Italian sauces were brought to the Mediterranean from South America, where they first excited the curiosity of the conquistadors. And — though the question is still hotly debated — pasta itself was probably developed in China about 3,500 years ago. (The Chinese were also the first folks to experiment with the magnetic compass. We paddlers owe them a lot.)

The upshot? If you dig deep enough, almost all of the world's culinary traditions are fusion cuisines. Spices traveled from the Far East to Europe in the aftermath of the Crusades, with stops at every port and crossroads along the way. And the tomato wasn't the only plant to cross the Pond. Bananas, potatoes, pineapples, cocoa, red and green peppers, even "French" beans — all these (and more) were transported from the New World to the Old by returning explorers. Today, the beat goes on, and the tempo is accelerating as the world shrinks. So why not try a little fusion chemistry of your own? You don't need to be a foodie. There's no reason why fusion can't find a place in any canoeist's or kayaker's backcountry meal plan. After all, both paddlers and cooks share a taste for the unknown.

Start your voyage of discovery at the local HyperMart. There's always something new. Not long ago, I spotted plastic envelopes of vacuum-packed tuna only one aisle over from the familiar boxes of noodles, rice, potatoes, and cereals. I'd rather have fresh-caught trout, to be sure, but tinless tuna isn't a bad idea. And my old friends among Lipton's Cup-a-Soup® line now have new neighbors, with names like Broccoli Cheese and Spicy Thai Chicken. Though none of these is a match for scratch, and they may be too salty for folks on salt-restricted diets, they're all pretty good. As a result, my moveable feasts just got more adventurous. A few of the early experiments show real promise, too. One of them — let's call it Fusion Couscous, shall we? — is a genuine triple play, bringing together elements from the East, Middle East, and West. Couscous provides the base line and Thai Chicken the grace notes, while the not-so-humble American peanut furnishes the flourish at the finish.

Better yet, Fusion Couscous is ready almost as quickly as you can bring water to a boil. It's as fast as a freeze-dried meal, and for a fraction of the cost. Of course, if you have a little more time, you can ring the changes, adding whatever ingredients suit your fancy. If you're only going out for a few days, you can even bring along fresh vegetables. Sliced bell peppers and green onions are two additions worth trying. Longer trips demand a bit of lateral thinking. Top the dish with crunchy chow mein noodles or toasted sesame seeds. Splash on a dash of Teriyaki sauce or sesame oil. Are there a few packets of soy sauce or plum ("duck") sauce lying around the kitchen from your last Chinese take-out? Then put these in your pack and use them to vary the mix. Stir in raisins and chopped dried apricots, or pepper flakes. Want more choices? Enhance the Thai Chicken's hint of coconut with more of the same. (Dried coconut is readily available.) You can even add some of that vacuum-packed tuna I mentioned earlier — or a can of pre-cooked chicken, if you prefer not to mix flavors.

What's the downside? I can't think of any, although it's always smart to try out any new dish at home before you add it to your camping repertoire. Some experiments are bound to fail, and you don't want to waste calories when you're eating out of your pack.

OK. You get my drift, I'm sure. But first things first. You can't score the variations until you have your theme.

Fusion Couscous
Serves 2-4 (See Note)

2 packages Lipton's Spicy Thai Chicken Cup-a-Soup®
2 cups clean water
1 cup instant couscous
1/4 cup (or more) dry roasted peanuts, preferably unsalted

And here are a few optional extras:

Thinly sliced fresh red or green peppers
Thinly sliced green onions (scallions)
Plum sauce
Soy or Teriyaki sauce
Chow mein noodles
Dried coconut
Chopped dried apricots
Canned chicken
Packaged tuna
Pepper flakes

Be prepared! Have all the ingredients measured and ready right at the start. This meal comes together very quickly. If you decide to add one or more optional extras (and please don't feel bound by my short list), use whatever quantities appeal to you. Just add them after the couscous is cooked and ready to serve. A two-quart (2-L) pot is plenty big enough if you're sticking to the basic recipe, but if you'll be adding other ingredients — especially meat or fish — you could find yourself in the soup when the pot boils over. The remedy? Use a larger pot.

Ready? Then heat the water in the covered pot. Once it's boiling, stir in both packets of Thai Chicken, being sure to break up any lumps. Next, add the instant couscous, stir, and cover the pot again. Now turn off the heat (if you're cooking on a stove), or remove the pot from the fire and place it near the edge of the grill or fire-ring so that it remains warm. It won't take long for the couscous to soak up all the liquid — usually five minutes is enough. Once that's done, use a fork or spoon to toss the couscous gently in the pot. Now mix in the peanuts, along with any other embellishments that appeal. That's all there is to it. Dinner is served.

Note  Is the serving size too big? Too small? Or just right? You'll have to let your appetite be your guide. (The more extra ingredients you add, of course, the more folks you can feed.) I find that Farwell and I can dine heartily on the basic recipe alone. Adding meat or fish (fresh fish should be cooked), or increasing the quantity of peanuts, stretches the dish so that one or two more mouths can be fed. A separate soup course, freshly made flatbread, or a dessert will accomplish the same end.

Do you want to make your backcountry meals more memorable? Then harness the power of fusion: combine elements drawn from several of the world's culinary traditions to create new and different dishes. The modern food processing industry makes this easier than ever. And don't be afraid to take a walk on the wild side, now and then. At the fusion table, you are the arbiter of good taste, and you determine what tastes good. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and willingness to experiment. It's worth trying, both at home and on the trail. Good eating!

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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