World cuisines have evolved: 30 or 40 years ago, fewer people were traveling broadly just for the purpose of food. The global food cooked in America was followed to the letter a little more; chefs were less daring. Customers had not traveled as much, either, so they only had what chefs offered as a point of reference.
Today, it’s very easy to get anywhere and taste a dish, learn a technique, or obtain an ingredient from the point of origin. Having strong knowledge and points of reference has armed chefs with the freedom to put their own twist on ethnic foods. For example, a chef like Roy Choi, who is Korean-American and grew up in Los Angeles, gained prominence by making Korean tacos, which is how he expressed the cuisine in his style and using his influences.
Before taking such liberties, however, it is essential to have a deep understanding of how flavors are built and what techniques come into play; the chefs who riff best do so over solid foundations. Only then is it wise to play with different ingredients and modify that flavor profile.
But let’s briefly backtrack: When we say “world cuisines,” we mean cuisines that are an interpretation of a certain culture, tradition, technique, and ingredients—“cuisines of the world,” really. The term also takes into account how each cuisine is interpreted by a different country or region. I like that it has the advantage of taking in all global gastronomies without creating a hierarchy.
In a Western context, for example, talking about ethnic cuisine and culinary techniques typically sets the cuisine in opposition to French cooking style, still often considered the ultimate canon in the culinary world—although that has been changing in the last 10–15 years. The term “world cuisines” strips a bit of that sense of hierarchy, of understanding or appreciating one cooking style or tradition better than another.
On American menus, world cuisines appear in different ways. They pop up as individualized restaurants, whether it’s Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, or Mexican, and often focus on the regional cuisines of these countries rather than the generic interpretations of a couple of decades ago. They also arise as influences, whether in the early years of California cuisine, with the strong Mediterranean influences yielding vegetable-centric dishes, or today with elements such as miso and yuzu. Let’s not think about the less-desirable versions of world cuisines, which is fusion food that offers no real sense of reference.
The 21st century version of world cuisines is more grounded in locality than it used to be and shifts how we think about authenticity. For example, one thing the Nordic movement taught chefs is how to make do with what is directly available to them, without sourcing ingredients from far away. With a short growing season, as in Scandinavia, fermentation and other preservation methods offer year-round use of local ingredients. That takes on applications worldwide, such as cooking Mexican dishes with ingredients grown in Illinois, as Chef Rick Bayless might do, giving his restaurants a sense of place without compromising flavor.
Sixteen years ago, to help chefs gain more in-depth understanding of the basic principles and traditions behind cuisines from all over, the CIA started its Worlds of Flavor conference (the 2015 conference is in April). We wanted to highlight authentic preparations for American chefs. We brought in village cooks from Mexico or India and showed authentic cooking traditions, rather than just an American interpretation. One of the aims was also to reduce that hierarchy of cuisines and give everyone an understanding of the value and work that goes into any world cuisine. That continues today, as we seek to understand cuisines from around the world in their current contexts and contemplate best applications for U.S. chefs.