Dining between cultures: A look at Vancouver’s fusion food scene


Illustration by Afshin Sabouki


It is no secret that Vancouver is a multicultural city that fuses many different traditions in all facets of life. When it comes to food, however, fusion has emerged as a trendy term that many use without fully exploring its complexity.

Revising tradition

Peter Chang is the chef and owner of Vancouver’s Green Lettuce Restaurant, which was the first Indian-style Chinese food restaurant in the Lower Mainland when it opened in 1999. Chang is ethnically Chinese, but was born and raised in Calcutta, India. Preparing Chinese food infused with Indian spices is something he grew up with, so when he emigrated to Vancouver opening a restaurant that would honour both culinary traditions seemed only natural.

“The inspiration behind Green Lettuce was to bring something new to Vancouver’s restaurant scene. In particular, we wanted to bring a cuisine which would represent the diverse ethnic communities in Vancouver, and one which would be appealing to many,” says Chang.

Chang’s cooking philosophy consists of creating unique flavours that blend two distinct cuisines. His favourite dish at Green Lettuce embodies this approach: masala fried rice, which infuses traditional Chinese fried rice with Indian masala spice.

For Andrew Wong, owner of Wild Rice restaurant in New Westminster, fusion food is not just about honouring tradition, but also about adding to it.

“[Chinese food] is a familiar cuisine that I knew people could recognize and identify with. I wanted to break the stereotype of how people would typically see it, have a focus on local artisan farms and create menus based on what we get in season,” he says.

It was important to Wong that Wild Rice, which was founded in 2001, serve accessible and healthy versions of the traditional Chinese cuisine that he grew up with. This means, for example, reworking the traditional beef and vegetable chow mein into a dish he describes as organic braised beef from the Caribou region, served with baby bok choy, dressed with a ginger and soy reduction and accompanied by chow mein noodles.Wong also wanted to bring a uniquely West Coast sensibility to Wild Rice’s menu by serving high-quality foods sourced from sustainable local farms.

Wild Rice’s Australian-born chef partner, Todd Bright, explains that he created the menu with the intention of taking traditional Cantonese ingredients and turning them on their head. He cites dishes such as the bacon and cheeseburger spring roll and steamed buns filled with braised kangaroo tail as examples of combining well-known Asian dishes with Canadian and Australian classics.

Finding definition

Fusion is about taking concepts that work well in their own right and enhancing them to become something different. It’s important that fusion hits all the flavour profiles: salty, sweet, sour and a little bit of spice,” says Bright.

Darren Clay, chef instructor/industry relations liaison with the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts (PICA), thinks that fusion cuisine is just beginning to earn respect in the world of gastronomy.

“For chefs, the term [fusion] has a bad connotation in general. There was a period when fusion was this terrible thing, where people were taking things that weren’t working,” he says.

Clay believes that fusion food commands greater acceptance in highly multicultural societies like Canada, where it is a natural extension of the already vibrant cultural mix.

“In Vancouver, with our cosmopolitan population, fusion food is really what we do,” he says.

And even though PICA, where Clay teaches in the culinary program, is a traditional French culinary school, it offers its students an opportunity to experiment with fusion in the latter portion of its six-month program.

Up to 30 per cent of those enrolled in the program are international students from countries with long-standing food traditions such as South Korea and Mexico. When asked to create their own recipes, Clay finds that the students naturally gravitate towards fusion, mixing their traditions of origin with Vancouver’s quintessential Asian-Pacific sensibilities.

The unselfconscious fusion

Originally from Ontario, Chris Seiler is in the process of finishing his culinary program at PICA, and is very fond of the concept of fusion. Rather than diluting the integrity of original cuisines, he feels that fusion has the potential to highlight their distinctiveness even more, and introduce them to new audiences. He particularly likes Mexican cuisine, and loves to combine it with traditional French dishes.

Wild Rice restaurant in New Westminster serves Chinese food infused with Pacific west coast sensibilities. | Photo courtesy of Wild Rice New Westminster

Wild Rice restaurant in New Westminster serves Chinese food infused with Pacific west coast sensibilities. | Photo courtesy of Wild Rice New Westminster

However, Seiler thinks that fusion is not something that needs to be consciously attempted, because on some level it is already ingrained in most world cuisines.

“If you incorporate a spice from another part of the world, that’s technically fusion cooking – everybody in the restaurant world is using it now,” he says.

Dutch-born Selma Van Halder, a recent PICA graduate and current teaching assistant at the school, thinks that fusion is a bit of a misnomer because it implies a strict division between culinary traditions.

“No cuisine is free of influences from outside. History – wars, trade routes, immigration – influences cooking as much as technological advancement does,”
she says.

Van Halder cites Vietnamese cuisine as a combination of typical Asian flavours and very traditional French techniques, as exemplified by the Vietnamese lunch staple bánh mì, which features typical Vietnamese toppings served on a baguette.

And since fusion has always been part of all culinary traditions, Van Halder believes the term is not only unnecessary, but seems to be trying too hard.

“I’d love to work in an open-minded place, where interesting combinations are welcomed and creativity is nurtured, where chefs do really unexpected things with local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients. That does not have to be called fusion,” she says.

As for the future of fusion dining, Wild Rice chef Bright thinks that it will continue to evolve and improve in quality.

“There’s a multitude of restaurants that are doing well with traditional food, and I don’t think those will go away, but it’s also very important that we experiment as a society and marry as many ingredients as we can together to create something special,” he says.


For more information on
Green Lettuce and Wild Rice restaurants and on the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, visit,
www.greenlettucerestaurant.ca, www.wildricebc.ca and
www.picachef.com, respectively.