How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Five Valentine meals to share with your amor

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Forget momentarily about chocolate, oysters and the rest of the usual food suggestions that accompany Valentine’s Day, about aphrodisiacs and expensive dinners. As a favor to lovestruck foodies in the Los Angeles area, a few colleagues and I recently came up with an unscientific but well-loved list of some of the best date-friendly offerings to come out of our immigrant enclaves.

Five favorites:

Ethiopian There’s something very intimate about sharing a meal from the same dish, eaten with your hands. The spongy injera bread serves as a both plate and utensil with which to scoop up savory stews, called wot, and other dishes, making the meal a tactile experience. The food itself is fragrant, seasoned with garlic, ginger and other spices.

One place to find it: Nyala at 1076 South Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 936-5918

Japanese Shabu Shabu Much like with Chinese hot pot or Swiss fondue, shabu shabu involves dipping and sharing. Participants in this communal meal cook it together, dunking thin slices of raw meat and vegetables into a boiling pot, leisurely enjoying each morsel. Dip, swish, eat, then afterward share the delicious broth that's left in the pot.

One place to find it: Shabu Shabu House, 127 Japanese Village Plaza Mall, Los Angeles, (213) 680-3890

Oaxacan Instead of a box of Godiva, why not a meal of rich mole negro as it's prepared in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, dark and redolent with chocolate? Ridiculously complex, its ingredients are too many to mention, but they combine to make a sauce that is earthy and subtly sweet. I'll take a plate of pollo en mole negro over chocolate truffles in a heartbeat.

One place to find it: Guelaguetza, the undisputed heavyweight of Oaxacan restaurants in town. Two locations are open, one at 3014 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 427-0608 and the other in Plaza Mexico, 11215 Long Beach Blvd. #1010, Lynwood, (310) 884-9234. Another location in Palms is closed for remodeling.

Persian One of the best things about Persian cuisine is its fragrance. Food is perfumed with saffron, cardamom and rosewater, a staple ingredient in desserts. Roses are lovely to look at, but a meal that ends with rose-scented lacy zoolbia or doughy baamieh is proof that roses are just as lovely to eat. Though taking a bite of your bouquet wouldn't go over well - opt for a scoop of rosewater ice cream instead.

One place to find it: Shamshiri Grill in Westwood, 1712 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 474-1410. Nearby is Saffron & Rose Ice Cream, 1387 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 477-5533

Spaghetti This most plebeian of Southern Italian staples, messy and kid-friendly, is the perfect meal if you have kids and can't get a sitter. Boil up a pot, rent a copy of "Lady and the Tramp," and let the tots slurp and enjoy the movie while you giggle over shared noodles like Disney's canine lovebirds. Add a nice bottle of red to make up for the fact that you're, well, home eating spaghetti watching a cartoon.

One place to find it: Thanks to the great wave of Italian immigration a century ago, everywhere.

Happy Valentine's Day. And if you go out, bring a little extra cash, as the immigrants who will most likely prepare and serve your meal will appreciate the tip.

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