How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Ethnic food tastes worth acquiring: Arroz con calamares en su tinta

Photo by Boca Dorada/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Mmm, inky. Arroz con calamares, February 2007.

Today marks the launch of a week's worth of posts about food. Not just any food, but those dishes in every ethnic cuisine that may not seem appetizing to those who didn't grow up with them, or require more than one taste to fall in love with, but are delicious to those in the know.

I'll be compiling a list throughout the week of tastes worth acquiring, and suggestions are welcome. The idea is to spread the culinary wealth. Those who grew up drinking Vietnamese-style avocado milkshakes may never have tried Oaxacan-style huitlacoche empanadas, and vice versa. Big town, lots of food to try.

Most of my own food tastes are acquired, courtesy of Los Angeles, but I'll kick off the list with a dish from my upbringing: Arroz con calamares en su tinta, or rice with squid in its own ink. This is not to be confused with the more mildly flavored squid-ink risotto or black pasta that foodies order at upscale Italian eateries order when feeling adventurous. This is the brawny, briny, fishy peasant version from the Caribbean, best eaten locally in one of L.A.'s traditional Cuban joints.

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Three turkeys, three cultures

Photo by cobalt123/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Okay, so there are four turkeys here and not three, whatever. November 2005

It's two days to Thanksgiving and a turkey dinner prepared with...mole? Fish sauce? Heck yeah.

This morning I came across two posts on two different ways to prepare turkey, and they have nothing to do with basting it with butter or Mrs. Cubbison's.

Tasting Table Los Angeles featured a post on the secrets of Oaxacan-style turkey cooking as practiced by Guelaguetza restaurant chef Maria de Jesus Monterrubio, one of which involves a bird seasoned with chile paste, spices and chocolate and served with rich, chocolatey Oaxacan mole. KCRW's Good Food blog had a recipe for Vietnamese-style turkey seasoned with coriander, ginger and fish sauce.

Mmmm. Of course, Thanksgiving turkey made the immigrant way is about the only way I've ever eaten it at home. In my family, the bird is soaked overnight in mojo criollo, the garlicky marinade made with sour oranges that Cubans typically reserve for roasted pork. My parents must have decided that if they were going to assimilate and eat turkey instead of pork, they were going to do it on their terms.

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Two Cuban bakeries = more papas rellenas for Downey. What's not to love?

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The grand-opening line at at the new Porto's in Downey, November 9, 2010

In most of L.A. county's Latino suburbs, the news of a bakery opening isn’t usually anything to get excited about, let alone anything that makes the gossip circuit. Not the case in Downey, though, home to a cafecito-drinking, pastelito-loving community of Cuban immigrants and their descendants, my family included.

And, until now, a one-Cuban-bakery town.

For those not familiar with Cuban eating habits, here is why bakeries matter: We love the starch. Doughy bread embedded with chicharrones, flaky ground-meat pastelitos and guava-and-cream cheese pastries (the latter once nicknamed “Marielitos” after participants of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, for reasons I can't explain), deep-fried starchy things like papas rellenas (mashed potato balls stuffed with meat, which taste far better than they sound). Bakeries also sell coffee, which we drink lots of. Bakeries are sacred.

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