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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RIP Le Van Ba, the Vietnamese sandwich king

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The storefront of a Lee's Sandwiches in Westminster, August 2010

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

The storefront of a Lee's Sandwiches in Westminster, August 2010


If there is anything good that came out of French colonialism in Indochina, it's the bánh mì, otherwise known as the Vietnamese sandwich. And the man who helped popularize it in California was Le Van Ba.

Le, the founder of the widespread Lee's Sandwiches chain, died last week at 79. The headline of his obituary in the San Jose Mercury News, his hometown paper, called him "the Ray Kroc of Vietnamese sandwiches."

Which is appropriate. A successful sugar planter in his native Vietnam, Le began the sandwich business with his family after starting over as an immigrant in San Jose. According to the Mercury-News story, the business really took off in the last decade after Le took the advice of his U.S.-born grandson, who suggested he adopt American fast food-style business principles. The chain expanded to where there are now close to 40 of the sandwich shops in five states, most of them in California.

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Bao, empanadas, and the Pillsbury Doughboy

Photo by danaspencer/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Char siu bao, March 2009

Photo by danaspencer/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Char siu bao, March 2009


Over the weekend I saw a couple of amusing tweets from @jenny8lee, aka journalist Jennifer 8. Lee, the former New York Times reporter turned author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and a general food fan. The first, on Saturday:

Was my mom the only Chinese mom to use Pillsbury dough for the oustide of steamed bao buns?

The second, on Sunday:
My mom, who apparently reads my twitter feed, said she learned the pillsbury dough as bao outside trick from Chinese newspaper.

Aside from making me chuckle, the tweets provoked an immediate reaction of "Wow, so it's used for more than empanadas?"

The plump, doughy meat-filled buns, popular in Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines, and the savory turnovers eaten throughout Latin America are probably just a few of the alternative uses that immigrant cooks, as pressed for time as anyone else, have devised for the ubiquitous refrigerated biscuit dough over the years.

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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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