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A Nation Engaged: What Oaxacan and Ethiopian cuisine have to do with being an American




Masero Lopez eats lunch at Guelaguetza. The restaurant is known for its mole and Mezcal selection.
Masero Lopez eats lunch at Guelaguetza. The restaurant is known for its mole and Mezcal selection.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Masero Lopez eats lunch at Guelaguetza. The restaurant is known for its mole and Mezcal selection.
Vegan combo at Meals by Genet.
Ed Kwon (Flickr creative commons)


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What does the food we eat have to do with what it means to be an American?

If it's difficult to come up with a definition of what it means to be an American, it's just as hard to define what makes American food.

Bricia Lopez is co-proprietor of the restaurant Guelaguetza in L.A.'s Koreatown. She's also an immigrant from Oaxaca state in Mexico.

Lopez says that, to her, American food isn't any one thing.

"I think that's why I love mole so much, because mole is that," Lopez says. "There's so many ingredients that came from all over the world to create this one thing. And I feel that is what America is today. There's so many influences from all over the world."

Ethiopian American chef Genet Agonafer, owner of Meals by Genet, says that when she arrived in the U.S. from Ethiopia in 1981, she felt like an American right away, because the people she met were so kind and accepting.

And she says that's something she's found to be the case in the restaurant business as well. Agonafer says that while customers who come into her restaurant may not always be familiar with Ethiopian food (or how to eat it), most are very open to trying it.

"We eat by hand," Agonafer says. "And everybody eats off the same tray. And in this country, they just love that experience of eating by hand. Some of them they have never done it, so it's fun. People, they come and they just have a ball. Some of them don't know what to do with the injera, the Ethiopian bread, some of them put it on their laps." 

And for her American customers who aren't familiar with the Ethiopian dish of doro wat, Agonafer says, she likens it to mole, which more are familiar with.

Maybe instead of a melting pot, America is more like a pot of Oaxacan mole or Ethiopian doro wat.

To hear the full interview with Bricia Lopez and Genet Agonafer, click the blue player above.

Series: A Nation Engaged

America is changing. The crosscurrents of demographic and cultural change are upending traditional voting patterns and altering the face of the American political parties in significant ways. As part of our collaborative project with NPR called "A Nation Engaged," this week we're asking: What does it mean to you to be an American?

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.