More Like It Hot

More Like It Hot

To live and dine in California, where one in four is an immigrant, is to sit at a global table. And a bland national cuisine is heating up.


My sister and I were strolling down Larkin Street in San Francisco recently when there wafted a pungent, salty aroma from an open window above. I was about to name the dish, but the couple walking ahead of us beat me to it. “Hmm, I smell fish sauce,” said a blond woman who looked to be in her mid 20s. “Yup,” agreed her male companion with tattoos on his arms. “It’s catfish in clay pot. With lots of pepper—and a little burnt.”

We had reasons to laugh. First, he was right on the nose. Second, when we first came to San Francisco from Vietnam more than three decades ago, my grandmother made that dish and our Irish neighbors complained about “a toxic smell.” Mortified, our family apologized and kept our windows closed whenever Grandma prepared some of her favorite recipes.

Many years passed. Grandma’s gone. But I’m confident that, if she were still here, she would appreciate knowing that what was once considered unsavory (or even toxic), and a reminder of how different my immigrant family once was, has become today’s classic. For in California, private culture has–like sidewalk stalls in Chinatown selling bok choys, string beans and bitter melons–a knack for spilling into the public domain, where it becomes a shared convention.

Or put it this way: The Californian palate had shifted along with the state’s demographic, where one in four is now an immigrant. At last count, Census 2000, there were 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area alone. On warm summer afternoons, Nob Hill, where I live, turns into the modern tower of Babel. The languages of the world–Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Vietnamese, and many more I do not recognize–echo from the street, accompanied by assorted cooking aromas. Within a four-block radius from my home, I can experience Thai, Singaporean, Spanish, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Indian, French, Mexican, Greek, Italian, and Japanese food—not to mention the regular fares at diners and seafood houses.

To live in California these days is to live in the crossroads of a global society and a global table. On April 2006 front page the San Francisco Chronicle declared: “America’s Mean Cuisine: More Like It Hot–from junk food to ethnic dishes, spicy flavors are the rage.” Californians were the first to give up blandness to savor the pungent lemongrass in our soup, and to develop that penchant for that tangy burnt of spicy chili. It came as no surprise to Californians that Cheez-Its came out with “Hot & Spicy” crackers flavored with Tabasco sauce and Kettle’s potato chips has that “Spicy Thai” flavor.

“There are 15.1 million more Hispanics living in the United States than there were 10 years ago, and 3.2 million more Asians and Pacific Islanders,” noted San Francisco’s newspaper of record. “And the foods of those countries—longtime favorites with Californians—are now the nation’s most popular.” Long before Webster acknowledged the word, globalization had already swept over California. Latin and Anglo America came to an epic collision here, then gold made the state famous around the world, and the rest of the world rushed in and created, perhaps for the first time, a prototypical global village. Since then layers upon layers of complexity–tastes, architecture, religions, animals, vegetables, fruits, stories, music, languages–have been piling onto the place, making it in many ways postmodern even before the rest of the world struggled to enter the modern era.

Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors, a truly authoritative book on Vietnamese cooking, declared from her Santa Cruz home that, “California cuisine is intrinsically ethnic.” El Cocinera Espanol, she noted, the first contemporary work on Mexican food in the state, was written a good 100 years ago by Encarnation Pinedo. Translated into English in 2005 by Dan Strehl, it is now aptly entitled Encarnation’s Kitchen: Recipes from Nineteenth-Century California. Nguyen, who remembered her mother packing an orange notebook full of recipes when they were airlifted out of Saigon in 1975, said Vietnamese food is hot these days. “In the Bay Area, you’ve got restaurants like the Slanted Door, Crustacean, Tamarind, and Bui leading the charge in terms of crossover restaurants.”

It was not always so. For first few years in America my family and I were terribly homesick. At dinnertime, my mother would say: “Guavas back home are ripened this time of year back at our farm,” or someone else would say, “I miss mangosteen so much,” and we would shake our heads and sigh. But then a friend, newly arrived to America gave my mother some seeds and plants. Soon mother’s small garden in the back yard was full of lemongrass, Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander and small red chilies. Soon, homesickness was placated by the fact that home was coming, slowly but surely, nearer to the golden shore.

Now imagine my mother’s garden spreading over a large swath of California’s farmland. Southeast Asian farmers, in the footsteps of last century Japanese and South Asian farmers before them, are growing large variety of vegetables in the Central Valley and trucking it to markets all over the state. Hmong, Filipino, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Koreans, Laotians, South Asian, Latin American farmers join the rest and sell everything from live chickens and seafood to Thai eggplants and edible amaranth to hyacinth beans and hairy gourds to oriental squash and winter melons and sugarcanes. I, for one, have learned not to underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. In the Golden State, it often has ways of becoming retroactive. So much longing for home recreates it in the new landscape. On a sunny day, a visit to the local farmer’s markets and there would be this oddly familiar fragrances and sounds that, were I to close my eyes, I could imagine myself back in my hometown in that verdant, fog filled plateau of Dalat, Vietnam.

But if California food is intrinsically ethnic, there is another element that is just as essential: the nature of its transgression. It is here that the jalapeno meets star anise and paired with a dry, smoky pinot. Or consider the avocado. Though not served in Japanese restaurants in Japan, it is otherwise as pertinent to Japanese cuisine in California as sunny skies are to the myth of California living.

“Foodies are very curious about exotic ingredients,” Andrea Nguyen said. “They’re more open to venturing into Asian markets to get the ‘authentic’ ingredients. They’re wanting to explore jujubes, mangosteens, green papaya. Ethnic markets, particular chains like Ranch 99 and Mi Pueblo, are leading the effort to make things easier for everyone. They offer a wide variety of products. But check the aisle, carefully, there are often Hispanic ingredients too at Asian markets, like tortillas.”

Take the sign that hangs on the Sun Hop Fat #1 Supermarket on East 12th Street, a few blocks south of Lake Merit in Oakland. It says, “American-Mexican-Chinese-Vietnamese-Thailand-Cambodia-Laos-Filipino-Oriental Food.” Some saw it as evidence of diversity gone bad, a multicultural mess–that is, too much mixing makes things unpalatable, all the colors blended turn inevitably an uncomely brown. I, on the other hand, see all those hyphens as complex bridges and crossroads that seek to marry otherwise far flung ideas, tastes and styles. After all, creativity is fertile when nourished in the loam of cultural diversity and cultivated with openness and a disposition for experimentation. In term of food, it results in an explosion of tasty concoctions. Consider some of today’s daring experiments: tofu burrito, hummus guacamole, spring rolls with salsa, lamb in tamarind sauce, lemongrass martini, wasabi bloody mary, crab cakes in mango sauce. The variety is endless.

In my lifetime here I have watched the pressure to move toward some generic, standardized melting-potted center deflate–transpose, in fact–to something quite its opposite, as the demography shifts toward a society in which there’s no discernible majority, no clear single center. Instead, the story I often see is one where one crosses, by various degrees, from ethic to cosmopolitanism by traversing those various hyphens that hang over the Hop Fat supermarket. One lives in an age of enormous options in an astounding diverse and fertile region where human restlessness and fabulous alchemical commingling are becoming increasingly the norm. One can’t help but learn to refine one’s taste buds accordingly to reconcile with the nuances of the world.

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