California Cuisine: History, Features and Fun Facts
What Is California Cuisine?
"What is California cuisine?" my boyfriend skeptically asked, as I told him I was going to write about it. In spite of having lived in California his whole life, he still wasn't sure how to describe the style of cooking in this region. I guess it's not that strange for many Californians to feel this way. A lot of people would find it easier to list various "cuisines in California" rather than to define "California cuisine."
In fact, the term "California cuisine" was first used by food critics and magazine editors just a few decades ago. It is a rapidly evolving food trend with a wide range of meaning and many different approaches. Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and Wolfgang Puck's Chinois, for instance, both categorize themselves as California cuisine restaurants, but the foods they serve are totally different. While Waters' cooking is greatly influenced by the French, many of Puck's dishes uniquely reveal a hint of oriental flair.
Pros and Cons of Fusion Cooking
Like mad scientists, California chefs often simultaneously imitate, adapt, simplify and unite components of several cuisines. Many people know this style as "fusion cooking," but big fans of authentic ethnic cuisines might condemn it as "an inept copycat."
As much as I adore California fusion cooking, I also understand those who might find it unacceptable. The way they put peanut sauce in whatever type of salad they can think of and call it "Thai salad" will never sit well with my Thai mother. And lots of stuff they use as pizza toppings could easily make many Italian Nanas shudder.
However, we need to remember that traditional authenticity is not the point of fusion cooking. To appreciate California cuisine, we should set aside all the old school rules, and look at each dish as a crafty invention rather than a straightforward imitation.
Fundamental Factors Influencing the Cuisine
California is like a human with multiple personalities. Encompassing over 150,000 square miles of land and about 850 miles of ocean coast, the Golden State stretches through 10 degrees of latitude. It is the home of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Not so far away from Mt. Whitney's highest peak is Death Valley National Park, where you can find the nation's lowest land point of about 280 feet below sea level.
As a result of its numerous micro-climates, California has been a land of diverse agriculture.
- Farmers in Southern California embrace sun-loving crops, such as avocados, oranges and dates.
- Up north, artichokes, broccoli and cauliflowers abound in the cooler areas.
- Tomatoes, grapes, prunes and walnuts are widely cultivated in the central valley.
- And of course, the fishing industry is busy year-round along the coastline.
Accordingly, California cuisine relies greatly on the wealth of its local produce and seafood.
California population is as diverse as its produce. The Spanish missionaries were the first group of immigrants who brought their agriculture, livestock and culinary tradition. Once the Gold Rush started, other immigrants, including Mexicans and several groups of Europeans, thronged into California in fast waves.
Among all the newcomers from Europe, the Italians seemed to have the heaviest impact on California cuisine. Olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes have long been two of Californians' cherished ingredients. And look at a great variety of California-style pizzas and pastas featured in fancy restaurants nowadays; they all have their roots in Italian immigrants' home kitchens.
A large number of Asians began to immigrate to California in the mid-nineteenth century, though they did not influence the California style of cooking right away, as they were still very small groups of minorities. In the early 1900s, many Asian communities immensely expanded, and their ethnic cuisines became more popular as well.
Ingredients that once sounded exotic, such as lemongrass and rice noodles, now have their spots in lots of mainstream supermarkets. Asian sauces, such as Sriracha and Hoisin, have become regular condiments in many restaurants.
Californians have tremendous appreciation for food artisans, farmers' markets and organic farming. True, this health-conscious movement is nationwide, but many food experts believe it all started here in California, at a Berkeley restaurant called "Chez Panisse."
Alice Waters and her partner created this eatery in 1971 to evoke the healthy dining style she had experienced in France. Unlike most restaurateurs back then, Waters bought her ingredients from small-scale farmers instead of large food-service companies. Plus, she ultimately proved that fresh seasonal products together with simple preparation can really do wonders.
Chez Panisse became a great success in no time. Word started to spread first in the Bay Area and later far beyond. Now the entire California wholeheartedly embraces this gastronomical trend. Farmers' markets have mushroomed throughout the state. Products by food artisans and local farmers are greatly supported. More and more restaurateurs and home chefs have bidden farewell to heavily processed products and resorted to simply prepared food with fresh ingredients.
California chefs use hundreds of ingredients in their cooking, from Chinese soy sauce and Indian curry spices, to Italian cheeses and Mexican tortillas. And yet, certain local ingredients manage to stand out among the rest. Both restaurant chefs and home cooks revere them. Tourists often fall in love with them. They are the state's major food products and the highlights of myriad signature dishes.
- Dry Jack Cheese
- Dungeness Crab
- Goat Cheese
- Roasted Garlic
- Sourdough Bread
- Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Californians put artichokes in pretty much all kinds of dishes. Sometimes I wish the state would stop using the Grizzly bear as its symbol and give the artichoke that job instead. In fact, California produces virtually all of the nation's artichokes, half of which is consumed by Californians alone!
Numerous artichoke farms stand on the Monterey Peninsula, where the town of Castroville proudly proclaims itself the Artichoke Capital of the World. This small agricultural town partly owns its fame to its 1947 Artichoke Queen, Marilyn Monroe, who was then a lesser known actress. Several people who knew Marilyn have all confirmed that the artichoke was indeed one of her favorite vegetables.
Standing neck and neck with the artichoke is the avocado. Californians love their avocados dearly. In California, avocado orchards abound between San Luis Obispo and the Mexican border, where over 90% of the nation's avocados are harvested. Putting avocado in a sandwich is essentially known as a "California thing." Plus, there are probably more versions of guacamole than there are counties in California, thanks to the Mexican culinary heritage.
3. Dry Jack Cheese
Legend has it that this product was a freaky result of a San Francisco wholesaler's memory lapse. During World War II, he put some Monterey jack in storage and forgot all about it. As the war went on and on, it became more and more difficult to import cheeses from Italy, and that was when he realized "Oh, I do have some cheese in storage!"
Opening his packages of old Monterey jack, he was elated to find that it had beautifully aged to golden perfection. Nowadays, this nutty and sweetish aged cheese has become a California twist on many salads.
4. Dungeness Crab
California is famous for its abundant seafood, but nothing could beat the popularity of these red-shelled monsters with fat claws and firm snowy meat. Year after year, California restaurants in the Bay Area have impressively seduced their diners with scrumptious dishes of cracked Dungeness crabs paired with crisp domestic wine. Many home chefs love to just boil them with white wine and aromatic herbs.
In most Chinatowns, Dungeness crabs are usually stir-fried with green onions and ginger. Yet, lots of others prefer to forgo using a bib completely and enjoy them in the form of crab cakes.
5. Goat Cheese
Californians had been quite unfamiliar with goat cheese until Laura Chenel, a cheese artisan, brought her Taupinière to Chez Panisse. Alice Waters, Chez Penisse chef and co-founder, decided to give it a try. In the beginning, the restaurant ordered about 20 pounds of goat cheese a week from Chenel's farm. Today, as the demand has risen tremendously, Chez Panisse uses more than 100 pounds of goat cheese weekly.
Chenel's success and the goat cheese craze have inspired many other cheese artisans. Simple but divine dishes, such as baked goat cheese and goat cheese salad, have become a signature of California dining.
6. Roasted Garlic
Californians are really fond of the "stinking rose." The city of Gilroy in Southern California is in fact known as the Garlic Capital of the World. Every year, garlic lovers would come to this town in July to celebrate the three-day Gilroy Garlic Festival. There is no doubt that garlic has a major role in California agriculture.
The person who made roasted garlic become such a popular ingredient, however, was Chez Panisse's Alice Waters. Among many of her famous recipes, Waters' whole roasted garlics received quite a bit of attention and praises from the media. It first started as a restaurant fad, but has later become a staple for home cooks throughout the state.
7. Sourdough Bread
Sourdough was originated in Ancient Egypt and popularized in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. It became so common in most households that "sourdough" was adopted as a nickname for the gold miners. Nowadays, many other states produce this type of bread as well, but the San Francisco variety has always remained the most famous. The fact that one major strain of lactobacillus in sourdough starters was named after this city is an ultimate proof of its prominence. "Lactobacillus Sanfranciscensis" is what I'm talking about.
The distinctive sourness of sourdough bread somehow makes it go really well with soups, stews and seafood dishes. Cioppino in hollowed-out sourdough bread is actually one of my all-time favorites.
8. Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Drying tomatoes in the sun is an old Sicilian method of preserving tomatoes at the end of the harvesting season. With the hot and dry climates in California, Italian immigrants found no difficulty in mastering their ancestors' techniques. At first, it was something that farmers would do in their backyards, but quickly enough, sun-dried tomatoes turned into a fruitful industry and California food craze.
Californians generously put them in pastas, pizzas, salads and many other things, up to a point when certain food critics started to shake their heads and claim that sun-dried tomatoes have been way overused in California cuisine!
California chefs know how to make use of their seasonal produce very well. It is not uncommon to find that several items on restaurant menus are available only at certain times of the year. Some restaurateurs even come up with an extra menu or special promotion just to highlight their seasonal ingredients. More and more home cooks have started to follow this practice as well.
Farmers' markets and small-scale organic food stores have become a sizzling trend. Buying in-season produce from these places is a great way to support local businesses. Plus, consumers can rest assured that they get the freshest products at reasonable prices.
If you're interested in shopping at a California farmers' market, below is a list of produce you should look for in each season. But keep in mind that this is just a general guide. Many of these fruits and vegetables may be available for longer than one season. The time frame provided here only shows when these products are the most abundant.
apricots, artichokes, asparagus, Bing cherries, kumquats, baby leeks, snow peas, strawberries, turnips
avocados, beets, blueberries, Queen Anne cherries, corn, eggplants, Valencia oranges, summer squash
apples, dates, fennel, figs, grapes, Asian pears, pomegranates, green tomatoes, winter squash
broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, grapefruits, kiwi, pears, persimmons, tangerines
Each of these California classic dishes has such a unique history. Their stories have taught me that food and fame really share a whimsical nature. My perception of these dishes has changed quite a bit after learning about their origins. California rolls, for example, had never been my favorite sushi to order, but after learning how they came to exist, I started to appreciate them a little more. A goblet of an oyster cocktail had never excited me much, but now the sight of it could easily tickle my humor gland.
- California Roll
- California-Style Pizza
- Chinese Chicken Salad
- Cobb Salad
- French Dip Sandwich
- Oyster Cocktail
1. California Roll
This classic Californian invention was born out of a humble attempt to compromise. A few decades ago, the idea of eating raw fish was not very appealing to many Americans. That's why Ichiro Mashita, a sushi chef in L.A., decided to replace raw tuna with avocado. Plus, he resourcefully defied the rule of sushi making by rolling it inside-out because several customers had mentioned that they didn't like the look of the black seaweed on the outside.
And yes, it was a slam dunk. This yummy roll of rice, cucumber, imitation crab sticks, avocado, fish roe and seaweed, has become extremely popular not just in California but nationwide.
2. California-Style Pizza
Socializing with good people can turn your life in the right direction. This is especially true for the San Francisco pizza chef, Ed LaDou. In the budding stage of his career, LaDou just made traditional Italian-style pizzas, which were all he had been taught to do.
After his good friends and coworkers encouraged him to experiment with his own recipes, however, LaDou came up with some very unique pizzas and started to offer his delicious inventions to the customers. He continued to make thin-crust pizzas pretty much like those in New York, though on top of them, it was a whole different story! Artichokes, barbecued meat, goat cheese, chunky roasted vegetables and mustard finally got their limelight in a pizza restaurant.
One night in the late 1970s, a very curious diner came to have a bite of LaDou's creative pizza. That pizza enthusiast turned out to be Wolfgang Puck, a fusion cuisine pioneer. He was so impressed by what he ate he offered LaDou a job as the head pizza chef at his new restaurant in West Hollywood.
Today, California-style pizzas are still evolving well and fast. Many signature pizza sauces have found their fame, and lots of exotic ingredients have made their way onto the pizza crusts. To try California-style pizzas, California Pizza Kitchen and Extreme Pizza are some of the best places to visit.
3. Chinese Chicken Salad
Try ordering this dish in Beijing and all you get would probably be the waiter's raise of the eyebrows. Even if they give you a plate of chicken salad, it wouldn't be like the one served in the U.S. The American version of "Chinese" chicken salad doesn't really have their roots in China, but rather, it was invented in California, in the 1930s by one of the fusion cuisine pioneers.
Several variations of the dish have ubiquitously emerged over the past few decades, but the basic ingredients usually remain the same: chicken strips, crispy noodles or crispy fried wontons, cabbage, salad greens, Mandarin orange slices and ginger/sesame dressing.
This fish stew is a San Francisco classic. Legend has it that Giuseppe Buzzaro, a sailor from northern Italy created this dish some time during the California Gold Rush. Many food historians agree that cioppino is a Californian version of "ciupin" a traditional fish soup served in Genoa, a seaport in northern Italy.
Today, there are myriad versions of cioppino. Some are thickened with heavy tomato paste. Some are very light and not so "tomatoey." Some use only fish, but many also include clams, shrimp and crab meat. Many old versions call for red wine, but a lot of contemporary chefs opt for white instead.
5. Cobb Salad
Some chefs have to go through years of trials and errors in order to create a well-known signature dish. Mr. Bob Cobb, the Brown Derby Restaurant's owner in Hollywood, however, invented his in less than an hour.
The story goes: one night in 1937, Cobb went into his kitchen with an empty stomach. Being a simple man, he made himself a midnight snack with whatever were at hand. He chopped some salad greens, hard-boiled egg, cold chicken breast, avocado, tomatoes and bacon into a bowl along with some Roquefort cheese and old-fashioned French dressing.
The friend who was with him that night suggested that he should put it on the Brown Derby menu and he did! Ever since, Bob Cobb's midnight snack has always been a California sensation.
6. French Dip Sandwich
Clumsiness usually leads to regrettable mishaps, but not at Philippe the Original, a sandwich shop in L.A. In 1918, as Philippe Mathieu was preparing a roast beef sandwich for a police officer, he clumsily dropped the sliced French roll into the roasting pan. As a result, the bread soaked up quite a bit of the drippings. The police officer said it was fine and left with that unintentionally "dipped" sandwich.
To Mathieu's surprise, the same cop came back the next day with a bunch of hungry friends, asking for more dip sandwiches. The new invention was named "French Dip Sandwich" instead of "Clumsy Sandwich" either because of the French rolls or Mathieu's French heritage. Nowadays, the French dip sandwich is usually served with a little bowl of "au jus" or the beef juice from the cooking process.
7. Oyster Cocktail
This is another dish originated in San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. The creator's name has never been recorded, but according to the famous legend, he was a gold miner who walked into a restaurant after a long day of hard work. He ordered a plateful of raw Olympia oysters, a huge goblet of whiskey and a few basic condiments including ketchup, horseradish, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce.
After finishing his whiskey, he dumped all the condiments and oysters into the goblet along with some salt and pepper. The restaurant keeper asked the miner what the heck he was doing, and the answer was "I just made myself an oyster cocktail!" He might have been drunk or simply wanted to indulge his own whim. Who knows? But just like that, a renowned San Francisco appetizer was born.