By Andrew Lam, New America Media

Posted: May 30, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO – My sister and I were strolling down Larkin Street in San Francisco recently when a pungent, salty aroma wafted from an open window. 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, who had tattoos on his arms. “It’s catfish in a clay pot. With lots of pepper—and a little burnt.”

We had a few reasons to laugh. First, he was exactly right. 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 its “toxic smell.” Mortified, our family apologized and kept our windows closed whenever Grandma prepared her favorite recipes.

Many years have passed. But I’m confident that if Grandma were still here, she would appreciate knowing that what was once considered unsavory (or even toxic) – a reminder of how different my immigrant family was – has become a classic in today’s cuisine.

In California, private culture has a knack for spilling into the public domain where it becomes a shared convention: Sidewalk stalls in Chinatown sell bok choy, string beans and bitter melon. The Californian palate has shifted along with the demographics of the state, where one in four people is now an immigrant. At last count, Census 2000, there were 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area alone. Within a four-block radius from my home in Nob Hill, I can find Thai, Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Indian, French, Mexican, Greek, Italian and Japanese food.

On April 16, 2006, the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle declared: “America’s mean cuisine: More like it hot—From junk food to ethnic dishes, spicy flavors are the rage.” It came as no surprise to Californians when Cheez-It came out with “Hot & Spicy” crackers flavored with Tabasco sauce and Kettle potato chips added a “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 the San Francisco Chronicle. “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 of complexity – tastes, architecture, religions, animals, vegetables, fruits, stories, music, languages – have been piling onto the place, making it in many ways postmodern even as the rest of the world struggled to enter the modern era.

Andrea Nguyen, author of “Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors,” an authoritative book on Vietnamese cooking, declared that, “California cuisine is intrinsically ethnic.” “El Cocinero Español” (The Spanish Cook), she noted, the first contemporary work on Mexican food in the state, was written more than 100 years ago by Encarnación Pinedo. Translated into English in 2005 by Dan Strehl, it is now entitled “Encarnación’s Kitchen: Mexican Recipes from Nineteenth-Century California.”

Nguyen, who remembers her mother packing an orange notebook full of recipes when they were airlifted out of Saigon in 1975, says 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. During our first few years in America, my family and I were terribly homesick. At dinnertime, my mother would say, “Guavas are ripe this time of year at our farm back home,” or someone else would say, “I miss mangosteen,” and we would shake our heads and sigh.

But then a friend, newly arrived to America, gave my mother some seeds and plants. Soon her small garden in the back yard was full of lemongrass, Thai basil, Vietnamese coriander and small red chilies. Our 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’s Japanese and South Asian farmers, are growing a variety of vegetables in the Central Valley and trucking them to markets all over the state. Hmong, Filipino, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Korean, Laotian, South Asian and Latin American farmers sell live chickens, Thai eggplants, edible amaranth, hyacinth beans, hairy gourds, oriental squash, winter melon and sugarcane.

I have learned not to underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. So much longing for home recreates it in the new landscape. On a sunny day visit to the local farmers’ market, there are oddly familiar fragrances and sounds. 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’s food is intrinsically ethnic, there is another element that is just as essential: the nature of its transgression. It is here that the jalapeño meets star anise and is paired with a dry, smoky pinot noir. Or consider the avocado. Though not served in Japanese restaurants in Japan, it is as pertinent to Japanese cuisine in California as sunny skies are to myth of California living.

“Foodies are very curious about exotic ingredients,” Andrea Nguyen says. “They’re more open to venturing into Asian markets to get the ‘authentic’ ingredients. They want to explore jujubes, mangosteens, green papaya. Ethnic markets, particularly 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 in Oakland. It says, “American-Mexican-Chinese-Vietnamese-Thailand-Cambodia-Laos-Filipino-Oriental Food.” Some see it as a multicultural mess – that is, too much mixing makes things unpalatable. I, on the other hand, see all those hyphens as 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, cultivated with openness and a disposition for experimentation. The result is an explosion of tasty concoctions. Consider some of today’s daring experiments: tofu burritos, hummus guacamole, spring rolls with salsa dipping sauce, lamb in tamarind sauce, lemongrass martinis, wasabi Bloody Marys, crab cakes in mango sauce.

In my lifetime here, I have watched the pressure to move toward a generic, standardized melting pot center deflate –transpose, in fact – to something quite its opposite, as the demographics shift toward a society that has no discernible majority, no single clear center. Instead, the story I often see is one in which we cross, by varying degrees, from ethic to cosmopolitanism by traversing those various hyphens that hang over the Hop Fat supermarket. We live in an age of infinite options in an astoundingly 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.


A longer version of this article can be read in May-June issue of California Magazine. NAM writer Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”

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New American Media (formerly New California Media) is a nationwide association of over 700 ethnic media organizations representing the development of a more inclusive journalism. Founded in 1996 by Pacific News Service, NAM promotes ethnic media through events such as the Ethnic Media Expo and Ethnic Media Awards, a National Directory of Ethnic Media, and such initiatives as the online feature Exchange Headlines from Ethnic Media, offering top headlines digested from ethnic media worldwide, updated five days a week. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.