When one thinks about the state of California, it’s easy to get carried away about the beautiful beaches, temperate weather, and abundance of culture. Beyond all of the common traits, California is also a place that is rich in the food ingredients and culinary traditions that make up a truly unique cuisine Somehow though, California Cuisine is often an afterthought. When broken down, it deserves its own recognition on the national and global landscape.
With a state so diverse in people, geography, and agriculture it begs the question why isn’t California Cuisine as nationally prominent as say Southern Cuisine or Cajun Cuisine? With the sixth largest economy in the world, 150,000 square miles of land, 850 miles of coast, and a vast number of micro-climates that produce a plethora of agricultural products, the state is a virtual melting pot of ingredients and international cultural influences.
So why don’t you see California restaurants popping up all over the country?
This question might be answered by the sheer number of people in California combined with the size of the state. California is the largest populated state in the country. If it were its own country, California would be the 34th largest populated country in the world. With so many people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, there hasn’t been a dominant cuisine or fusion of cuisines that has emerged....yet.
In order to properly define California Cuisine, it’s helpful to group cuisines based upon their regionality: Southern, Northern and Bay Area, Central Coast and Central Valley, Gold Country and High Sierra.
Southern California, can attribute much of its culinary influence to a combination of its Mexican territorial and colonial Hispanic history. Taqueria style Mexican fast food dishes such as burritos, tacos, tortas, and nachos are prevalent throughout the region. Traditional Mexican food such as tamales, mole, tostadas, menudo, and chile rellenos also dominate Southern Californian cuisine. Recently, dishes common in the Baja-California region, where a great deal of Mexicans have immigrated from, have also made their way into the mainstream of the area’s local cuisine. These ingredients consist largely of freshly caught seafood such as shrimp and mild white fish that dominate the Pacific and Sea of Cortez coasts.
Southern California’s car culture has also had a tremendous influence on its cuisine. Its residents are prone to drive everywhere they go, and as a result, fast food restaurants and their featured dish, the hamburger, are a SoCal staple. The burger (underline link) has been a favorite in the main metropolitan areas of the region for decades. It has evolved from the simplistic fast food variety served at McDonalds and In-N-Out Burger, both of which originated in California, to a gourmet take which features a variety of fresh, local ingredients. The cow is no longer the only source of protein either, as turkey, veggie, and even duck burgers are all featured in Southern California restaurants.
Another popular American dish that has a California twist is the Pizza. What was once considered sacrilege to deviate from the standard mozzarella and tomato sauce base, has now transformed into a variety of different toppings and ingredients, such as chicken, goat cheese, truffle, and white or BBQ sauce on a pizza crust.
The concept was made popular by restauranteur Wolfgang Puck and head pizza chef, Ed Laudo. Laudo served Puck the innovative pizza and Puck was so blown away, he offered Laudo a job at his new restaurant, Spago, on the spot. The rest was California Cuisine history.
Since the Northern California coast is host to a wealth of seafood and shellfish, then the Bay Area can be considered the hub of cuisine inspired by these ingredients. Northern California and the Bay Area is a region from which many different types of dishes originate, but it is fundamentally and foundationally a seafood region.
With Dungeness Crab being prevalent throughout the coastal region, it is a staple ingredient in many dishes, such as Cioppino and Crab Louie. Other regional seafood includes rockfish, chinook salmon, and Pacific cod.
Being so close to Napa Valley and its wine industry has also had a large impact on cuisine in the Bay Area. A host of French, Italian, and Mediterranean inspired restaurants are fueled, in large part, by their world class wine offerings. As such, the dishes offered are often made with wine pairings in mind.
As with Southern California, the Bay Area and Northern California is home to a large concentration of Asian Immigrants which have had a massive impact on the regional cuisine. Dating back to the gold rush of the late 1800’s, the Bay Area has been a huge landing port for people immigrating from Asian countries. As a result, many dishes inspired by Asian cuisine were invented, such as chop suey, egg foo young, moo goo gai pan and fortune cookies.
The area isn’t without its Hispanic influences as well. In fact, the burrito as we know it today was originally introduced by a pair of Mission Taquerias, Taqueria La Cumbre and El Faro Taqueria who both started serving Mission style burritos in the 1960’s. These burritos were meant to be an all in one meal for working class residents and included rice, beans, and meat wrapped in a large flour tortilla.
The Central Valley in California is the agricultural epicenter of the state which supports not only Californian Cuisine, but cuisine all over the world. This flat area of land spreads from Bakersfield in Southern California to Redding in Northern California. Over 230 types of crop are grown in this region, including tomatoes, almonds, grapes, cotton, apricots, and asparagus.
The Central Coast is rich with seafood, particularly shellfish. However, there has been a significant decline in sardine and salmon fishing as stocks have dwindled due to overfishing.
Towards the southern end of the Central Coast is Santa Maria, the capital of barbecue in the west. Barbecue or barbacoa was introduced in California in the mid 1800’s by Mexican ranchers who cooked beef and other animal proteins in pit barbecues. Santa Maria is most well-known for the Tri – Tip which has gained recent popularity for its delicious flavor and how hassle free it is to cook compared to a brisket or pork butt.
Gold Country and the High Sierra are both areas that have a heavy historical influence on the entire state of California. Before the Gold Rush in 1849 California was mostly an agricultural region that attracted farmers wanting to grow crops on the land. But once Gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains, farmers ditched their lands in hopes of striking it rich. Immigrants from all over the world, particularly Asian immigrants, had similar inspirations.
As such, the culinary landscape in this area was shaped and influenced by this sudden influx of people. Food resources and distribution channels were developed to serve the gold mining industry. Dishes like the Hangtown Fry, a mish mash of eggs, oysters, and bacon served hungry miners who were looking for a filling treat after payday. Day to day meals of sourdough helped popularize the ancient bread in San Francisco which would ship loaves off to the mining towns in the area.
Today, the remnants of the Gold Rush still exist, and Mexican, seafood, Asian and fusion dishes dominate the area.
These classic dishes personify California’s culinary legacy by showing how the state transformed traditional plates from other countries to their own using high quality, local ingredients.
Dungeness crab has survived as a seafood staple in California while others (like salmon and sardines) have been fished out of the market. The reason being, Dungeness crab is sustainable, and the fisheries are now well regulated. One of the best and most well-known Californian dishes is Cioppino, a seafood stew that originated from the Bay Area.
This stew is comprised of local seafood such as crab, mussels, clams, shrimp, scallops, fish, etc. which is cooked in a thick broth made from fresh tomatoes and wine.
California style pizza is still traditional at its core, or crust rather. Water and flour are still the main ingredients that make up the dough. The difference lies in the toppings. There is essentially only one rule when it comes to choosing toppings, they all must complement one another towards building a robust flavor and texture profile. Contrast (think soft, gooey cheese paired with a crunchy crust, topped with bacon) is key, as are quality, fresh ingredients.
Created at the Brown Derby Restaurant in Hollywood in 1937, Cobb Salad has been elevated from a side dish to an entrée. Filled with hearty proteins such as blue cheese, hard-boiled eggs, chicken, bacon, tomatoes, avocado (a California agricultural product), and greens, this salad is a complete meal in a bowl.
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