Don’t worry. You’re not alone. A lot of Californians don’t have a clue what California cuisine is, but if you’ve ever eaten in California, you’ve probably had a taste.
A History Lesson in California Cuisine
California cuisine was initially a reaction against attempts to reproduce European fare regardless of season or costs. That meant ingredients needed to be imported from long distances, resulting in the ingredients not always being fresh. In many cases, processed foods were used.
A few chefs, fed up with America’s idea that European cuisine was the finest and most elegant, decided to return to their roots—literally. Chefs such as Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck decided they would only use fresh ingredients that were in season. Of course they had the benefit of living in California at the time. California is the leading agricultural state in the nation. Over half of the entire nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown in California, and the state is the sole producer of almonds, artichokes, avocados, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, lima beans, olives, pistachios, pomegranates, prunes, raisins, and walnuts. With so many vegetables literally being produced in their backyards, these chefs asked themselves, “Why not use it?”
Chef Alice Waters is usually credited with originating California cuisine. Alice’s restaurant, Chez Panisse, opened in 1971, and since its inauguration, the restaurant has used a menu that changes daily in order to serve only the freshest ingredients provided by local farmers and ranchers.
While Alice Waters may have originated California cuisine, Wolfgang Puck made it famous, blending fresh local ingredients with French culinary techniques. Of course he wasn’t the only one to start the California cuisine craze. Bob Cobb, owner of the Brown Derby in Hollywood, was scavenging for a snack in the restaurant kitchen one night in 1937. Using the ingredients at hand, he created a salad consisting of avocado, watercress, romaine, tomato, chicken breast, a hard-boiled egg, bacon, cheese, and French dressing. And so the Cobb salad was born.
Other reasons exist for the rise of California cuisine. As you most likely know, numerous actors and actresses reside in various parts of California. Where would these people be if not for their good looks and great physique? Probably not acting. And so healthy living was practically a necessity, but as you know, eating processed foods high in fat makes it very difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle. So in response, chefs began creating dishes using fresh local produce in their dishes.
But What Is California Cuisine?
California, with over 35 million residents, is easily the most populous and ethnically diverse state in the nation. Combine that with the fact that California is the leading agricultural state and you have an interesting mix of food, which is exactly what California cuisine is: a fusion of food from all over the world but with a twist of fresh local ingredients.
California cuisine is not limited to certain dishes (although the Cobb salad can certainly qualify). California cuisine is a reflection of the diversity and ingenuity of the people of the state of California. Chefs are not afraid to mix bok choy into an Italian pasta dish or add slices of avocado to your grilled steak. If the ingredients are fresh and the dish imaginative, you’re probably eating California cuisine, regardless of whether the cooking style is Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, or Mexican.
Since California Is a Western State…
Wood-fired grills are often used (some people really want everything to be natural).
Cooking California Cuisine
California cuisine has no real set of recipes. All you really have to do is take your favorite dish and go with it. If you’re crazy about curry and artichokes, why not mix the two together? There’s no harm in experimenting (except for the occasional upset stomach). California cuisine is all about reinventing old recipes using fresh local ingredients.
While California cuisine has no set rules, trends do exist. Many dishes include avocado, artichoke, citrus fruits, almonds and mushrooms (not all on one dish—but that is a possibility) because these are very common locally grown ingredients. Furthermore, rice and pasta replace potatoes and corn as the prime source of starch. And due to California’s long coastline, seafood is fairly common. As for meat, beef and chicken are used more frequently than lamb or pork.
Sauces, if any, are simple. And cooking with vegetable oils occurs much more often than butter or lard.
Who Says Wine Is Only for Drinking?
Be sure to take advantage of California’s massive wine industry. Wine might be just the thing to add a spritz of flavor to your food.
The food is usually served in intricate patterns or designs to please the eye before pleasing the mouth.Cooking-wise: the quicker, the better. That way, the food can retain most of its nutrients and the people of California can continue on with their fast-paced lifestyle. Fruits and vegetables tend to be eaten raw or quickly steamed. Meats and seafood are grilled over high heat for a short period of time. Roasting and barbecuing are rarely done because of the long cooking times. And, of course, it wouldn’t be California cuisine if appearances didn’t matter. The food is usually served in intricate patterns or designs to please the eye before pleasing the mouth.