As an old country boy from Kentucky, there are certain foods that will always mean home to me: good biscuits and gravy, country ham and my Mom's homemade soups with beef based broths and plenty of vegetables. I've lived in Los Angeles County for almost five years, and while you can find just about anything when it comes to food here (and believe me, I’ve looked), these simple things from my home are few and far between.
While I long for those tastes of my youth, I’ve always been interested in all kinds of food. Having lived in a few cities and traveled to multiple countries since leaving home, I’ve sampled delicacies from a number of cuisines. Along the way I’ve learned to appreciate everything from Italian to Ethiopian, Indian to Vietnamese.
Some of my first experiences with the diversity of Los Angeles came in the form of tacos and tortas, tamales and pupusas. Where I’m from the cuisines of Mexico and South America are rarely identified by their individual origins, but here you can go from Salvadoran to Oaxacan, Nicaraguan to Guatemalan on the same block.
That’s not even to mention the countless fruit carts and roaming elote vendors, the late night taco trucks selling lengua and carnitas. I sometimes get raised eyebrows when I walk into a place, but especially if a family is running the kitchen, pretty soon I feel as if I was eating at my own dinner table.
One of the things I love about the San Gabriel Valley is the opportunity to learn about all the foods available here, Asian cuisines in particular. I often go from restaurant to restaurant looking for regional specialties that I’ve never tasted. I’m often surprised to find elements of home in Yunnan ham and dumplings, numerous pig's feet dishes and Cantonese BBQ.
Still, one can only eat in restaurants so much, and as any home cook will tell you — what you get in a restaurant and what you cook at home are entirely different things. This is why, even though I live closer to Pasadena, I go most Sundays to the Alhambra Farmers' Market. At any given time there are flowering yu choy (a type of mustard greens), fresh Chinese red dates known as jujube, numerous varieties of bitter melon, Chinese cabbages, winter melon, radishes, loofah gourd and opo (a type of squash), young ginger and lemongrass. Along with these things there is an endless array of leafy greens – everything from ong choy (water spinach) and bitter melon leaves to the “Chinese red spinach” better known to people in the U.S. as amaranth.
The first time I saw these things, I was astonished. You mean they really have all this stuff at a farmers’ market in the United States? Yes… yes they do, there are things at the Alhambra Farmers’ Market that I’ve never seen at any other in this country.
Just by visiting the market I’ve learned so many things and the people there are always helpful, telling me exactly how to cook something the best way or what goes best with it. It has opened up a world of home cooking that I never knew before, simple stir fries of specific vegetables matched with ginger or garlic, so delicious it’s difficult to believe there are only two or three ingredients in them. Soups and stews made with crystal clear broths of pork or chicken and a knob of ginger, certain leafy greens and maybe a scallion or two.
Kentucky will always be my home: it’s where I get to see my family, where memories of my childhood are still strong. The longer I live here though, when I travel back to the South and tell my stories of Los Angeles (sometimes to wide-eyed disbelief), I find myself missing this place as much as I miss Kentucky when I’m here. That’s never happened in any other place I’ve ever lived, and that’s how I know when I come back West, I’m still going home.