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California Cuisine

As one of the largest states geographically and the country’s most populous state, California expresses its food culture in a variety of ways. The state is ingredient rich, producing an immense share of the nation’s produce. Certain local products—avocados, artichokes, fresh figs and dates—are better known in California than in the country at large. The avocado made its mark on California cuisine as early as 1937 when Bob Cobb, chef at Hollywood’s famous Brown Derby restaurant, combined avocado, lettuce, hard-cooked egg, bacon and cheese to create the Cobb Salad.

The avocado, in fact, forms the key ingredient in the “California Roll,” a most important menu item indeed, if you consider its cultural significance. Developed by a Los Angeles sushi chef in the early 1970s, the invention reversed the traditional sushi configuration, putting the seaweed layer on the inside and the sticky rice on the outside. Instead of raw tuna, Americans were given the choice to eat the more palatable avocado. The roll hence used a California ingredient, plugged into California’s significant Asian heritage, and used California’s high profile in American cultural life to popularize sushi throughout the country. More than a century ago, California was the gateway for Chinese food into the United States. Dozens of Asian cuisines thrive in ethnic communities throughout the state; non-Asians, always open to novelty, help keep the stoves burning.

The city of San Francisco, one of the best food cities in the United States, offers diners literally everything. It has a strong Italian food culture, wonderful seafood, and serves as a focal point for the wines produced in the Napa and Sonoma regions just to its north. One of the city’s most distinctive food products, however, is its sourdough bread. The unique taste of the bread is a result of bacterial organisms used in the bread’s “starter” culture. The city’s Boudin bakery has been renowned for its sourdough bread since 1849. Purists claim that certain airborne bacteria, extant nowhere else, is essential for the making of a true San Francisco sourdough, but the Brea Bakery of Los Angeles stunned critics when its bread was named “Best San Francisco Sourdough” in several blind taste tests.

California cuisine also shows the deep influence of its Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south, not just Mexico, but many of the Central American countries as well, particularly El Salvador and Honduras. The stuffed Salvadorian corn tortilla called a pupusa is available from pupuserias all over the state. Regional varieties of Mexican food that are little known in most of the rest of the United States are available, as well as the standard Mexican-American fare. California, true to its stereotype as a center for “health” food, has been the spring-board for “Baja-style” Mexican food, a lighter variety that stresses fresh ingredients, seafood and chicken.

The “health” and “light” labels have some justification in California food culture, though California is also a fast food leader, the origin, for example, of the original McDonalds hamburger chain, as well as many other fast-food phenomena; the colorful hot dog stands of Los Angeles are world famous. Yet even in fast food, the health orientation may shine through; witness the nationwide success of the California Pizza Kitchen chain. California pizza, pioneered by Hollywood chef Wolfgang Puck, uses a lighter crust, a smaller pie size, and a wider array of vegetables and unusual toppings than conventional American pizzas. The effect is lighter and the perception is healthier. Hollywood celebrities, and people who strive to look like them, need to “think thin” at all times.

California “fusion” cuisine, indistinguishable from contemporary American cuisine only because California chefs have been leaders in this movement, owes a great deal to Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, in the San Francisco Bay area. Waters set the tone for dedicated chefs throughout the nation by insisting on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients from local farms that she herself supports. The effusive Austrian-born Wolfgang Puck, from his Spago restaurant in Hollywood, played an important role in popularizing the concept. Certain ingredients that are only good when fresh, like goat cheese and Dungeness crabs, characterize California fusion cuisine. Asian ingredients and flavorings are often evident. Asian vegetables like bok choy are often mixed with non-Asian ingredients. Vegetables are prominent both for flavor reasons and because they tend to lend a light and healthy aspect to the food. Dishes are typically arranged on the plate in an artful manner; equal consideration is given to the aesthetic design of the restaurant. The cuisine tends to be expensive, and is often poorly imitated. It is nevertheless important as a true national food movement, with California proudly in the lead.

It seems second nature in a state as ingredient-rich as California that high-end chefs would create a cuisine based on the state’s bounty, but it took a real jump in thinking to accomplish this. Prior to the 1970s, fine restaurants strived to reproduce European dishes regardless of season, often resorting to less-than-fresh or processed ingredients. These chefs have retained traditional European cooking techniques while applying them to the best ingredients they can find at any given time. Not leaving ingredient availability to chance, many chefs run their own farms or go out of their way to promote and help sustain their suppliers.