The diverse flavors of LA’s eastside, from Vietnamese to Bangladeshi

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Rumi’s dry curry. Credit: Ann Elliott Cutting

Elisa Callow takes a close look at where to eat, shop, and gather culinary inspiration on L.A.’s eastside in her book “The Urban Forager.”


Elisa Callow. Credit: Ann Elliott Cutting.

Callow tells Good Food that she’s interested in how food culture developed in LA. “I was born in 1952. And at the time, my parents had a cookbook from Sunset Magazine called “Cooking with a Foreign Accent.” And it had a terrible cover with every stereotype image,” she says. “Now I feel like we're honoring the real specificity of where people are coming from, and we're not trying to dumb it down. . . . I find that exciting, that you can get to a community's food that's so particular.”

UrbanForager_cover.jpgThe cover of “The Urban Forager.” Photo credit: Prospect Park Books

South Vietnamese chef Minh Phan

In her book, Callow writes about chefs who inspire her, including Minh Phan of Porridge + Puffs in historic Filipinotown. They were recently at a book signing together.

Callow likes a particular quote from Phan: “If the plate is a canvas, ingredients are like paints to me. I seek, I mix, I match. I make companions of enemies. Delivering a thought and soul-provoking canvas is always my goal. I make complicated things look easy, and easy things interesting.”

Callow says Phan is an amazing forager, and that she’s also developed close relationships with farmers, from whom she sources many of her ingredients.

Rice occupies a prominent place in Phan’s culinary repertoire. “There's an elegance in her mind to rice,” says Callow, who admits she previously had little knowledge of the subtleties of cooking rice.

Callow also points out Phan’s appreciation for her mother’s cooking, who worked all day but always managed to get multiple dishes on the dinner table each night. And she was a home cook, not a professional chef. “So in some ways, I feel like the home cooks who have done one thing, or two things, or three things really well—are as expert as I've ever been,” Callow says.

Armenian chef Jack Aghoian

Callow wanted to highlight the important contributions of Armenians to LA’s culinary scene. She notes, for instance, the Great Armenian Way in Pasadena, an area with stores, bakeries, and meat places owned by Armenians who’ve been there for years.

“I cannot do this cookbook without including somebody with a deep orientation towards Armenian cooking, and Jack was the guy,” she says.

Aghoian started one of the first restaurants in Pasadena, and had been cooking in his parents’ restaurant since age nine, says Callow.

“My favorite story about them in terms of their culture was they couldn't find the ingredients for Armenian cooking in their restaurants. So they would do things like drive up to Fresno, and ask the farmers not to spray their grapes until they had picked the grape leaves. So they could pack grape leaves and salt for the restaurant. And they still do it. His parents are 80-something and 90, and they still in their basement have salted grape leaves, and they're curing olives.”

Bangladeshi chef Rumi Mahmood

“The Urban Forager” features Rumi Mahmood’s recipe for a curry called “dopiaza,” which means two onions. Callow explains that the first onion is cooked for a very long time and becomes sweet, and toward the end of the cooking of the curry, you add more onion that’s crispy. “The two fight each other in a beautiful way because you've got this sweet gooey, and you've got a little bit of crispness, and it adds beautiful flavor.”

Rumi’s Shrimp Dopiaza Recipe:

Dopiaza is Bengali for two onions; it is a delicious spicy, tomato-based curry. Rumi Mahmood suggests using a wok or deep skillet, as the size and shape are optimal for distributing heat. Do not hurry this dish; each step allows for the mellowing of flavors. Serve over medium- or long-grain rice.

INGREDIENTS

Serves 8

  • 2 1/2 pounds shrimp, large (26 to 30 count per pound) or jumbo (16 to 20 count per pound)
  • 3 tablespoons peeled, finely chopped ginger, divided
  • 2 rounded teaspoons turmeric, divided
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, finely chopped, divided (seed peppers to moderate heat)
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the skillet
  • 2 small onions, divided (1 coarsely chopped, the other sliced and then cut crosswise)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cayenne or red pepper flakes
  • 2 rounded teaspoons paprika
  • 2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon or more kosher salt, divided
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro (stems and leaves)

METHOD

– Peel, devein, and rinse shrimp. Dry by laying shrimp on a half-sheet baking pan lined with a length of paper towel. Dab surface of shrimp with paper towel as well. In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine shrimp, 1 rounded tablespoon chopped ginger, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon garlic, and 1 chopped jalapeño. Refrigerate shrimp until ready to use.

– In a wok or deep skillet, warm oil over medium heat. Sauté chopped onion until translucent. Add remaining ginger and garlic; continue cooking until garlic is translucent.

– Add sugar and cook until onion, ginger, and garlic turn golden-brown; reduce heat to low and add remaining jalapeño and turmeric. Add cayenne or red pepper flakes and paprika.

– Continue cooking for 10 to 15 minutes. Spices must be toasted sufficiently before adding water or curry will taste raw. If mixture begins to stick or burn, add water—no more than 1 tablespoon at a time. This is similar to deglazing a pan, but liquid is used throughout the cooking process and much more sparingly. Spread sauce out to heat evenly as you cook.

– Add tomato and continue to cook, “deglazing” as necessary. After about 10 minutes, tomato will be thoroughly incorporated into sauce. At this point, you should see the oil separating from the sauce. Add the sliced onion and cook for another 10 minutes, or until onions are barely softened, then add 3/4 teaspoon salt. Taste, and add more salt if desired. Let sauce mellow over very low heat while you sauté the shrimp.

– Add a film of oil to a cast-iron or other heavy skillet and warm over medium-high heat. Add spiced shrimp and a large pinch of salt; sauté until shrimp is opaque on each side. Remove from heat immediately. Add shrimp to sauce. Serve with a pinch of cilantro per person.

TRY THIS: Rumi’s recipe is a “dry curry.” If you prefer more sauce, add 1/2 cup hot water. Or for a malai (cream) variation, add cilantro to the finished curry, along with 3/4 can coconut milk or yogurt thinned with water to the consistency of milk for a total of 1 cup. Heat to a light boil and cook until cilantro is softened. For another variation, substitute 21/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into cubes, for the shrimp. Sauté 15 to 20 minutes, until cooked through.

FOOD SOURCES: For shrimp, Fish King and H Mart; for spices, H Mart, India Food and Spices, Namaste Spiceland, Punjab Indian Grocery Store.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nick Liao

Credits

Host:
Evan Kleiman

Producers:
Nick Liao, Joseph Stone, Laryl Garcia