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The cuisine of California is characterized by fresh produce and fusions, from the fertile Salinas Valley, known as the salad bowl of the United States, to the wine countries across the state, and the vast diversity of urban areas like Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The health-conscious culture paired with the abundance of local produce have led the way to some modern and creative kinds of cuisine.
California’s history as a center for immigrants brought a variety of different cultures together, and over time, these cultures coexisted and merged to form fusions of various cuisines. Modern takes on ethnic foods from countries around the world were modified to fit the local tastes, evolving throughout the years.
Since the California Gold Rush in 1849, sourdough bread has been an important part of the cuisine of San Francisco. Though this style of bread originated much further back in history, the unique starter used in San Francisco’s sourdough has become world famous for its intense sour flavors and dense texture, and is difficult to reproduce elsewhere in the world. The starter’s microorganisms can only thrive in the specific combination of conditions found in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sourdough bread was a favorite of the miners during the Gold Rush, who carried the starter with them as they dispersed across the state, bringing the delicious bread wherever they went. Sourdough bread has become so closely associated with San Francisco, that sourdough became a nickname for miners, and today the mascot of the football team, the San Francisco 49ers, is named Sourdough Sam.
San Francisco’s Boudin Bakery began baking sourdough bread way back in 1849, and using the same starter, has been in continuous production ever since. This white bread has a chewy, crispy crust, and is the perfect pairing for many popular San Francisco soups, like clam chowder and cioppino, and can often be found hollowed out and shaped into a bowl in which to serve the soups.
Cioppino, a seafood medley stew, is another San Francisco creation, first created by Italian immigrants to the city in the mid-nineteenth century. Fishermen from the coastal region of Italy known as Liguria, arrived in San Francisco and made their livings as fishermen on the bay. At the end of the day, they would gather the catch of the day, chop up the leftovers, and throw them into a pot to create a stew. The name cioppino probably originated from the Ligurian dialect’s word for to chop, though some accounts claim that it is derived from cries of “chip in” that were heard when the fishermen returned to the docks, requesting that everyone add some seafood to the pot.
Cioppino in San Francisco is usually a mixture of Dungeness crab, clams, shrimp, scallops, squid, mussels, and various white fish, stewed in a red wine broth. The shellfish are left in their shells while they are stewed, adding flavors to the broth. Later Sicilian immigrants evolved the dish, adding tomatoes to the broth, which is the style usually served today.
The stew is served with the meat still in shells, making for an especially messy meal. In fact, many restaurants serving cioppino offer bibs to their guests who order the dish, along with special utensils to assist the shelling process.
Shrimp and Crab Louie
Crab Louie is a salad made with crab meat (alternatively Shrimp Louie is made with shrimp meat), which has been served in San Francisco since the early 1900s. Conflicting stories are told about the exact origins of this dish, but it is believed to be a San Francisco original. Along with the seafood meat, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, asparagus, cucumber, and lettuce such as Romaine or iceberg are included. The mixture is tossed with Louie dressing, which is made from mayonnaise and chili sauce, and seasoned with peppers. A modern variation on this salad uses Thousand Island dressing instead.
Invented in Hollywood, California in the 1930s, Cobb Salad is a dinner salad made from many flavorful ingredients. Although its precise origins are not known, this salad was named for the restaurant owner of Brown Derby restaurant, where the dish was first created. This salad is made from iceberg lettuce and other salad greens like Romaine, tomatoes, bacon, roasted chicken, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, chives and Roquefort cheese. These ingredients are all chopped and tossed together with French dressing, a mixture of red wine vinegar, lemon, mustard, oil, and Worcestershire sauce. The many ingredients of this salad are often formed into ornate displays before serving, showing off the contrasting colors, shapes, and textures.
Ranch dressing was invented in Santa Barbara in the 1950s, and has now become the most popular salad dressing in the United States. The creamy dressing can not only be used as a dressing for salads, but also as a dip for chips, California’s variety of fresh vegetables, sandwiches, and chicken strips. The dressing is made from buttermilk, sour cream, yogurt, onions, garlic, and other seasonings, which creates a refreshing contrast to the vegetables and meat it is typically paired with.
The California roll might be the most famous fusion of California’s cuisine. A sushi roll consisting of crab meat, avocado, cucumber, rice and seaweed, the California roll is a combination of Japanese and California cultures. The roll has helped make sushi accessible to many people who were timid about trying sushi for the first time, increasing the food’s popularity in the state and around the world. This accessibility is also the reason that the roll is made inside-out, that is, the rice is outside the seaweed (nori), because American tastes were not ready to take that leap at the time.The California roll originated in Los Angeles in the 1960s as an experiment in fusion, using local California ingredients in a traditional Japanese dish.
Many varieties on Mexican cuisine are popular in the state of California, from the more authentic San Diego Mexican cuisine, nearest the border, to the burritos of San Francisco’s Mission district, California has made many innovations on the cuisine.
Though San Diego features many authentic Mexican restaurants, one contribution the city has given to the California-Mexican food fusion is the California burrito. In addition to traditional burrito ingredients, such as carne asada, rice, and beans, the California burrito includes French fries.
The fish taco is another aspect of this California-influenced fusion. With its many coastal regions, California’s combination of Mexican cuisine and seafood was inevitable. Fish is grilled or fried and sprinkled with lime juice and avocado for the perfect meal at the beach.
The San Francisco Mission burrito has become a national dish, now available at many fast food chains, such as Chipotle. Its characteristic large flour tortillas are filled with rice, several options of meat, beans, salsa, cheese, and guacamole, wrapped with a precise technique in foil, and enjoyed. The burrito is created in a type of assembly line at restaurants, so that customers can choose exactly which ingredients to add to their burritos.