By Kishwar Chowdhury
It’s 5pm in Los Angeles, California, and as the sun disappears on a chilly January afternoon, my Uber pulls up to the West Hollywood hotel I’m staying at. I’ve executed hours of research across popular food platforms and blogs, and I’ve asked my chef friends to create an extensive food bucket list. There’s also room to add recommendations from LA locals.
I jump into the vintage-looking ride and after exchanging some friendly pleasantries, I begin to quiz my Mexican-born Uber driver on hotspots for authentic Mexican cuisine. He takes a sharp glance at me through his rearview mirror and laughs: “Look around you my friend, California was once a part of Mexico! This city was built on the authentic Mexican cuisine you’re looking for,” he says.
But then he adds, “We’re taking back the taco!” Now I’m curious. My Uber driver explains, “You know when I arrived here 30 years ago, my brother, who had migrated to LA a decade before me, took me to one of these drive-through Mexican chains.
“He ordered in an American accent something I hadn’t heard of before… a burrito! I’d never seen a white, flour tortilla stuffed with rice and yellow cheese. Why was this being labelled as Mexican food?!”
He described the slow process of making tortillas back in his homeland, how they were made with corn-based masa flour, and tasted sweet and husky. They were hand-pressed in a tortilladora. They weren’t hard-shelled or stuffed with rice or rolled into the burrito logs, like those created by the US and exported around the world as Mexican cuisine.
As the Uber driver spoke, I realised it probably wasn’t the right place to share that before our plane even hit the Los Angeles International Airport tarmac, my son turned to me and said, “I can’t wait to eat at Chipotle”. Apparently, my own son’s most memorable Californian moment is a US-formed Mexican food chain.
There was something about the burrito offending my Uber driver that I could relate to. I had a flashback to my younger self feeling embarrassed by Indian restaurant menus of the 90s, with items like a neon orange “butter chicken” or an ambiguous green mush passing as palak paneer. I didn’t want people to think that was my food. A lack of accessible South Asian food representation in Australia up until recent times meant that I was always explaining, like my Uber driver here in LA, that this cuisine wasn’t created by us or for us.
In my son’s defence, California has historically been the epicentre of renowned fast-food chains. It’s the birthplace of Mcdonald’s, Carl’s Jr and Panda Express. You can’t disregard how influential iconic chains from the 1940s like “In and Out” and “Fat Burger” has been on how America, if not the world, franchises food.
Even today, California exports its culture through new-age food franchises, with cool contenders like Lemonade, Sugarfish and Eggslut gaining global cult followings. After eating my way through this list (for research purposes) and throwing in a few stops to absorb the US’ ramen revolution at HiroNori Craft Ramen and Mensho Tokyo, I felt that what California was now doing particularly well was turning what we disregard as fast food chains into more ethical, culturally intact offerings, driven by its growing diasporas and migrant voices.
I vowed to show my son a life beyond Chipotles. We spent the rest of our trip seeking out Mexican-owned eateries. From street-style Michoacan carnitas at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas at the Grand Central Markets to delicately deep-fried beef taquito at Cielito Lindo, established in 1934.
We detoured to Vegas where Jose Andres flexes his creativity, merging Chinese-Mex cuisine at China Poblano at the Cosmopolitan. Dishes like the viva China taco are fun and exceptionally executed, but more importantly, Andres gives overlooked delicacies, like salt-cured cactus, a new, global audience.
Between taco-paired tequila flights in Santa Monica to a Dia de los Muertos-themed El Dorado Cantina in Las Vegas, serving dragonfruit margaritas and customised salsa picos, it dawned on me that keeping your cuisine relevant in this generation lies anywhere on a spectrum between authenticity and innovation.
I feel a sense of familiarity when eating food in its country of origin. I feel this a lot when I’m eating Indian food in India or Bangladeshi food in Bangladesh. I think it has something to do with the sourcing of the ingredients, weather and water, and even the vessels it’s cooked in. But what is vital is who tells the food story, regardless of where the cuisine is served.
This trip changed Taco Tuesdays for me forever. I guess my Uber driver was successfully taking back the taco, one tourist at a time.
See Original Article at SBS