Event Recap: “Gourmet Intersections: Asian-Latino Food Crossings”

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This is an event recap of Gourmet Intersections: Asian-Latino Food Crossings (July 24, 2013). To view more photos, click here. The music playlist is also available here.

Recap by guest blogger Pat Tanumihardja

When you think of Asian-Latino fusion cuisine, Korean bulgogi beef tacos—the darling of the food truck world—will likely cross your mind.

However, Gourmet Intersections: Asian-Latino Food Crossings, a panel held recently at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, revealed that Asian and Latino food cultures have a much longer and richer history of intersection.

White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford kicked off the all-star panel, highlighting the Manila-Acapulco trade that started in 1565. The Manila Galleon transported ingredients such as avocados, peanuts, guavas, tomatoes, and chilies to the Philippines. In return, tamarind, sugar cane, mangoes, and coconut arrived in Mexico. The result? Dishes like fish escabeche, empanaditas, and adobo, just to name a few. As Ms. Comerford so aptly put it, “We (Asian and Latino cuisines) found each other. We embellish each other. We make each other better.”

Next, “Iron Chef America” judge and author Trevor Corson set our preconceptions about “Japanese” sushi straight. Mr. Corson clarified that the nigiri sushi (raw fish over seasoned rice)—a dish so popular in the U.S. today—is actually Peruvian-inspired. Nigiri is a variation of ceviche, raw fish marinated in lemon or lime juice. In fact, the original Japanese sushi comprises of fermented fish over rice.

Then, Pati Jinich, host of the PBS show Pati’s Mexican Table, pointed out that Asian and Latino cuisines have a lot in common.  Both cultures love to dip food in sauces. And, they love to “wrap things up,” which is evident in tacos as well as Peking duck (crispy duck skin tucked into a wrapper with vegetables and sauce). Ms. Jinich also compared Mexican chipotle chilies and Japanese bonito flakes (katsuobushi). To make chipotle, jalapeños are dried, smoked, and marinated in tomatoes and vinegar. Bonito flakes are made from filleted skipjack tuna that has been smoked, dried and fermented, then shaved into flakes. Both ingredients are equally complex to produce!

No doubt, the Asian-Latino culinary combo is a very successful one. But what makes a successful fusion dish? Panel moderator and cookbook author Anupy Singla had excellent advice, “Know what’s inside your box before working outside it.”

More about our guest blogger:
Born to Indonesian parents and raised in Singapore, food writer and cookbook author Pat Tanumihardja is no stranger to fusion cuisine. One of her favorite fusion dishes is mee rebus, a dish made with Chinese egg noodles and smothered in a well-spiced Malay-style sweet potato gravy. Pat’s book, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook—Home Cooking from Asian American Kitchens” was released in paperback in 2012, and she blogs at


What’s the difference between a paratha and a tortilla?

An Indian immigrant worker harvests beets in Hamilton City, California, for the Sacramento Valley Sugar Company, ca. 1907–1915. Photo courtesy of the California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections.

By Rishi Reddi, guest blogger

This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.

What’s the difference between a paratha and a tortilla?  Or, curried beans and refried beans?

A little-known community that bridged South Asians and Mexicans sprang up in the Imperial Valley of Southern California in the 1920s, and knew the answers to these questions. The region had been arid desert before these folks and other brave souls surface-irrigated the land with water from the Colorado River, turning the Imperial Valley into one of the most fertile in the country. Because of immigration pressures, race-based mores, and (of course) true love, many of the South Asian men from Punjab married Mexican women who lived in the area. These couples formed unconventional families with Punjabi fathers, Mexican mothers, and tri-cultural children, who even today can recall the unique and complex aspects of their youth.

Norma Saikhon’s father emigrated from Punjab in 1916 and her mother grew up in Mexico before moving to the Valley in 1931. She tells of how many of the South Asian men, laboring in work gangs to build the railroads in the western United States, continued to cook and eat Punjabi food communally. When they married and settled down to farming, they taught their wives how to cook South Asian food, and the women learned with great enthusiasm. Weekday meals were always of Mexican flavors, but Sunday dinners, wedding feasts, and funeral meals were always of the South Asian variety. The Mexican wives competed with each other, often very obviously, as to who made the best Punjabi food—especially chicken curry!

Despite the seeming similarity of some of the foods—such as Mexican tortillas and Punjabi parathas—Norma recalls how they were actually very different: tortillas were lighter fare and made with white flour; parathas required more labor and consisted of whole wheat.  The families ate beans everyday—mixed with curry, mint and ginger on Punjabi days or boiled with onions, cheese or salsa on Mexican days. But some foods, like Rice Pudding, also known as arroz con leche in Mexico and kheer in South Asia, transcended cultures and continents and were known to all.

More about our guest blogger:

Writer and lawyer Rishi Reddi is the author of the award-winning collection, Karma and Other Stories, published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2007. Her first novel, West, set in the immigrant communities of the Imperial Valley in the 1920s, is forthcoming.  Find out more at


Food Intersections in Brazil

Food fair at Liberdade. Click for more images.

By Zelideth María Rivas, guest blogger

Cup Noodles stand at Paulista train station. Click for more images from Brazil.

This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.

When asked to do a guest blog on my travels in Brazil, I wondered if I should go out and look for Asian-Latino food connections or just wander into their path. I did both. Visiting the newest Japanese places in town while also running into new interpretations of Asia — that is what is possible in the state of São Paulo.

First up is the area of Liberdade in the city of São Paulo. Its weekend fair reinterprets Asia through the specific lens of Latin America. Here, you can find takoyaki labeled as bolinhos de polvo and shrimp tempura featuring small, local shrimps in their shells amidst a fried concoction of chives, onions, and flour. These are lined up with skewers of codfish, beef, and shrimp balls. But if you’re feeling like sushi, walk into any por quilo restaurant in Liberdade where they make California rolls with mango instead of avocado (did you know that many of your Latin American friends would look at you aghast if you don’t treat avocado as a fruit?) and wrap tuna rolls in thin slices of cucumber instead of nori. Or, try a dessert roll with caramelized banana and rice topped with condensed milk or a fried roll with strawberries, rice, and chocolate. The por quilos mix up their Asian cuisine with staples from Brazilian food: a bean vinaigrette salad next to a wakame salad and cheese balls amidst fried spring rolls, guioza (the local spelling), and mini shrimp tempura. Temaquerias are all the rage, making their way to familial parties (note the mango again) or as a fast food restaurant that you visit to have a hand roll after a night of drinking with your friends. But don’t think that “Asian” refers only to Japanese cuisine here in São Paulo.

Peruvian chaufas. Click for more images.

The increase of Peruvian immigrants has also inspired new varieties of chaufas, or Chinese fried rice. In fact, new restaurants have interpreted many parts of Asia, bringing out the Korean barbecue served with kimchi and Japanese misoshirru. The South Indian flavors of Madhu Culinária India are quick to include cashews, coconut, brown rice, and heavy cream served with chapati, parotha, or appam. The Kenko company makes microwavable popcorn specifically for the Brazilian palette, featuring cheese, bacon, chocolate, and caramel. And the company Sakura makes instant missoshiru in shitake, beef, or chicken flavors. But then again, if you’re in a rush, there’s always Cup of Noodles at the Paulista train station!

More about our guest blogger:

Zelideth María Rivas is an Assistant Professor of Japanese at Marshall University. Her research focuses on the conception of race through literature written by Asian immigrants in the Americas, as well as the representation of race in Japan in post-World War II literature and film. She is the author of “Narrating Japaneseness through World War II: The Brazilianization, Peruvianization, and US Americanization of Immigrants” (in Expanding Latinidad: An Inter-American Perspective, WVT Wissenchaftilecher Verlag Trier, 2012) and “Projecting Mixed Race: Negotiating, Nostalgia, and the Rejection of Japanese-Brazilian Biracial Children” (in Journal of Asian American Studies 14.3, October 2011).


A Taste of Barrio Chino: Green Beans with Peanuts and Chile de Arbol

Green Beans with Peanuts and Chile de Arbol. Recipe and photo by Pati Jinich.

By Pati Jinich, guest blogger and Gourmet Intersections panelist

Before she died, my maternal grandmother, whom we called Lali gave me Gloria Miller’s Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. She was fascinated with Chinese cookery. She was also very good at it. What she loved the most were the stir-fry dishes: fast, tasty and healthy.

So, she bought herself a wok.

I couldn’t begin to count how many wok-made dishes I ate at her house during those long summers I visited her and my grandfather, after they moved to the Californian desert.

After she passed away, that wok found its way into my kitchen. I’ve cherished it. I’ve prized it. I haven’t used it! I’ve dragged it through so many house moves that I’ve also managed to lose its cord. It’s an electric wok. It’s real pretty, too. It’s hers. And in my mind, it is inseparable from her Miller’s cookbook, so I didn’t try to cook “her” Chinese dishes for years. And here and there, I’ve looked for that cord…

Fast-forward many, many years. You know I am on a continuous mission to find fascinating topics to teach for my culinary program at the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC. As we planned this year’s classes, the topic came up: Asian Influence in Mexican cooking.

1748 Seale Map of the Pacific Ocean with trade routes from Acapulco to Manila. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

As a former Mexican policy analyst, I am very familiar with the history of the 250 year-long Acapulco-Manila trading route, which connected China and Mexico early on. How tasty would it be to build a menu that showcased the influence of Asian populations in Mexico, and the beautiful fusions of their cuisines and ours?

The Chinese and the Filipinos were the first ones to come to Mexico, through that Acapulco-Manila trading route, which was the result of the Spaniards’ thirst for more than gold, for more than silver; it was their thirst to find what they called the “Spice Islands.” Find them, they did, in Manila.

For 250 years, huge Spanish-built Manila Galleon ships (known in Mexico as Naos de China) were the means of an incredibly rich exchange that forever changed the culture and cooking of Mexico and Asia. Through trips that lasted for more than six months and carried more than 600 people, in came silk, porcelain, exotic fruits and herbs, huge amounts of spices and new ways of preserving ingredients and cooking techniques; out went tomatoes, zucchini, corn, chiles, avocados, beans, Mexican herbs and many culinary traditions.

A Spanish Galleon. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Like many in the Chinese populations in Mexico, my grandmother was an immigrant. She moved to Mexico City from her native Austria, by boat as well, and in her kitchen, became fluent in bridging Austrian and Mexican food. Much in the same way that Chinese immigrants, have built bridges between their cuisine and Mexican food – adapting dishes to use ingredients from the nearest market (jícama instead of watercress, anyone?) and to please the tastes of their Mexican neighbors (chile peppers, please…). It seems to me that it was an understanding and solidarity amongst immigrants that inspired my grandmother’s great appreciation for Chinese cooking.

Well, not only was my grandmother fascinated with Chinese cooking, but a gazillion other Mexicans are, too. We visit Chinese restaurants and cafes, which are proliferated in Mexico City’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown) but even more in the state of Baja California. They tend to have the red lamps and paper dragons and optional chopsticks (thankfully, because as to this day, I haven’t learned to use them…embarrassing, I know) and they have coffee, if you would rather drink it, instead of tea.

The topic of Asian influence in Mexican cooking turned out to be so fascinating to research, in and out of my kitchen, that I devoted an entire episode of my upcoming Third Season of Pati’s Mexican Table, on Public TV, to this menu. (It’s in production now. I will be able to share the sizzle reel soon, and it will air in January!)

This recipe for Green Beans with Cacahautes and Chile de Arbol is one of its highlights. Thanks to Miller’s basics, I could brush up on my stir-frying technique, so the dish turns out just like my grandmother liked her stir fries: tender, crunchy, fresh and full of flavor.

I added a double peanut layer, by using peanut oil, that becomes very nutty as the beans cook, as well as a healthy dose of garlic and chile de árbol. It’s become a staple at home.

And you know what? It turns out you don’t need a wok to make stir fries. You just need a thick pot that can withstand high heat and has a large surface: a la Mexican. I found out because, NO, I have not found that electric cord, and NO, I will not buy another wok. In my kitchen, it is only my grandmother’s wok that will remain king: If only in theory, until I find that electric cord…

1 pound green beans (or Chinese long beans), ends cut and diagonally sliced in about 2” pieces
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ cup chicken broth
½ teaspoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons peanut oil
½ cup roasted peanuts
4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
3 to 4 chiles de arbol, stemmed and thinly sliced
4 to 6 scallions, thinly sliced, light green and white parts only

Bring salted water to a boil in a large pot, add the sliced green beans and cook, uncovered for 2 to 3 minutes until al dente, drain and set aside.

Combine the soy sauce, chicken broth, sugar and salt in a small bowl and mix well.

Heat the peanut oil over high heat in a large heavy skillet until hot but not smoking. Add the peanuts, stirring constantly, as they begin to fry for about 20 seconds. Beware, peanuts burn faster than you would think… so don’t wait until they look browned. Add the garlic and the chiles de arbol, stir for about 10 seconds, and add the scallions and stir for another 10 to 15 seconds. Add the green beans, stir to combine all the ingredients and finally pour soy sauce mixture, let it all cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

More about our guest blogger:

Pati Jinich is host of the Public Television series, Pati’s Mexican Table aired nationwide and nominated for an Imagen Awards. Her 3rd Season is under production this spring-summer. She is a cookbook author, cooking teacher, food writer and official chef of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC. Pati was born and raised in Mexico City and comes from a family of accomplished cooks. She has resided in the Washington, DC area for the past 13 years, where she and her husband are raising their three boys.
Click here to read her full bio.


Mochi and Tamales in Los Angeles

From top-left: Obon Festival food sign; tamales; tacos; Okinawan dango (donuts); and chirashi rice (sushi rice with mixed toppings). Photos courtesy Mary Yogi.

By Mary Yogi, guest blogger

This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, my family’s “To Do” list:

  • Wash and soak 200 pounds of rice.
  • Make enchiladas.
  • Roll sushi.
  • Peel and chop tomatillos and green chiles and cook with pork.
  • Press hot rice onto seaweed and top it with America’s favorite canned meat to make Spam musubi.
  • Steam tamales.
  • Gather all my relatives together to cook and pound the rice into mochi.

Every year since 1950, my Japanese American family has gathered in Los Angeles before New Year’s Day to make mochi – pounded rice cakes. Toasted mochi are placed in soup called ozoni on New Year’s Day to bring a year of good luck.

While mochi is a Japanese food, our potluck lunch is certainly a reflection of a fusion life in Los Angeles. The Japanese American community grew up next to many other immigrant communities, which is how our food cultures naturally came together. The buffet at our holiday gathering is filled with Latino foods such as enchiladas, tamales, pork with tomatillo, and green chiles from New Mexico along with sushi and chirashi rice.

As a child, I remember making homemade tamales with my family. My father, a Nisei (second generation Japanese American), was a mechanic in Los Angeles and worked with many Mexican Americans. My father loves Mexican food and learned to make tamales from his co-workers. I have fond memories of soaking corn husks in our kitchen and unwrapping tamales for dinner. It is then served with Japanese rice, since my mom always had plain white rice ready.

The intersection of food cultures is also reflected at obon summer festivals held at Buddhist temples in Los Angeles, and all over the United States.  Obon is acknowledged annually to show respect for one’s ancestors. My friend describes it as a Buddhist Dia de los Muertos. Even beyond the similarities of honoring departed ancestors, the obon festivals in the greater Los Angeles area offer some of the same foods that are enjoyed at Dia de los Muertos celebrations. Next to booths selling homemade sushi, Okinawan fried donuts, and bowls of Japanese noodles, you’ll often find tamales and tacos, as well as the Japanese, Latin, Hawaiian and American food cultural mash-up of chili rice and chili topped tamales.

Just thinking about obon festivals and my family’s annual mochi making day and potluck make me hungry. The combination of Japanese and Mexican food together is a taste treat I will always treasure.

More about our guest blogger:

Mary Yogi is a public librarian and food blogger in her native Los Angeles. A third generation Japanese American, you can find her writing about her baking and eating on The Food Librarian.

Food, General APA

Brazilian Pastéis Go Japanese

Luiza Kazuko Yokoyama Ohno and her son, Jobsom Ohno.

By Zelideth María Rivas, guest blogger

This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.

Yoka’s “Comer e Beber” award for best pastel.

Turnovers. Empanadas. Pastelillos. Pastel. Let’s face it, we can’t have just one: pastéis. Many Latin American cultures have them. All Brazilian lanchonetes, bars, and feiras serve them. But only Yoka’s restaurant consistently appears at competitions like São Paulo’s Comer e Beber. Located on Rua dos Estudantes, 37 in the Asian neighborhood of Liberdade, shop owner Luiza Kazuko Yokoyama Ohno uses recipes handed down to her from her father, while also creating new flavors that surprise and intrigue her customers. Not only a second-generation pastel maker, she is also a second-generation Japanese Brazilian, speaking Japanese with some of her customers and innovating her most popular pastel: “o japonês.”

A bite of the pastel japonês.

Filled with tofu, shitake, kamaboko (fish cake), and chives, this pastel has been a staple at her shop for over ten years, surprising since she’s had the shop since 1996. The earthy shitake dominates each bite, making the customer appreciate the rich, moist filling that contrasts with the dry, flaky dough. This is not your typical pastel. Instead of a peppery hot sauce, this one is served with shoyu (soy sauce). Luiza specifically created this pastel to attract new customers. I sat down with Luiza on June 26 to discuss the popularity of her pastéis, a well-known Latin American treat.

Luiza, the youngest child of four, grew up watching her father make pastel. Her father, Takashi Yokoyama, arrived from Mie, Japan in 1933 to work as a contract laborer on the coffee plantations in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil. After some years, he went out to the city of São Paulo to apprentice with a pastel maker. At the time, it was rare to see a Japanese pastel maker. However, after a brief return to the countryside during World War II, he innovated four pastéis: queijo (cheese), palmito (hearts of palm), carne (ground beef), and carne com ovo (ground beef with egg). This last addition to his menu made him popular, becoming the pastel that his customers remember.

The busy counter at Yoka’s restaurant.

Carrying on her father’s experimentations in creating new flavors for pastéis, Yoka currently carries thirty-three flavors, both savory and sweet. From codfish to guava paste and white cheese, you can find it at Yoka. Today, feiras pop up in every corner of São Paulo. Look carefully and you’ll probably find that the person responsible for that pastel you’re eating may just be a Japanese Brazilian.

More about our guest blogger:

Zelideth María Rivas is an Assistant Professor of Japanese at Marshall University. Her research focuses on the conception of race through literature written by Asian immigrants in the Americas, as well as the representation of race in Japan in post-World War II literature and film. She is the author of “Narrating Japaneseness through World War II: The Brazilianization, Peruvianization, and US Americanization of Immigrants” (in Expanding Latinidad: An Inter-American Perspective, WVT Wissenchaftilecher Verlag Trier, 2012) and “Projecting Mixed Race: Negotiating, Nostalgia, and the Rejection of Japanese-Brazilian Biracial Children” (in Journal of Asian American Studies 14.3, October 2011).

Food, History, Intern Update, Japanese American

Karami: a Japanese inspired salsa from Pueblo, Colorado

By Kristen Hayashi, Summer 2013 intern

This blog is part of the Gourmet Intersections program of Intersections as American Life: the Smithsonian Asian-Latino Festival 2013.

Asian-inspired tacos are the epitome of the recent Asian-Latino fusion food phenomenon, yet the intermixing of these two pan-ethnic cultural cuisines turns out to have a much longer history than one might expect.  For over a century, cultural diversity due to immigration and migration of individuals across the United States has created the opportunity for the fusion of gastronomic traditions.

In the 1890’s, Japanese immigrants established roots in Pueblo, Colorado, to work on the railroad and nearby farms.  They longed for comfort foods from their homeland, but distance from the Pacific coast made it nearly impossible for them to obtain seaweed and other Japanese staples.  Out of necessity, they began experimenting with locally grown vegetables to replicate the taste and texture of the seaweed they typically ate with rice.  The hot green chile—a mainstay in Pueblo due to the growing Mexican population—when combined with soy sauce produced an acceptable substitute to the seaweed they grew up eating in Japan.  They called the innovation karami, which means “beautiful heat” in Japanese.  While karami remained a local specialty that was eaten mostly with rice by the Japanese community in Pueblo, it has recently found a new niche as a Japanese inspired salsa eaten with tortilla chips.

Author and journalist Gil Asakawa explores the story of “Karami” in a recent article that he wrote for his weekly blog, “Nikkei View.”  For the full article, click here: