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Fastest Way to Asia's Heart
Part of a display by Minnie Luong, who writes the blog Minnie Eat World

Fastest Way to Asia's Heart

About 150 people stopped at the alumni center for a day of tastings, demonstrations and discussions about Asian cuisines and cultures in Los Angeles.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

Minnie Luong thought she'd made a big mistake moving to L.A. from Boston two years ago, when she couldn't find Thai basil anywhere. Since that time, the chef and food blogger has become a local authority on where to go to fill up an Asian pantry. On Sunday, May 2, she shared do's, don'ts and her own directory of more than 40 specialized markets with visitors to "Asia in LA 2010: Creating and Consuming Asian Cuisines" at the James West Alumni Center. Presented by the UCLA Asia Institute, the full day of tastings, demonstrations and discussions attracted about 150 people.

"If you want to dig deeper," said Luong of exploring the Asian-American markets, "it's such a fun experience. It's not just about buying something and going home. A lot of these places have eateries attached to them or inside, so that's where you're going to get good, authentic – more authentic than the strip mall down the street – cheap food."

The public event featured panel discussions on local cuisines and cultures with a well-known Las Vegas chef, Jet Tila, whose family began importing Thai ingredients to L.A. in the 1970s; Kenny Enomoto of California's Marukai supermarkets; Carl Chu, an author of guidebooks to Chinese food in L.A. and the world of sushi; Boston University anthropologist Merry White, an expert in Japanese-American and Pacific Rim food culture; UCLA Professor Valerie Matsumoto, who teaches a course on Asian-American history through foodways; and two groups of UCLA graduate students in history, ethnic studies and the social sciences. There were chances to smell lemongrass and peppers and to taste condiments, teas, curry sauces and saffron ice cream. Bombay Café, the Clay Pit, Hop Woo BBQ Seafood, Saffron Spot, Simpang Asia and Tiger Sushi donated food for the afternoon tasting fair.

Local author Carl Chu (left), renowned chef Jet Tila and specialty foods marketer Kenny Enomoto participated in a panel discussion with scholars.

Local author Carl Chu (left), renowned chef Jet Tila and specialty foods marketer Kenny Enomoto participated in a panel discussion with scholars.

In one of the discussions, graduate students considered the singular environments cultivated in the serving of coffee in Koreatown, of "simple, tummy-filling" Indonesian dishes in Westwood and of spam wrapped up with rice at on-the-road basketball games in a Japanese-American youth league. For a dissertation on the basketball league and ethnicity, sociology student Christina Chin conducted 70 in-depth interviews and observed ways in which Hawaiian and Japanese food, generally made by players' mothers and grandmothers, contributes to the formation of identities.

"You definitely see other sporting foods like hot dogs, pizza, chips and Gatorade, but you also have sushi and spam musubi and curry over rice, so a blend of Japanese and American coming together," Chin said.

On the patio of the alumni center at lunchtime, registered guests enjoyed fare from Banchan à la Carte, and everyone sampled rice- and tofu-based snacks from the Indonesian Consulate in Los Angeles. There was an exhibition of photographs of farming in Korea by CedarBough Saeji, a PhD candidate in UCLA's Department of World Arts & Cultures, and the chance to win a walking tour and tasting experience from Six Tastes of Asia in LA, a company launched this year.

Lydia Kung of Eastrise Trading Corp. (right), an expert on tea varietals, directs side-by-side tastings for a group of UCLA supporters including Norma Lee. Seated around the same table are Howard Lee, Patsy Sung and Bob Sung.

Lydia Kung of Eastrise Trading Corp. (right), an expert on tea varietals, directs a series of tastings for a group of UCLA supporters including Norma Lee. Seated around the same table are Howard Lee, Patsy Sung and Bob Sung.

Inside the building, a group of UCLA supporters and faculty members lunched on dim sum provided by Cecile Tang, co-owner of Joss Cuisine of Beverly Hills. Lydia Kung, PhD, of Eastrise Trading Corp. lectured to the group about tea varietals and walked them through a series of tastings. Support for the day's program was provided by the Sammy Yukuan Lee Foundation, Patsy and Robert Sung and the Edna and Yu-Shan Han Charitable Foundation.

Luong ascribes her initial failure to come up with Thai basil to L.A.'s sprawl. Her first success required a drive to a market in the San Fernando Valley.

"It was like the music came on, and it felt like home," she said.

The panel discussion with Chef Tila and Pacific Rim food experts is available as a podcast from the UCLA Asia Institute. 

View full program here.
 

Asia Institute