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What is California cuisine? Whatever my immigrant mom is cooking.

The author and his mother, Olivia Wu, center. (Family photo)

People ask me all the time what California cuisine is. I’m not complaining, by any means: My business partners and I are opening a restaurant that we identify as having “all sorts of California coastal soul.”

The answer is not obvious; there’s no catchy, two-sentence description that will convey California cuisine’s essence. For me, the story is about a first-generation Chinese immigrant finding her way in America through food. It’s a story about that woman settling in the American Midwest and teaching her son how to cook the flavors that she remembered from her childhood in Asia. And it’s a story about the yearning for California and the Pacific Ocean that is embedded in the American consciousness.

Make the recipe: The Wu-Wich

My life has always been about food. My mother is a food writer and a chef, and my father was born and raised in Louisiana’s Cajun country, where every spoken thought contains a food reference. Of course, my food lineage comes from both of my parents, but, to say it bluntly, my mom, Olivia Wu, cooks some of the most interesting food that I have ever tasted. It is her influence that led me to be a chef, and her flavors that I am trying to emulate.

My mother spent most of her childhood on the move. She was born in Shanghai in 1949, during the Chinese Communist revolution. Her father, a traveling employee of the Bank of China, reading international newspapers during his business trips, could sense that China was in the midst of a horrific takeover. When Mao and his army were on the outskirts of Shanghai, my grandmother put my mother in a bassinet, left their belongings behind and fled Shanghai for good. (Mom was not allowed back into the country for 55 years.)

The next 15 years of my mom’s life were spent on the move: Singapore, Australia and Thailand were formative locations. In each country, my grandfather would hire a local to be the chef for his family, and, in each country, that chef was my mom’s favorite person. This is where her food education began, and where her cuisine took its unique shape. Her food education continued for 15 childhood years, until she traveled to America to attend college at age 16. Of all of the places that Mom could go to school, she chose the middle of Minnesota: Carleton University.

During my grade school and middle school years, my mother and I lived in a suburb of Chicago. On the weekends we would travel to shop, driving for hours to find the right ingredients. Argyle Street for Thai and Vietnamese, Palatine for Fresh Fields, and Cermak Street for Chinese. There were farmers markets, Mexican groceries and (ugh) health food stores, where sugar was banned. We had to stop in Koreatown for gochujang and Mitsuwa, a Japanese behemoth of a market in a neighboring suburb, for the right white soy sauce. This was the rhythm of our life.

To call the food that came from our journeys “fusion” or “global” would be a crime. My Mom was not trying to be trendy or cutting-edge, she was just trying to explain her childhood through ingredients. We were cooking a deeply personal and delicious brand of American food: Country ribs marinated in soy sauce and garlic, steamed sweet potato and sticky rice terrine, and black bean and chile pork belly were constants. So were Thai curries and Chinese five-spice braises.

But then some Thai staples leaked into fried rice, and some Chinese influences found a home in another staple, pad thai. Silken tofu and thousand-year eggs were placed on top of heirloom tomatoes. Mexican chiles replaced classic Cantonese mainstays — guajillo chile added a smoked richness and a new layer of soul to braised beef shank, a perfect partner to star anise and cinnamon — and fish sauce found its way into mayonnaise and was put inside a pita with lentil sprouts! Sounds crazy, but it was really good. I was eating tahini before it was cool. And eating “healthy” food before anyone knew that “good” and “healthy” were not mutually exclusive. I was getting a master’s class in flavor without ever realizing it.

For a variety of reasons, my mother moved to California when I was in high school. It was an inevitable journey. California had always been calling her. It was closer to home, not just in distance, but in ethos. It was about the quality of the sunlight, the fog and the smell of the fishing boats when they dock in the morning. She was pulled there by farmers markets, where you could buy fresh and organic versions of Chinese vegetables that she had to buy frozen in Chicago. It felt like the childhood she had left behind.

On my first few trips to California to visit my mom in her beautiful little apartment just off the Pacific Ocean, I made a discovery: The food that she was cooking — from the ingredients to the technique, to the marrying of disparate flavors — has been happily existing and accepted in California restaurants and homes for decades. I was eating that same deeply American cuisine I had eaten growing up outside of Chicago. Magnifying the sensation was the fact that my mother’s food became even more soulful when she had California’s bounty at her fingertips.

The best description of California cuisine that I have heard comes from chef Stuart Brioza, one of Mom’s good friends, the owner of San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and the Progress, and a true American food visionary. “The California diner expects a level of intercultural conversation in their food,” he told me one night. He is entirely right, but I hope that, at some point soon, he won’t have to identify California’s food ethos as a combination of cultures. It is a culture all its own.

California cuisine is a story of immigrants, and each of the unique stories that brought them to California. I remember a part of Mom’s story: When we drove across the country to move her from Chicago to San Francisco, the moment we crested the Coastal Range and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time, she took a deep breath, exhaled and smiled from ear to ear. She had found home.

Wu-Bower, a three-time James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef: Great Lakes, is the chef-partner of Pacific Standard Time, which recently opened in Chicago.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said Olivia Wu was born just before the Cultural Revolution in China. In fact, she was born during the Chinese Communist revolution of the late 1940s.


The Wu-Wich

4 servings

Here, Chicago chef Erling Wu-Bower uses an aioli shortcut, in the form of Hellmann’s mayonnaise, which he considers “another one of the best ingredients on the planet.”

1 or 2 large, ripe heirloom tomatoes

1 tablespoon fish sauce, preferably Three Crabs’ brand, plus more as needed

Extra-virgin olive oil

Fresh lemon juice

½ cup Hellmann’s mayonnaise

4 pita breads

1 cup lentil sprouts

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the tomato(es) into ½ -inch-thick slices and season them with a splash of fish sauce, the oil and lemon juice.

Whisk together the tablespoon of fish sauce, the mayo and more lemon juice in a small bowl.

Arrange the pitas on a baking sheet; toast in the oven (middle rack) for about 5 minutes, then transfer them to a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut a slit in the side of each pita about a third of the way around — just enough to open them up.

Use all the mayo mixture for spreading inside each pita. Fill with equal portions of the tomato slices and sprouts. Serve right away.

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