Into the Melding Pot
Photo by Anne Fishbein
When our Auntie Tesmelina would harass waiters to wrap even the tiniest scraps of leftovers into a doggy bag, we kids would roll our eyes. But when those morsels joined leftover bread in her delicious Italian rebollita, or when she would ply us with our favorite creamy rice pudding made from uneaten Chinese-restaurant rice, we’d excuse her obsession with thrift. “She’s from the old country,” Mom would say, as if that explained it.
Years later, as a fanatical cookbook reader, I came to appreciate the ingenious way all the aunties from every culture could turn the doggy bags of life into something exquisite to eat. Often the best dishes, whether redneck chili con carne or a Chinese clay pot of duck tongues and black fungus, were cooked in a single pot, saving scarce fuel. And although there was always plenty of room for improvisation, eventually the best impromptu creations were repeated, refined and turned into reproducible recipes that became the comfort foods of the world.
Old-country one-dish meals served in Los Angeles can taste authentic because we have factories pumping out all sorts of products, from Vietnamese hot sauce to Persian herb mixtures. And enterprising farms near the city also grow and supply produce like the edible chrysanthemum leaves found in Korean or Japanese cooking, and the epazote for Mexican dishes.
There is a major difference, though. Back home, many one-pots used grains, beans, pastas and other inexpensive ingredients to stretch protein, or even substitute for it. A pot of beans and rice gussied up with only an ounce or so of meat might be the entire meal. But here in the states, with protein foods abundant and cheap, the dish could be embellished with half a chicken or a lamb haunch. A perfect example is the Romanian staple mamaliga. Some might view this polentalike cornmeal as Oliver Twist–inspired fare, but bourgeois Romanians acquired a taste for it during WWI when forced to rely on peasant fare. In the hardest times, they ate it plain. At Mignon in Hollywood, L.A.’s longest-running Romanian restaurant, an order is simply two mounds of mamaliga topped with chunks of feta-style brinza cheese and a large hillock of sour cream. The dish can have the same addictive lure as macaroni and cheese, or bread pudding. Mignon’s waiter suggested that for only $1 extra I could have a smaller portion of the cheese-garnished mamaliga with four nicely made stuffed cabbage rolls. In the American style, that’s what I ordered, though this meal wasn’t cooked in just one pot.
Looking into the kitchens where one-pot meals are prepared, I noticed three basic styles. The first, soup or stewlike dishes, may incorporate food also cooked for other meals. The Asian a.m. favorite congee, a soupy porridge of cooked-down rice, is one example. Some of the best congee comes from Har Lam Kee, a sliver of a place in Monterey Park. Lines out its door every morning bespeak quality in this most competitive of restaurant areas. The secret is intensely flavorful broth and meticulously fresh toppings, some 15 in all, including Shatin-style fresh chicken, fresh seafood and the inevitable “pork offals.”
A second one-pot style relies on preserved foods. Every cuisine has its root cellars, its pickle jars and its smokehouses. Old-time German farm fraus would cure sausages and shred and salt several hundred cabbage heads for the sauerkraut they used all winter long. These would end up in dishes like the hunter’s stew, served at the charming and inexpensive Golden Duck in Chatsworth. The sweet mellowness of the dish results â from blanching the kraut and a long simmering with sautéed onions, juicy Polish-sausage slices, little bits of beef and a touch of sweet paprika.
In southwestern France, where peasants refined the “confit” as a way to preserve poultry in its own fat, they could depend on duck and goose, plus cured sausages, to create bounteous cassoulets from their larders. Mimosa’s cassoulet is a beautiful casserole of preserved (as in dried) white beans supplemented with preserved duck, onions cooked in duck fat, sausage, and a little pork. It is a delicious example of how cooking today can, in one serving, use the same portion of meats that might have once fed several families.
Lowly salt-cod, the preserved, dried fish that once stocked the larders of African slaves, shows up in many Caribbean and South American one-pots. At the Brazilian Itana Bahia, bacalhau de iaia is slowly cooked in a coconut broth with a perfect balance of potatoes, red and green pepper, onions, and tomatoes. At the Jamaican Kingston Café, the cooks make catadupa green by stewing the soaked, desalted cod with onion and fresh cabbage.
The third one-pot style, cook-at-the-table hot pots, is warm-and-fuzzy comfort food for people from cold-climate Asian countries. The steaming pots were once sources of heat as well as nourishment, when families gathered around them at the table to cook and to eat. Cooks of the household loved serving these dishes, for here was a rare opportunity to sit throughout the meal and visit with everyone.
Apart from the recent avalanche of Japanese shabu shabu places opening around town, dozens of other restaurants do a thriving business with their own version of tabletop-cooked hot pots. Seoul Garden, near downtown, has a large menu, but almost everyone ignores it and gets the Korean-style Genghis Khan hot pot (served for two or more). Shabu lovers know the routine, but will find that cooking the micron-thin beef slices with the mix of shredded cabbage and scallions from the vegetable plate produces a distinctive taste. When the beef and vegetables are consumed, the waitress tosses a huge mound of chewy handmade udon into the pot. By now, the cooking water has turned to a broth for the noodles. For the final course, the server mixes up a sort of rice stew in the remaining broth — enriching it with a whole egg and crispy nori. The $14.50 lunch or $16.50 dinner experience is unbeatable.
The second floor of Koreatown’s Dae Sung Oak (the first-floor menu lists mostly soups and noodles) serves several different beef-based hot pots. But it’s the seafood shabu shabu that’s the standout. In this case, you don’t actually swish-swish to cook. The generous mound of ingredients, including clams, octopus, oysters, fish cake, tofu and shiitake mushrooms, are steamed at the table in a wooden box. As with shabu, you season each steamed bite in a lemony soy-sauce dip. Unless you have the appetite of a sumo wrestler, it’s hard to eat your way through everything served. But save some room, because the best part is the spicy rice-and-kimchee soup made from the steaming juices.
Tsukuba in Torrance, a favorite spot with the expat Japanese community, offers four different nabe (one-pot) dishes for two or more. Its udon suki, an elegant platter of very fresh seafoods, veggies and disappointingly lackluster udon that you cook in dashi, is absolutely classic, yet I found it a little too plain for my taste.
All over the city are found one-pot dishes that new residents have brought here from their homelands. The food represents a link to their pasts, to fond memories and simpler lifestyles. Here, they needn’t rely on preserved ingredients, or on hot pots to keep them warm, and stretching the protein isn’t usually an issue. The following are among the best I’ve encountered.
Fiery-spiced dishes may come to mind whenever Latin American food is mentioned, but most of the region’s long-simmered one-pots are as mellow-tasting as Mrs. Goldberg’s chicken soup. In fact, the sancocho de gallina at the new Restaurante Café Colombia in Burbank could have come from her stove. The dish’s name derives from sancochar, the Spanish term for parboil, and refers to many pot au feu–style dishes served in a little broth. Café Colombia also makes an oxtail sancocho. Both these dishes are copious feasts of the meats cooked together with green plantain, yucca and potato. Rice is added later. An arepa, the flat Colombian corn cake, comes alongside.
An even more baroque pot au feu, from the Guatemalan restaurant Victoria Garden, is de kak-ik, a native Indian name for a pot of turkey drumsticks and rice simmered in turkey broth, served as a sort of reverse soup. Each single order seems enough to satisfy a family of four, plus the dog. It consists of a whole drumstick and a mound of rice from the pot, served on a plate along with an avocado slice and tortillas flecked with fresh herbs. A big bowl of the broth is served alongside. Diners squeeze lemon and add powdered chile to spice the broth as they like it.
Night crawlers should know about the hot-pot rice dishes at Hop Woo in Chinatown. These warming concoctions of rice, soup stock and meats cook together in a clay pot for about 30 minutes until the flavors permeate the rice and a crisp bottom layer forms. There are six hot-pot rice styles, including pork ribs with black-bean sauce, chicken and black mushrooms, and preserved pork and sausage. Since their preparation is too time-consuming a task for the line cooks during lunch and dinner rush hours, Hop Woo serves these hot pots only between 9:30 p.m. and 2 a.m. Although somewhat bothersome to cook, the dishes have a devoted following, and so remain on the menu. Hop Woo does hot pots without rice, too, including one with chunks of roasted pork, fried oysters and fried tofu in brown sauce, and the ever-popular duck’s web with black mushrooms.
It’s safe to say that you could find hundreds more Chinese one-pot meals in and around L.A., but my latest quality finds include the one-pot dishes at Deer Garden, a Szechuan restaurant, and Mini Shanghai, where the assorted casserole soup is a filling, delicate-tasting meal in a sand pot. A pretty arrangement of chicken pieces, shrimp, pork, omelet, salt-fish strips and other items sits atop a bed of vegetables mixed with clear noodles. Deer Garden’s several hot pots (called here “warm pots”) are, flavorwise, at the opposite end of the spectrum. The sharp tart and garlicky northern Chinese beef hot pot with preserved cabbage and long-cooked beef, a dish found in several Islamic restaurants, is the most meticulously cooked version I’ve tried. There’s also a lamb version, a meatball-and-vegetable warm pot, and one with pork and pickled cabbage.
In Koreatown is Jeon Ju, known for casseroles. Many of them are served in heat-retaining stone pots set over blazing high heat. Their contents are still boiling and roiling at the table, but their wooden frames shield diners’ hands from the intense heat. In North Korea, where winters are bitingly cold, this system keeps food warm throughout the meal. Jeon Ju is justifiably famous for its bibim bap — rice topped with — whatever. The whatever in Jeon Ju’s case is carefully selected itsy-bitsy seafoods: tiny mussels, octopuses smaller than a thumbnail, baby squid and shrimp and more, along with steamed spinach, several other vegetables and a fried egg, all arranged in an artistic pattern over the rice; a thin, crisp layer of crunched rice at the bottom of the pot adds appeal. Vegetarians will appreciate young-yang dol sot, a purple rice scattered with a rococo blend of half a dozen bean varieties, plus chestnuts, gingko nuts and jujube dates.
Couscous is the pasta of Morocco. Steamed over meat and vegetables, it will absorb their flavors beautifully, but the cooking process can be tricky. It takes the hand of experience to get the right fluffy texture. I always know I can get a perfectly prepared couscous at Koutoubia in Westwood. Unlike many Moroccan places, Koutoubia offers six couscous versions à la carte. You’re not obliged to order a multicourse tourist dinner to get it. In winter, Koutoubia’s kitchen usually prepares Berber-style lamb tajine with root vegetables, the ultimate Moroccan one-pot meal. The meat, butter-soft, fragrantly perfumed with ginger and cumin, is cooked to the falling-from-the-bones stage, yet the fennel, turnips and other vegetables stay shapely.
Lately I’ve been reading Chili Nation, by Jane and Michael Stern, a cookbook devoted to America’s chili recipes, from Alaska to Rhode Island to Cincinnati. I find it amazing that cooks have taken this consummate chuck-wagon one-pot staple, originally forged from dried beans with salt pork, and created so many sophisticated permutations: line-camp chili and biscuits, chicken chili and cornmeal parsley dumplings, and even one layered with spaghetti noodles and a garnish of oyster crackers. The book gives some quirky insights into America’s tastes. However, if you prefer eating chili to reading about it or cooking it, you must go to Chili My Soul in Encino. At first, browsing the list of 28 chilis gave me pause (only a dozen are served at any one time). I was skeptical: Would this be yet another hot-dog/pineapple pizza? But after tasting the fusion pepper-beef chili, made with Szechuan peppercorns and red-chile broth, the blanco y verde chili of white beans in a mildly spicy tomatillo sauce, the roasted-garlic/chicken chili and the poblano-turkey chili, I became a true fan. All are cooked with defatted meats, beautifully balanced and rated on the menu as to spiciness. There are also several low-oil vegetarian chilis available (and free tastes help you decide). Here, I thought, was the one-pot meal for today, the one-pot meal for 2001.
Chili My Soul, 4928 Balboa Blvd., Encino; (818) 981-7685.
Dae Sung Oak, 2585 W. Olympic Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 386-1600.
Deer Garden, 130 S. Atlantic Blvd. (Deerfield Plaza), Monterey Park; (626) 284-3867.
Golden Duck, 20951 Devonshire St., Chatsworth; (818) 341-2791.
Har Lam Kee, 150 E. Garvey Ave., Monterey Park; (626) 288-7299.
Hop Woo, 855 N. Broadway, Chinatown; (213) 617-3038.
Itana Bahia, 8711 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (310) 657-6306.
Jeon Ju, 2716 W. Olympic Blvd., #101 (in mall), Koreatown; (213) 386-5678.
Kingston Café, 333 S. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena; (626) 405-8080.
Koutoubia, 2116 Westwood Blvd.; (310) 475-0729.
Mignon, 1253 N. Vine St.; (323) 856-9900.
Mimosa, 8009 Beverly Blvd.; (323) 655-8895.
Mini Shanghai, 712 W. Las Tunas Drive, San Gabriel; (626) 289-6656.
Restaurante Café Colombia, 222 S. Glenoaks Blvd., Burbank; (818) 558-3985.
Seoul Garden, 1833 W. Olympic Blvd.; (213) 386-8477.
Tsukuba Restaurant, 2210 W. Artesia Blvd., Torrance; (310) 538-4828.
Victoria Garden, 4271 W. Beverly Blvd.; (323) 913-3551.
2116 Westwood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.