One great thing about the American melting pot is the way our immigrants and our refugees have introduced us to the cuisines of other cultures. In cities like Los Angeles you can find within any random sampling of urban blocks anything from Syrian to Mexican to Vietnamese to Israeli to African food. We have unbelievable choices in the things we eat and better yet, ethnic markets are now commonplace so that we can try to make those savory Lebanese labne kabobs or that tangy Thai Thom Ka Gai soup at home. Also, we don’t need to adopt the American diet we grew up with just because it was what was served to us growing up in the childhood home. My kitchen cupboards are an interesting fusion—one peek into them and you might think I was a third East Indian spice, a third Planetary Herbalism and a third Armenian.
One of my favorite things to enjoy is Asian at home, (and no, I’m not talking about the Japanese Cute Gardener). In the old days before my palate was properly aged, I was a big fan of onion pancakes cooked in Chinese restaurants. Over the past year, spurred by an L.A. Times article touting seven places in the San Gabriel Valley with the best versions of those, the CG and I began an onion pancake hunt. After a few unsuccessful tries (yes, at one of the article’s restaurants) we came to the conclusion that they just weren’t all that good. In concept, yes, but in orchestration they tended to be too hard, too thin, too dense, too absent of green onion, or too oily for our liking. Which brings to mind one of the recurring conversations in our household about the difference between authentic and good. Something might very well be authentic but if you can make it better by stepping a wee bit off tradition than why not do just that? We often wonder why chefs in various cuisines aren’t that compelled to improve on old standards.
In any case, I was still craving the kind of onion pancake I used to love so I bought a pack of frozen, raw onion pancakes from the Chinese market and decided to experiment on a simple lunch time wrap. Not only were these pancakes a one hundred percent improvement over the restaurant ones, they were simple to make. You simply take the flattened disk from between the fruit roll-up reminiscent cellophane and put it into a hot pan for two minutes per side. It fluffs up in a nice, flaky, and soft buttery (!) fashion. I like to grab some bitter greens from the garden for a one-minute sauté in the same pan, and sometimes if there is left over ground meat in the fridge like pork, I will throw that in the pan too. Then I squeeze a zigzag of hoisin sauce on the pancake and spoon the filling in and fold it in half to look like a Chinese taco. This dish goes wonderfully well with fragrant oolong tea.
These pancakes are good all by themselves as well. So good that I had been making regular trips to the Chinese market just to buy them. Imagine my surprise when I found them in the frozen aisle of Ralph’s last week in a new large section of foreign foods. At least in the food sphere, we know how to be properly grateful for the richness our immigrants bring.