Simple, sustainable, and eclectic. Those are the buzzwords people use when talking about California cuisine, and rightfully so. There are major influences from all over the world including Japan, Korea, Mexico, China, and many other destinations, and anyone who loves fusion cuisine should invest some time exploring the West Coast’s diverse range of options.
What Is California Cuisine?
California cuisine is a style of cooking that emphasizes the use of fresh, locally sourced ingredients and a focuses on Farm-to-Table, healthy, seasonal, or sustainable foods. It is heavily influenced by the diverse cultural backgrounds, wide diversity of climates and agricultural abundance of California, including Mexican, Asian, Hawaiian, Mediterranean, and European influences. California cuisine is not a defined or fixed cuisine.
One destination restaurant in California, San Diego’s The Pool House, describes California cuisine as being far less about recipes and a lot more about freshness, the specific ingredients, and their sourcing. You’ll find more emphasis on in-season food, sustainably sourced ingredients, light-and-healthy qualities, etc.
Lean meat, fresh seafood, and fresh produce are all keys to the success of this type of dining, and the influences on it are many.
So much of certain aspects of California culture have origins in the gold rush of the 19th century; this wasn’t the first time large throngs of people relocated to an area with a boom-and-bust economy, but in terms of American history it was a significant experience.
Food culture alone benefits greatly any time there’s an influx of people from different parts of the country and the world; California’s food legacy owes much to the Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, and other immigrants who showed up there to start a new life.
More recent influences include trailblazing entrepreneurs including Alice Waters, who started a French-inspired restaurant in Berkeley. Sally and Don Schmitt opened the legendary French Laundry, and Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois On Main brought Chinese recipes made with locally sourced California produce and meat.
1952 was the year Helen Brown’s West Coast Cookbook took the local food scene to a nationwide audience; Brown was one of the early voices championing local, sustainable food as a concept for restarauteurs. This is a food movement that has grown steadily over time, and the roots in the local community run deep.
We open this section with a caveat; most (not all) of the dishes we are talking about below originate someplace besides California in their traditional form. We would never try to claim that tacos or maki sushi were a California invention, but some of the food innovation surrounding these traditions DID have their origins on the West Coast.
The California roll is one of these. This maki sushi got popular in the late 20th century, with typically California ingredients including avocado, crab, cucumber, etc. A California roll typically has the seaweed or nori on the inside of the roll as opposed to outside like more traditional maki sushi rolls such as tuna maki or hamachi maki.
The California-style pizza is another great fusion innovation; baked as a thin-crust pizza (close to tavern style) but sliced into triangles like a more traditional pie, California-style pizza has a similarity to New York pizza in some respects–until you get to the toppings.
Duck, curry, barbecue chicken, the list goes on and on. California pizzas tend to do their best when forcing east and west together; an Indian curry pizza is one option on the heavy side of the spectrum while some gravitate toward pizzas that incorporate more salad-type toppings like arugula, fresh tomatoes, and other garden toppings.
Some California cuisine has more local origins. Consider the Cobb salad which is thought to have gotten its start at the original Los Angeles Brown Derby before World War Two. A Cobb salad may feature multiple types of lettuce, a variety of cheeses, plus hard-boiled egg, avocado, chicken or turkey, and red wine vinaigrette.
Tacos, burritos, quesadillas: California and Mexico are neighbors, and it’s unthinkable that these two cultures would avoid each other at the dinner table.
California-style tacos, burritos, and quesadillas are all dishes that can benefit from seasonal and local produce anywhere they are made, but in California conditions are especially good for both fusion and trad taco ingredients and their contemporaries in burrito and quesadilla prep.
California inspired fish tacos, which are based off Baja California cuisine, can also be found in abundance at restaurants throughout California.
Avocado Toast is a popular California breakfast or brunch items which makes sense since California produces the majority of U.S.-grown avocados and also imports a fair amount of avocados from the Michoacán state of Mexico. Avocado toast is often topped with salt and pepper and ingredients such as tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, eggs, bacon, or cheese. Everything But The Bagel Sesame Seasoning from Trader Joe’s is also a popular and easy seasoning to add at home.
Similarly to Avocados, Artichokes are the quintessential California crop as nearly all of all the artichokes grown in the U.S. come from California. Artichokes can be steamed, stuffed, baked and grilled. They’re also delicious on pizza or in a spinach artichoke dip.
We’ve already mentioned the emphasis on locally-sourced, sustainable ingredients. There is also a near-obsessive insistence on freshness that makes seasonal produce an important aspect of this cooking style.
But those aren’t the only hallmarks of California cuisine; The international influence is an important factor, and like some of those influences, there’s a trend toward “restrained” cooking–letting individual ingredients and flavors shine without a lot of clutter or over-prep.
One of the most distinctive elements? This food trends toward being chef-driven. The foodie culture that creates celeb chefs in the local area, online, and on television might have also helped create conditions where chefs become tastemakers; they often do this via a network of partner suppliers, farmers, butchers, and other important parts of the California cuisine food chain.
List of California Cuisine Dishes
- Avocados, avocado toast & guacamole
- California burger with bacon & avocado
- Sushi, uramaki
- Burritos, quesadillas
- Tacos, street tacos, fish tacos
- Blackened mahi and other blackened fish
- Poke bowls
- Lobster rolls
- California roll
- Korean Tacos
- French dip sandwich (originated in Los Angeles)
- California-style pizza, BBQ chicken pizza, wood fired pizza
- Artichokes & spinach artichoke dip, artichoke topped pizza
- Garlic & garlic fries, garlic ice cream (Gilroy, CA is the “Garlic Capital”)
- Ahi tuna sashimi, sushi, sandwich
- California melt
- Bacon & avocado cheeseburger
- In-N-Out, McDonalds, Del Taco, California Pizza Kitchen
- California crab salad
- Cobb salad
- Asian-Mexican inspired dishes kimchi tacos, Sinaloan sushi
- Northern California cuisine
- Asian Napa salad
- San Francisco sourdough bread & clam chowder
- Garlic crab & noodles
- Santa Maria grilled tri-tip beef
- Dutch crunch
- Ghirardelli chocolate
- Napa wines and wine pairings
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Joe Wallace has been covering real estate, mortgage and financial topics since 1995. His work has appeared on ABC, The Pentagon Channel, Veteran.com plus a variety of print and online publications. He is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News.