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“Migrant Kitchen” LA Food Series Airs on KCET

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Chase Valencia (above) is the Co-Owner and General Manager of LASA, a popup restaurant project housed inside Unit 120 in Chinatown of Los Angeles.  His and other migrant stories will be aired on the doc-series,  The Migrant Kitchen, a series in co-production with KCETLink, a national independent public media organization. Previews are available online. (photo above by Emily Merkley)

The show focuses on entrepreneurial second generation migrants – many of whom have pedigrees from American culinary schools and high end restaurants.  It echoes the story of second generation, Executive Chef, Roy Choi, who began his explosive  food truck career in partnership with social media experts after losing a job in a high end hotel.   In this case the force behind the restaurant is Chef and business dynamo, Alvin Caiman of the trendy Eggslut in Central Market (soon to be in Venice and Las Vegas), who generously gave LASA a start by way of pop up dinners in what he termed a “culinary incubator” in Chinatown’s Far East Plaza ( Far East Plaza) right across from Roy Choi’s Chego (http://Chego).

The series developed by Life & Thyme food magazine publisher, Antonio Diaz,  takes a peek into the kitchens of Providence  and Connie & Ted’s Restaurants.  It follows the work and home life of two migrant chef brothers, and how their industriousness impacts the restaurant kitchens.  Long-time Executive Chef Michael Cimarusti has always been so respectful and encouraging to his staff,  this is a welcome note on the show..

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Below is an excerpt from Chef Chase Valencia’s fascinating Life & Thyme Magazine story about Filipino cuisine.

“Our childhood involved routine visits to see our family in Pampanga, Philippines. Baryo life in the province was a hot, tropical escape from California urban living. Each day was greeted with the syncopated crows of the neighborhood roosters, and the melodic calls of “Taaahhoooo,” bellowed into the air by the local street vendors. What always followed was the clapping of tsinelas smacking the heels of children who craved the warm snack of silken tofu, brown sugar syrup, and tapioca pearl.

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(sausage served at LASA)

In Del Pilar, San Fernando, at my grandparents’ home, our morning breakfasts were of local sweet pork longanisa sausage , torta talong (which is akin to an eggplant omelet), pan-fried bangus (milkfish), endless bowls of garlic-scented rice, and chili-spiced vinegar. On one particular morning, I recall my grandmother asking me, “Have you ever had a tamale before?

Memories of home in California raced through my head, envisioning the steaming cornhusk-wrapped Mexican delicacy I first tasted at a neighbor’s party. “Of course!” I responded, but she abruptly cut me off before I could continue, calling over one of the local kids to fetch us some tamales. In a heartbeat, the child returned with a steaming wrapped package in what looked like a green banana leaf. I gave my mother a perplexed look, to which she responded with a telepathic death stare that said, ‘Just eat.’

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(above: doughnuts served at LASA)

I got the message loud and clear, and began unwrapping this foreign treat. As I opened the banana leaf, the sweet aroma of coconut milk, rice and annatto engulfed the dining table. Inside, coconut-marinated ground rice served as the base, and in the center were slowly stewed onions and carrots, chicken, chorizo and a sliced hard-boiled egg. The mixture of ingredients looked familiar, but I couldn’t recall ever seeing a ‘tamale’ using this type of preparation.

I took a breath and went in for my first bite. I never felt so much cultural and gastronomic confusion in one morsel. My taste buds couldn’t make sense of it. My palate yearned for the combination of spice, warm masa and succulent chicken—what I thought was a real tamale. Instead, the rich flavors of coconut, onions and carrots coated my mouth. The texture of ground rice was more delicate than the masa I was accustomed to. The chicken marinated in annatto oil, and bits of chorizo tasted foreign. “Delicious!” I exclaimed, and reluctantly continued eating.

Chad and Chase Valencia, co-owners of LASA
Chad and Chase Valencia, co-owners of LASA
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The Filipino and Mexican tamale conundrum was one of many bewildering food experiences I’ve had in life. Researching for LASA, our team sought recipes, memories and experiences like this to learn the foundations of our rich, complex (and sometimes confusing) cuisine. During our developmental process for LASA, we constantly uncover numerous cross-cultural flavors and preparation techniques found in dishes from the Philippines.

From a gastronomic perspective, throughout its history, the Philippines acted as a large stop for cultural food exchange. The Manila galleons of the Spanish Colonial era brought ingredients like chayoteavocado and papaya along with culinary ideas like the Mexican tamale to our shores, ultimately integrating these overseas food customs into our cooking. Over time, we replaced ingredients of the tamale with what was abundant in our native soil to make it our own. Filipino cuisine evolved by the intermixing of food brought along by traders, merchants, travelers and colonizers who passed through the island chain over the centuries. It is a melting pot and cross-cultural mash-up of Indonesian/Malaysian, Chinese, Spanish/Mexican and American food culture incorporated into local food traditions. Although centuries have passed, outside influence remains in our cuisine, ultimately adding depths of flavors and techniques unique to our culinary story.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, the 7,641-island nation was never ruled by one homogenous group of people or culture to establish a society with shared foods, customs and traditions. Instead, several tribes, maritime states and kingdoms such as the Tondo Kingdom of Luzon, Rajahnates of Cebu, and Islamic Sultans of Mindanao ruled independently from each other carving out their own territories in the region. Maritime Southeast Asia was based on customs of sea faring, trade, cultural exchange and migration. During this time, culinary practices in the region began to become established. Remnants of these food exchanges can still be seen today.”

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