Metamorphosis of an L.A. Son: A Book Review

My sister-in-law got it as a Christmas gift from a friend. I saw it laying on the coffee table at my father-in-law’s house. A different kind of cookbook, if you can call it that. It’s more of an autobiography with recipes sandwiched between chapters. The subject of the book is no stranger to the Los Angeles eating scene: Roy Choi, the mastermind cook behind perhaps the most talked-about food truck in America, Kogi BBQ.

The name of the book is L.A. Son. Its subtitle: My Life, My City, My Food. It’s a good thing that my sister-in-law didn’t take it home right away. I glommed onto it and read it from cover to cover in a matter of days.

It’s easy enough to be drawn superficially to the book, printed on thick, matte paper stock with beautiful photographs of the recipes and evocative images of places that figured importantly in Choi’s life. There’s something about the unconventional, non-artsy cover that also appealed to me—a picture of a smiling Choi sitting at a table, walls behind him papered with Korean-language newspapers presumably somewhere in a Koreatown restaurant. He is pointing his finger in the air as if greeting a friend who just walked in. “Wassup?” The meat and prize of the book is his story.

The book is a memoir of his life’s full circle, written in a combination of informal conversation and street language (the book is co-authored by Tien Nguyen and Natasha Phan). It started in L.A. that at first were the surroundings that derailed his life and ended up there transformed, with stops in New York City, the deserts of California, Lake Tahoe, Japan and Sacramento in between. Born in South Korea, he immigrated with his parents to L.A., home to the largest population of Koreans outside of Seoul. Early in life, he was a trial to his parents, who eked out an existence in Southern California, working where they could, starting several small businesses, relocating many times. They were rarely home. They cared but were too busy with work; they were also alcoholics. An unattended latchkey kid as early as five years of age, rather than be confined at home, he roamed the streets of K-town, Hollywood and Orange County and got involved in L.A.’s underbelly. As he writes, he had “no lock on his life.”

“I hopped on and off buses, getting off in Koreatown, where I discovered tamales and sniffed out kimchis …. I found hot dogs and carne asada being grilled at the park, studied the jars of soybean paste stocked in market aisles. I rode my way down to Little Tokyo and tasted fish-shaped pastries filled with red beans, grabbed aluminum foils filled with savory pancakes.”

Choi’s obsessive personality drove him to failure—and success. He became part of a multiracial lowrider group that went around looking for trouble, got into drugs, picked fights.

“Crease the jeans with a whole can of starch. Roll joints with two Zig-Zags. Pack the cigarettes for five minutes, till the tobacco goes down by 30 percent. Comb in some Tres Flores. Sprinkle baby powder on the shoes, which will leave powder puffs when you take off running from the cops. Pack the sawed-off shotguns, 9 mm Berettas, 357 revolvers, rifles, UZIs, butterfly knives, numchucks, chains, bats, brass knuckles, police sticks, big hunting knives, little 22 pistols.”

He could get caught up in self-destructive behavior on end, only to be pulled out of it by people who cared (including his parents). Everyone gets signs in life that give him choices. People appear and situations arise that have a profound impact on the direction of one’s life. Choi eventually recognized who and what they were.

Always, Choi’s love and awareness of food pokes through the pages. Whether he was in the depths of despair or cooking in the kitchen of Le Bernardin, his descriptions reveal an exceptional awareness, respect and appreciation of food. His mother, a great cook, was ever making things in the kitchen, leaving a lasting impression. Choi never says though implies it, but she must have had a great influence on him and his gastronomic abilities.

For example, he remembers his parents’ Korean restaurant, Silver Garden in a sketchy part of Anaheim, started when he was 8. His mother’s cooking became so popular among Koreans in Orange County that lines formed out the door. He was a perceptive child to remember the sights and smells.

“The back alley was an orchestra of food. Porcelain barrels of fermenting bean paste …. Right next to these barrels were salted fish, croakers or mackerels, hung and tied together, accordion style. In the pit of the alley were crates and crates of onions, scallions, garlic, mung beans, soybean sprouts, ginger. … There were buckets on the floor for marinated spicy crab and sesame spinach. Other buckets for the short ribs marinating in thick black sauce. More buckets for the mountains of kimchi waiting for salted baby shrimp and oysters to be added. … Big blenders overflowed with savory pancake mixes.

“[There were] case of soju and beer, bags of dried chile flakes, sacks of unpeeled garlic and onions, jars of unpeeled ginger, kochujang, cucumbers, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and pounds and pounds of rice. Then there were the cases of oranges and apples.”

Still, his life would be a series of ups and downs. It wasn’t until he saw Emeril Lagasse on TV, when he was at one of his low points, that he knew what his life’s goal should be—to become a chef.

Choi’s road to realizing that dream was going to be hard. He was going to train at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Can a street-tough guy from L.A., several years older than the average first-year student, buckle down, exercise discipline and graduate? Would academics be a challenge? Remarkably, he excelled, was an eager student. A mandatory externship was in limbo until a fateful encounter with Eric Ripert, chef of Le Bernardin in New York City (and friend of Anthony Bourdain, who published the book under Ecco Press). In the end, Choi was the class valedictorian.

We don’t learn anything about what he’s up to now, let alone his wife and daughter, to whom the book is dedicated. It’s as if he wanted to exorcise the demons of the past and leave it at that. As Choi says in the intro, he had to write the book. There is no more mention of his parents after they left him in Hyde Park at the doors of the CIA, an omission that makes the book seem incomplete.

And the recipes? They are secondary to Choi’s pretty interesting life story. They’re wedged between chapters and correlate to the content of the chapter they follow, ranging from street food to creations worthy of the finest restaurants. His first recipe is for kimchi, which is symbolic of the first food he loved. It’s an eclectic mix, with examples of his fusion approach to cooking, an expression of the love he has of the great culinary melting pot that is L.A. You won’t find the recipe for his Korean tacos though. You’ll just have to eat it when you’re in L.A.

“Japanese Farm Food” by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

I saw it first at Kobo, an exceptional Japanese crafts store in Seattle’s International District. It was a beautifully bound book with stunning images of simple Japanese farm food, a subject that has lately caught my interest. Flipping through the thick, almost squarish matte-finished pages was like an invitation to eat at the table of Nancy Singleton Hachisu, who authored Japanese Farm Food, the object of my fascination. I got the book as a gift last Christmas; it helped that it was on my wish list.

I’ve never done a book review post before, but this book I had to write about, particularly as it relates to this blog’s theme of food and travel.

Nancy Hachisu is not Japanese by birth. She’s an American, born and raised in the Bay Area, who as a young woman decided to go to Japan for language study and sushi but wound up staying when she married an organic farmer. She has lived in Japan for over twenty years, in the process becoming thoroughly immersed in living on an organic farm, growing crops, raising three sons and, of course, cooking Japanese farm food.

This book is about seasonal cooking and eating what grows around you, as opposed to the approach of making meals from recipes. As she writes in her introduction, “You don’t choose the vegetables, they choose you.” The recipes are both those of her husband’s family and her and her husband’s creations. They are all about simplicity, the ingredients about unspoiled flavors and textures. Read her ode to freshly harvested edamame immediately plunged into boiling water (like just picked corn), drained and sprinkled with sea salt, served blisteringly hot with beer, and you’ll want to do the same. Or imagine tasting high-quality, small-scale-produced rapeseed (canola) oil that is far superior to flavorless commercial versions, or being bowled over by freshly shelled raw homegrown pecans. And when you read her description of her locally available tofu (Yamaki), you might want to take the next flight to Japan.

The recipes rarely use more than four ingredients. For example, the one for nasu no shigiyaki (fried eggplant with sweet miso) is straightforward and exemplary. It involves scoring the backs of Japanese eggplant halves in a crosshatch pattern (to look like bird’s feathers; shigi => sandpiper) prior to frying them in organic rapeseed oil, then topping them with sweet miso (which you make yourself from the highest quality miso, mirin and sake), slivered ginger and shiso (perilla) chiffonade.

I was fascinated by recipes for natto fried rice, kurumi soba (soba with walnut dipping sauce), tamago-kake gohan (raw egg on hot rice), zukkini no nukazuke (zucchini pickled in rice bran), tataki kyuri (smashed cucumber pickles with garlic), kaminari konnyaku (stir-fried konnyaku with shaved bonito), nasu no shiomomi (salt-massaged eggplant with ginger and shiso), okura no ohitashi (sliced okra with dried bonito), buta no kaku-ni (pork belly simmered in okara), tori no kara age (deep-fried ginger chicken) or kyuri momi (salt-massaged cucumber with miso and sesame), just to name a few. Perking my interest was one small section devoted to making Japanese pickles (tsukemono), an old tradition that is slowly dying out in Japan. These are condiments that I grew up with. Using only vinegar, salt, soy sauce, miso, nuka (rice bran) and kasu (sake lees), alone or in combination, you can pickle any number of vegetables.

Aside from the recipes, what makes this book more interesting than, say, another book on the same subject? First of all, it’s highly opinionated. She writes not as a Japanese native but as a Westerner who has adapted to the Japanese way of life, not altogether a smooth and successful assimilation but one done willingly, with compromise and no illusions. She balks at the traditional role of Japanese housewife but deals with expectations in her own way in order “to live out [her] whole life in this sometimes restrictive culture.” Hachisu still feels like an outsider in Japan but that hasn’t stopped her embrace of things Japanese. And embrace she has. Hachisu is passionate about using the freshest ingredients, organic or natural (what “natural” means is explained below) when possible, because of their pristine flavors. Her pick of soy sauce, for instance, doesn’t include Kikkoman, but rather a locally produced organic one (Yamaki Jozo, marketed in the U.S. under the Ohsawa brand) that is naturally and unhurriedly fermented (therefore making it pricier). She even advocates buying tofu from tofu makers (tofuya) instead of supermarkets, whose products have been treated for long shelf-life, or making your own. One of her recipes includes making tofu from scratch.

Her preference for organic and natural foods is no less influenced by her own inclinations or Chez Panisse than by her husband, who opposed his father’s insistence on modernizing farming practices with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and became an organic farmer. Natural farming, she explains, is a method of farming that doesn’t use animal or bird fertilizers, for practitioners feel they disturb the soil’s natural nitrogen balance and adversely affect the taste of vegetables, which suggests that in Japan’s case, the term is more restrictive than organic rather than being the nebulous, worthless one used here in the U.S.

Hachisu’s stories and anecdotes are another captivating element of the book. The personal accounts wrapped around some traditional foods like umeboshi and konnyaku are fun to read because they involve the farmers who grow them or the people who simply bring them by. Her description in a sidebar of close family friends, a Japanese farmer and his wife, who every year come to Christmas dinner (which always include gougères and sparkling wine), is a tribute to their tireless work ethic and dedication as well as a recognition that she can never be like them (“for me, farming will always be about playing a role”). And lest readers think that farming life is pastoral, Hachisu reminds us that even in her corner of the world, urbanization is rapidly taking over.

Nancy Hachisu’s passion for Japanese farm cooking shines through in the recipes with their cultural notes and the book’s engaging sidebars and chapter introductions. The book isn’t meant to be authoritative like Shizuo Tsuji’s, but a compendium of farm food that she and her husband have made through the years. Country cookin’. I highly recommend it.