A diverse group of San Diego’s chefs and food influencers including Hawaiian Fresh Seafood ambassador Nino Camilo, Kazuhiro Funato and Takeru Furuya from UMI Restaurant, Tony Nguyen of Supernatural Sandwiches, and Fern Tran have gathered to discuss Asian cuisine and culture in San Diego.
Bowls of rice porridge spark an animated discussion about the comforting versions that span East Asian cultures. It’s called congee in China, dakjuk in Korea, and on this particular morning, chef-partner Prissana ‘Fern’ Tran presents a version that’s made its way to the menu at The Florence in Sabre Springs. Filled with chicken broth, ginger, a sous vide egg, chicken meatball, scallions, spicy chile oil, and cilantro, it’s an elevated version of what Tran grew up eating from street vendors in Thailand. The porridge transports everyone around the table back to early food memories.
Orange chicken and California rolls are easily recognized as “Asian cuisine,” but they offer little resemblance to traditional fare. It’s easy to disregard such hybridized dishes, and these examples show the impacts Asian cuisine has had in shaping the new American palate. Without the spices, ideas, and techniques that immigrated to the United States with previous generations, dishes and flavors that we’ve come to crave would be far less accessible, interesting, and diverse.
Asians came to San Diego for different reasons, some families fleeing war and poverty across the world’s largest ocean. According to Elsa Sevilla at the San Diego History Center, Asian immigration in San Diego started in the 1880s. Immigrants brought very little or nothing at all and faced many hardships. “They became accomplished in San Diego’s fishing, farming, and other industries with the economic boom of the 1880s. Local businesses and housing markets were rapidly growing, and the transcontinental railroad in National City needed workers to lay thousands of miles of track,” Sevilla explains.
Filipino students came to San Diego State University under an education program in the early 1900s. Some stayed and took jobs on local farms or worked in downtown restaurants as busboys and cooks, but they were restricted to live and work in specific areas on Market Street and in southeastern San Diego. Japan’s Meiji Restoration during the 1850s forced thousands to first migrate to Hawaii to work on pineapple plantations, followed by a migration to California after Hawaii became part of the US in 1898. In 1905, nearly 1,000 Koreans left their country for Mexico under a four-year program to work on haciendas. Some of their descendants made their way to Tijuana and San Diego, creating a distinctly Mexican-Korean-American culture.
For second-generation Asian Americans, the dishes and comfort foods of childhood are often different than those of their parents who grew up in another country. Nguyen was born and raised in San Diego to parents who immigrated to the US from Vietnam in the first wave of refugees after the war. His parents met stateside while staying in a temporary refugee settlement at Camp Pendleton, and were proud to raise Nguyen on American food. “My parents tried to give me the American experience by making me home-cooked meals like meatloaf, lasagna, and other American fare. They also took me to a lot of American restaurants and fast food joints. The food I cook and eat reflects both identities in some ways, but for the most part my cooking is based on my experiences trying other cuisines like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, and Thai. This is reflected through the ingredients on my menu and creations,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen has gained success by introducing Asian flavors to American staples at Supernatural Sandwiches. Take, for example, the Kaiju sandwich, which turns the American lobster roll on its head by stuffing it with Cantonese-style lobster and serving it with togarashi shrimp chips. Nguyen shares how he gets his ideas: “I like going to all the Asian markets. I like walking down all the aisles and looking at every single ingredient. It gets my creative juices flowing. It all inspires me. Asian food is about depth of flavor—a little bit of acid, sweet, sour, and bitterness. So many complexities open your palate. There are so many levels of flavor.”
Tran shares platters of chicken wings smothered in a zesty sauce infused with a combination of Korean- and Thai-inspired flavors, alongside bowls of kimchi fried rice. “I don’t believe Asian food in America needs to be restricted to being specialized. It’s a free country, do what inspires you,” she explains with a smile.
Camilo casts the concept of fusion in a new light, saying that authenticity is about understanding the history of a cuisine and learning about its evolution. Modern interpretations of traditional dishes can be incredible, but creativity comes from understanding their provenance. Camilo provides an example: “Within Filipino cuisine, the history of the culture and the influences in the Philippines [comes from] Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, and Muslim [cultures]. For standout dishes that come from actual restaurants, try the pig ear sisig from chef DJ Tangalin at Gaya Gaya. SNOICE also does a great job of serving halo-halo, a traditional dessert served in a shop with modern-style branding.”
Reflecting back on how much Asian cuisine has changed since he was a child, Camilo describes Convoy Street as trendy. "Growing up, we would go take grandma shopping, and it was always on Convoy or at Vien Dong. Now, everyone thinks those places are cool! And I don’t have to be ashamed to put kimchi on the table anymore, everyone wants kimchi now. Even my gas station in Cardiff carries Kikkoman soy sauce.”
Camilo shares that since Filipino food hasn’t reached a cult following in San Diego (yet), he sees the evolution most clearly represented in the poke bowl trend he’s helped to promote. “I feel that for some poke shop owners, their first experience of a poke bowl was not in Hawaii, it was in California—or maybe elsewhere. So now they are thinking that is poke.” The problem is not adapting poke to San Diego produce or tastes, it’s when a cultural food trend accelerates so quickly that purveyors who lack ties to the cuisine appropriate a dish without understanding the historical identity of the flavors, the components, and the cultural experience of consuming the dish.
For Funato, preserving and presenting authenticity renews focus. At UMI, the physical mastery of techniques is just as important as the mental understanding of a cuisine. In Japan, routine kitchen tasks like making rice or cutting fish are elevated to an art form. Chefs often spend years mastering the craft of these essential components of Japanese cuisine before beginning to innovate.
Although San Diego has an incredible selection of local fresh fish, Funato only serves fish that is prepared ikejime. He has not been able to find fish processed at a quality to his liking locally, so Funato imports the fish from Japan, where ikejime is executed with such attention to detail as to not allow heat from hands to warm the fish. The live fish is placed on a sponge mat to keep the fish calm, pH levels are kept balanced, and, most notably, a steel spike is quickly and humanely inserted into the brain and spinal cord, producing improved fillets with longer shelf life and a brilliant umami flavor that sets it apart.
While some Japanese restaurants serve miso soup without much attention, UMI prepares it with great care. Funato shares, “When we make miso soup, first we make dashi soup to make umami and then put miso after. This is the traditional way to make miso soup. There is so much time spent on each menu item. For example, we have a menu item called sliced pork fillet that takes us almost 30 hours to make. This item looks simple, but there is so much time we put into it, and love too.”
In order to keep tradition alive at UMI, Funato brought in head chef Furuya, also from Tokyo, to lead an all-Japanese kitchen staff. Furuya’s family, still in Japan, manufacturers the ramen noodles that they use at UMI. “All of us in the kitchen grew up with Japanese food and culture, which is hard to learn. We want to keep real authentic Japanese foods alive in North County and hopefully educate about what real authentic Japanese foods are.”
Authenticity, then, isn’t so much about traditional interpretations of dishes, but more so about maintaining a respect for the cuisine that transcends trends. Chefs get inspiration from their families, upbringing, and memories of childhood dishes, and make them a part of the San Diego foodscape. Each dish shares the story of who they are, influences the regional culinary journey, inspires us to learn about tradition, seek out richer flavors, and enrich our culture.