California cuisine adapts old world and far east cooking techniques to the ingredients available in California. Many dishes include avocado, artichoke, citrus fruits, almonds, and mushrooms. Rice and pasta replace the potatoes and corn more commonly seen as the main starch in American cuisine.
Due to California's long coast with the Pacific Ocean, the use of seafood is quite common, especially abalone, Dungeness crab, squid and Pacific salmon. Beef, turkey, and chicken are the most commonly used meat and poultry, with lamb and pork used with less frequency.
California has a large Asian population, and California cuisine has adopted many ingredients and spices common to East Asian cuisines, such as bok choy, sesame, ginger, tofu; Southeast Asian cuisines, such as lemon grass, galangal, and rice noodles, thin or wide; and South Asian cuisines, such as curry and various kinds of dhal.
Meats, seafood, and vegetables tend to be grilled over direct, high heat for short periods; slower cooking methods such as roasting, and stewing are much less common, while barbecueing food for hours is unheard of. Most fruits and vegetables, and some types of seafood, are eaten raw, while many foods are quickly steamed or blanched.
Sauces are very simple, often the juices released while cooking the main dish are combined with wine or stock and simply reduced. Cooking with vegetable oils, such as olive oil, is common, while the use of butter is less than normal for an American cuisine, and other animal fats, such as lard, are very rare. The appearance of the food is given a high importance, with fresh, brightly colored food almost as important as taste.
Alice Waters, of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, is usually credited with originating California cuisine and retains the reputation of offering the ultimate California cuisine experience. Wolfgang Puck, from the Spago restaurants, popularized California cuisine to the rest of the world by catering high profile celebrity parties such as the Oscar after party.
However, California's culinary traditions pre-date Waters and Puck by several centuries. Native Californians used the acorn as the staple of their diet, which was largely abandoned with colonization of the area. However, other common foods, such as salmon remain an important part of the cuisine.
In the Spanish and Mexican colonial periods, the primary industry in Alta California was tallow and leather produced by the large cattle ranchos. A side effect of this was large quantities of beef that would spoil before reaching any potential customers in Mexico. It was used locally, becoming an important part of the diet of even the poor laborers. The Spanish colonists brought many other crops with them to California. From Spain came citrus fruits such as the orange and lime, olives, wheat, and grapes to make wine. From Mexico came avocados and chili peppers.
The influx of immigrants during the California Gold Rush brought many different cultures and cuisines into contact with each other. Sourdough bread, a San Francisco tradition to this day, was so common that sourdough became a general nickname for gold prospectors. The large Chinese population led to first importing rice, then finding locations and varieties that would grow locally. American land barons planted fruit orchards and vinyards to meet the demand in the growing cities and mining camps, while Japanese farmers began the first large scale vegetable farms in the state.
At its best however, California Cuisine can offer delicious foods that are marked by their freshness and abundance. Produce is usually obtained daily. Seafood like the Dungeness crab is purchased when in season. Resultant dishes produce fantastic flavors because the food is so fresh. California Cuisine also early displayed a marked interest in organic farming, and diners discovered, to their delight, the taste of foods free of pesticides.
California Cuisine also brings us early fusion cooking forms. Though one might get traditional produce, one might also try bok choy, or loquats, or make use of the huge variety of local peppers to vary restaurant offerings. The California roll, often served in sushi restaurants is a perfect example of California Cuisine. The traditional sushi is served with a slice of fresh avocado and wrapped with seaweed.
California Cuisine also capitalized on trends in the culture toward vegetarianism. A mixed veggie plate served with cheese sauce made from local cheeses might tempt the vegetarian. As well, egg dishes, made from cage free eggs, or soufflés made from cream from local dairies could be offered.
One of the locus points of California Cuisine outside of the major cities was the John Ash Restaurant in Santa Rosa, California. Local produce, dairy products, eggs, and meat were always the hallmark of Ash’s minimalist approach to food. However, the ever-growing population of grape growers, who have often destroyed local farms to grow yet more grapes, is affecting this type of cuisine. This trend means that most produce purchased at local farmers’ markets and from suppliers is no longer fresh picked, but trucked in from the Central Valley. Such a change will inexorably alter the taste and offerings of the remaining California Cuisine restaurants.
The other California cuisine was being served on a million patios in the Golden State by relaxed cooks who grilled thick cuts of beef called tri-tip and built salads from avocado and oranges. They used red chili sauce like roux, ate abalone and oysters, and whipped sticky dates into milkshakes. It was the food of the gold rush and of immigrants, of orchards and sunshine.
And always, there was young, easy-to-drink wine that could be paired with salad or Mexican food, two staples of the patio table.
“It was California cooking before chefs got ahold of it,” said John Carroll, a West Coast food writer.