U.S. Regional Cuisine to Watch Out For

Introducing more U.S. regional cuisines worth getting acquainted with.

By By Marc Halperin, Contributing Editor

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A 228-year-old nation may still be a pup by global standards, but even at this relatively fresh stage in our history, we in the U.S. can rightfully lay claim to culinary traditions as unique and distinct as those of more "seasoned" countries abroad.

Last fall, we began this two-part travelogue of U.S. regional cuisines with an examination of the ingredients and preparations characteristic of Napa Valley, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest [September 2004, p. 6]. It was noted that many of these "sub-cuisines" were products of the different climates, crops, cultural influences and cooking techniques favored in each area. As such, just as there is no one true Asian or European cuisine, neither is there a singular American cuisine.

If you're from Kentucky or the Carolinas, fried chicken and slow-cooked beans may be your taste of home. Your compatriot in Seattle is just as likely to regard his salmon filet cooked on a cedar plank as the most American of feasts. And neither of them can doubt a Boston native who sits down to a plate of fried clams or a lobster roll is enjoying anything less than a taste of pure red, white and blue.

In the interest of fostering even greater "intranational" cross-cultural understanding, let's take a look now at some of our other regional cuisines.

Hawaii's Domestic Fusion

To James McDonald, a Philadelphia native who has lived on Maui for two decades, Hawaiian food is described as "a blending of Asian and Polynesian cuisines done in a contemporary fashion." But that simple characterization doesn't begin to do his innovative menus justice.

McDonald's three Maui restaurants — he's chef/owner of The Feast of Lele and i'o as well as executive chef at Pacific'O — display the sweet and savory hallmarks of Hawaiian fare to dazzling effect. At Pacific'O, for instance, he features such gems as "Yazu divers," a crispy coconut rice roll with seared diver scallops, arugula pesto, and zesty yuzu lime sauce; fresh ahi and ono tempura; sesame-crusted lamb; and a Kalua quesadilla with shredded pork, roasted peppers, pepper Jack cheese, Maui onion salsa and avocado puree.

"In Hawaii, you have a lot of seafood influence and ingredients crossing boundaries: ginger, lemongrass, sesame, coconut milk, roast pork and fresh vegetables," McDonald says. "You combine the familiar with the unfamiliar. People are moving more and more toward fresh product, so I don't see Hawaii regional cuisine slowing down anytime in the next five to 10 years."

"Floribbean"/Cuban: Different Tropical Sensations

Half a world away are the traditional cuisines of another group of islands: Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago (among others in the Caribbean). Mix it up with Latin American influences from Peru, Argentina, Nicaragua and Colombia. To a large extent, it all arrives on our shores as a delectable Florida fusion called "Floribbean."

Root vegetables, seafood, sweet spices from throughout the Caribbean basin, exotic tropical fruits and a bit of heat make the menu at such Floribbean strongholds as Chef Allen's in North Miami Beach a gustatory passport to the islands. Owner Allen Susser's creations range from pistachio-crusted black grouper served with a fricassee of rock shrimp, mango, leeks and coconut rum to crispy-skinned yellowtail snapper with chive spaetzle, chorizo, capers and apricots.

Cuba's unique and profound influence on the culture of Florida effectively established Cuban as one of the U.S.'s own regional cuisines. Spanish and African elements abound in Cuban food, signature dishes of which include vaca frita (literally, "fried cow"), garlic-laced, shredded fried skirt steak, rice and beans, and Cuban sandwiches (grilled meat- and cheese-filled rolls). Cumin, oregano, garlic, lime, onion, sour orange, plantains, yucca, peas, okra and yams are among the most pervasive flavors and ingredients.

Southern Soul and New England Transplants

The most purely decadent of our regional entries, Southern fare offers timeless appeal, though its extra-regional influence may be waning somewhat as a health-conscious nation rejects its sometimes heavy-handed use of fatty oils. But there will always be a market for the sinful pleasures of a delicious plate of fried chicken and buttery collard greens, a low-country shrimp or crawfish boil, fried green tomatoes, a brimming bowl of she-crab soup or a hot, spicy gumbo strengthened with a well-tended Cajun roux.

Like Southern food, Northeastern cuisine draws heavily on the fruits of the ocean. Its staples — shellfish and white-fleshed fishes such as cod and haddock — are near and dear to Bradley Ogden, the California wunderkind whose Yankee Pier restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area provide a welcome sanctuary for displaced New Englanders. There, they can enjoy an authentic fried Ipswich clam platter, a Maine lobster roll or a raw bar platter.

"This type of food has always been in my repertoire in a sophisticated way," says Ogden, better known for his elaborate creations in the kitchen at such world-renowned spots as the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, Calif., and his latest venture, Bradley Ogden at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. "You can have all this great gourmet stuff, but in the end, what's better than a lobster steamed and dipped in butter? This type of food never goes out of style. It's great, wholesome food — perfect ingredients, prepared simply."

Tastemakers and trendsetters may enjoy more worldly flavors when relishing the latest ethnic-cuisine imports, but there is no doubt we Americans can gamely spend as much or more time exploring the exciting range of tastes and flavors native to our own shores. The U.S. is a melting pot whose contents are becoming richer and more flavorful all the time.

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