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THE EDIBLE ARTS : Immigrants Have Brought a Tradition of Handmade Food Craftsmanship to Los Angeles

May 31, 1987|LINDA BURUM and S. IRENE VIRBILA | Linda Burum and S. Irene Virbila are the authors of "Cook's Marketplace Los Angeles" (101 Productions, San Francisco).

LOS ANGELES NEVER CEASES TO SURPRISE. THE WORLD CAPITAL OF fast food and trendy restaurants is also home to a Middle Eastern pastry chef who makes his own kataif dough in time-honored fashion, a noodle chef who's mastered the ancient Chinese art of hand-swung noodles, and a Thai cookbook author who carves vegetables in intricate patterns once reserved for the Thai royal court. These food artisans are as much a part of Los Angeles' exuberant food scene as superstar chefs or taco stands.

But the skills these craftsmen possess may be vanishing. Many artisans brought their skills from another country and their children, true L. A. kids now, envision very different lives for themselves.

There are many more out there--not hundreds, mind you, but more than you'd think if you just stick to your tried and true butcher, baker, truffle maker. We can think of a small tofu shop that makes silken tofu fresh every morning just as they do in Japan; a Mexican sweet shop where they take fresh pumpkin and turn it into candied calabeza as translucent as stained glass, and a Chinese rice noodle shop where they steam large sheets of fresh rice noodle and sell them folded like bundles of cloth. With little or no publicity, they're usually settled into a neighborhood, and practice their craft almost entirely for their own ethnic communities.


Farmers and country people in Eastern Europe have traditionally preserved sausages for the long winter by smoking them. Andrzej, a handsome sausage shop in Santa Monica, continues that tradition, producing dozens of smoked sausages and hams, all made from scratch and smoked over juniper and oak on the premises.

The art is in keeping the taste of the batches of sausage consistent. "And the only way you can do that," explains owner Andrzej Domanski, "is to taste the raw sausage mixture, taking into account the fact the sausage will shrink up to 20% in the curing and smoking. No matter how accurate your recipe, you have to taste every batch, because each time you make a particular sausage, the meat will have more or less flavor and water content, and the strength of spices varies."

After they choose the meat at the slaughterhouse, they divide the Eastern pork into the fat and lean cuts they'll need for various sausages. The meat is given a three-day dry cure; it's then seasoned and made into the two or three kinds of sausages Andrzej is making that day.

Among the more interesting sausages made here are hunters' sausage--which is smoked over juniper wood--and garlic-spiked farmer's sausage. The kabanos , or stick sausage, is made with both fresh and cured chunks of pork stuffed into a very narrow casing. The shop's most exotic offering is kishke, blood sausage made with buckwheat.


Despite its name, Edelweiss is an all-American sweet shop. Everything is made from scratch in this Beverly Hills candy kitchen, which means that owners Sam and Shirley Rosen make their own marzipan and caramel and blend their own chocolate. Edelweiss is also one of the few shops in Los Angeles to hand-dip candies.

The resident chocolate dipper is Angela Huerta, who was trained by the store's previous master dipper. Sam Rosen is convinced that "you can't teach everyone this skill. You have to have a feel for it in order to tell when the temperature and texture of the chocolate is just right to begin dipping." Huerta works in a room that is kept at a constant 60 degrees. After the chocolate is heated, she pours some of it out onto a marble slab and aerates the mixture with a spatula until she considers it ready to work. She rolls individual candy fillings in the chocolate and finishes by coaxing a tail of chocolate into the special swirl that marks each particular filling. It looks easy but takes enormous patience and skill. If the chocolate isn't properly tempered, the finished coating may be dull or marred by "bloom," white streaks caused by cocoa butter separating from the chocolate liqueur.

Among the Edelweiss favorites are classic white marshmallows that are progressively covered in dark chocolate, rolled in toasted coconut, dipped in milk chocolate, then rolled in ground walnuts (these candies have been nicknamed "mousse-mallows" by aficionados). And best of all is the caramallow, their own gooey caramel filling topped with marshmallow and dipped in chocolate.


Few Americans realize that so-called "Danish pastry" is really Wienbrod-- Vienna bread--and no more Danish than it is Swedish or Norwegian. "In fact, it was foreigners tasting this delectable pastry for the first time in Copenhagen who began referring to it as Danish pastry," explains Ulla Kohler, the Swedish co-owner of The Danish Pastry, a shop in West Los Angeles.

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