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From Guava Cake to Freak Coconut : Cultures Blend Deliciously at Two Tropical Bakeries

February 08, 1996|LINDA BURUM

Cross-cultural cooking never really was--as some have suggested--merely a restaurant public relations gimmick. It's been around since one tribe first invaded a new pasture, since empires spread over continents--and since my Italian grandmother substituted Hormel bacon for pancetta.

You have only to drive around Southern California to witness the fusion of the world's diverse culinary traditions in the most unpretentious forms. Many of these culinary blendings are traditional by now: the African-inspired feijoada of Brazil; the French-Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi, with their fillings of pa^te and Asian vegetables stuffed in a Parisian-style baguette; or saltada, Peru's adaptation of the Chinese stir fry. At Gardena's Ishigo Bakery, Hawaii's cultural mix is on display; at Dates & Nuts Pastry Shop in Panorama City, it's the Philippines that shows its ethnic diversity.

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Hawaii is one of the world's richest cultural stews. It blends Japanese, Filipino and Korean influences on a Polynesian base, mingled with a little Portuguese here and a few WWII American army rations there (Hawaii consumes more Spam per capita than any other state).

The Gardena-Torrance area, nucleus of L.A. County's Hawaiian community (and home of the widely distributed King's Hawaiian Bread--itself an Island adaptation of the Portuguese pao do^ce), is also where you'll find the (much smaller) Ishigo Hawaiian Bakery.

The modest appearance of the shop gives no suggestion of the richness of the cakes created here. One of its third-generation owners, Clarence Ishigo, has taken the old-fashioned layer cake and strikingly infused it with tropical fruits.

These cakes may look like the usual bakery birthday cakes, with their frosting roses and gleaming gel inscriptions, but the first forkful will certainly erase that impression. Guava puree is baked into layers of guava cake and more puree goes into the whipped-cream frosting and filling. Similarly, the passion-fruit cake is flavored with lilikoi juice all the way through.

There is a feather-light orange chiffon cake made with fresh orange juice, slathered with whipped cream and densely coated with a fine mist of chopped macadamia nuts. Haupia (young coconut) cake has coconut milk in the batter and more coconut in the frosting. The banana cake holds oodles of mashed bananas.

These cakes come in standard sheet sizes (whole, half and quarter) as well as 8-inch round layers, and all are filled and frosted with whipped cream unless you request butter cream or chocolate. The butter cream is made with real butter, but I prefer the fruit and whipped cream fillings. Ishigo makes more conventional cakes too, such as chocolate, marble and red velvet, but they aren't reason enough to drive out of your way if you're not in the neighborhood.

The Gardena branch of Ishigo Bakery dates from 1973, but the Ishigo family has been in the pastry business since 1910, when it opened its first bakery in Hawaii. In 1910, the Ishigos primarily made Japanese baked goods such as sweet bean-filled yeast buns (anpan) and tiny pastries filled with mashed sweetened beans (mandu), but soon they were baking apple and coconut turnovers for customers who favored a taste of the islands, and also anko-pie, a mandu-type bean filling in an American pie crust. Cross-cultural food is not at all new to them.

* Ishigo Bakery, 15934 S. Western Ave., Gardena, (310) 327-6388. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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You have only to look at the assortment of baked goods in the cases at Dates & Nuts Pastry Shop to see the cultures that have left their mark on Filipino cuisine. You'll find pan de sal, sans-rival cake, leche flan and brazo de mercedes, inherited from centuries of Spanish rule. On the other hand, the adobo rolls and chicken rolls resemble Chinese bao, though with Spanish-style stuffings. The chicken roll is particularly tasty, like a moist, rich chicken salad baked into a bun.

Much in evidence is the way Filipino cooks have insinuated tropical ingredients--in particular cassava root, ube (a purple yam) and mangos--into European and Chinese dishes. There are ube tarts, and the pale lavender ube cake roll dusted with a purple mist of dry ube has a filling of macapuno, which Filipinos call "freak coconut" because it never matures but stays gelatinous.

Ensaymada, a rich yeasted coffeecake sprinkled with grated cheese, comes either plain or stuffed with a small ribbon of ube paste. And the cassava cake is really like a baked custard of coconut milk and mashed cassava. Its flavor is rich and compelling, but some people can't get used to its slightly chewy texture. (And the fact that it must not be refrigerated or it will turn into a brick.)

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