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Inspired by a world of ingredients

By going where the flavors lead them, L.A.'s storefront innovators can really mix things up.

September 24, 2008|C. Thi Nguyen | Special to The Times

THERE ARE two kinds of fusion cooking. The first kind is self-conscious about its fusion; it exists in order to cross boundaries. It loudly proclaims its own eclecticism with emblematic ingredients -- you know, like tuna sashimi tacos with pomegranate-tahini sauce. It's theatrical fusion.

But in Southern California, there's another kind of fusion cooking. It's happening in homes when someone dips a tortilla chip into some hummus, and it's happening in small neighborhood restaurants and cafes. It's bringing us mole made with pistachios, soy milk infused with yerba mate, passion fruit-lavender ice cream and samosas stuffed with mozzarella.

This unselfconscious fusion happens when cooks from one tradition find themselves surrounded by intriguing ingredients from other traditions and start cooking with them, following their own tastes. For these cooks, crossing cultural boundaries isn't the point; the boundaries are just unimportant. It's the difference between dating somebody because they're from an exotic culture, and dating them because you love them and you don't care where they're from.

This natural fusion is, of course, a vital part of food history. It's what happened when Oaxacan grandmothers started using Dr Pepper in their moles and it worked. It's what happened when tomatoes came from the New World to Italy and were made into sauce.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 01, 2008 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Dish's name: Last week, a list of restaurants offering creative fusion cooking misspelled the name of a dish at the East Los Angeles restaurant Moles la Tia. The dish's name was misspelled as fianas hierbes mole. The correct name is finas hierbas (fine herbs) mole.

Tai Kim is proprietor of Scoops, an ice cream shop on Heliotrope Drive near Melrose Avenue. His shop is a flavor laboratory. In a recent four-week period, his daily-changing flavors included beet-cashew, Korean plum wine and strawberry, bacon-chocolate-peanut butter, salty mascarpone, blackberry-ricotta and Riesling-pineapple.

But Kim, a former instructor at Portland's Western Culinary Institute, doesn't think of himself as doing cross-cultural fusion at all. He is, he says, "an educator." He doesn't care what cultures the original flavors are from; what matters to him is that there are thousands of flavors out there and millions of untried combinations.

"Sometimes, I'm kind of frustrated," says Kim. "Some hipster kid comes in because he heard about it and he wants brown bread [Kim's most widely known unusual flavor], and I mean, come on. There are so many ingredients we haven't heard of or tried. It's so hard to convince people [to try something new]. I tell them it's good, but they don't want to try. And then they do and they say, 'Whoa, I've never thought about it, that this goes with that.' "

Kim chose ice cream as a format for getting people to try new flavors. "After art school, I decided to play with food as a new medium," he says. "It was such a great medium, instant -- you can see the results right away -- and very approachable for the customers. In a restaurant, people are spending a lot of money, they won't want to risk it on something new or interesting."

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Soy milk as backdrop

Viet TRAN is another rampant flavor-combiner. His vehicle is soy milk, which he makes every morning by hand, from organic soy beans. "I think there is an art of it," he explains. "What turned me on to soy milk was the creation of it. It's more of an art than soup. You cook soy milk for three hours, you feel open, you feel calm. I want to show people how to make soy milk. It's very meditative, very Zen. Soaking it, blending it, extracting the milk and then cooking it."

Tran, a former computer programmer, traveled across North Vietnam for five years and studied noodle-making and soy milk-making in little villages. In addition to his tiny Viet Soy Cafe in Silver Lake, he now has Viet Noodle Bar in Atwater Village, perhaps the only place on the planet where you can get a bowl of defiantly traditional Hanoi-style chicken pho in a sharply modern setting. You can also get soy milk in all kinds of configurations -- with black sesame, with yerba mate, with coffee. He's adding a soy-milk tasting bar, with such flavors as organic garlic ("very sweet," he says) and turmeric.

"My goal is to pick out what's good for you -- what's healthy -- and then to balance it out . . . . make it pleasant, not medicine."

Health is also the reason behind Olimpus Juices, a smoothie bar run by Jorge and Enrique Mora, brothers from Guadalajara. The Sunset Boulevard bar is tricked out like Mt. Olympus with Grecian columns and busts of Greek gods, and sprinkled with Catholic saint statues and posters for Spanish-language radio stations.

Olimpus serves perfect smoothies -- fresh, frothy and gorgeously fruity. "Our ideas come from necessity," says Enrique Mora. "We wanted to make something natural, something healthy, with all kinds of vitamins to be strong and whole, without eating something heavy like bread."

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