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SoCal Indigenous Ingredients

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So I'm not becoming a localvore, but I want our thanksgiving feast to celebrate the foods that are native to Southern California. The questions I have are: What are native foods? Where can I find them, especially in OC? Any help is greatly appreciated.

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  1. Cactus.

    1. For some reason none of the fruits that I can think of are fall items

      Oranges, peaches, strawberries, bell peppers (I'm just mentally driving through the Conejo Valley). Olives, more oranges and other citrus in the San Gabriel Valley.

      California is such an agricultural powerhouse that it's hard to conceive of what's NOT available. Okay, so garlic is more Central Coast, not SoCal, as would be lettuce and artichokes.

      11 Replies
      1. re: SauceSupreme

        I'm shooting for what the native folks would have eaten before LA was founded. Since SoCal is so recently settled we really don't have a strong local cuisine. The cactus, olives, and peppers are interesting. I also thought of rabbit, sage, dove, spiny lobster, but I really don't know how much of the chaparral ecosystem is edible or even what can be found offshore.

        1. re: mrpeccator

          Watercress is something we collected / harvested and eaten out of streams (at least we did it when we were in the scouts) in Malibu State park.

          1. re: mrpeccator

            Does any place have a true indigenous local cuisine? Pizza and bagels were not invented in NYC. Chili peppers were not indigenous to Thai food; Portuguese traders introduced chiles to Siam from New Spain (aka Mexico).

            1. re: mrpeccator

              People used to rake clams in Newport, but that was like a hundred years ago...

              1. re: choctastic

                Still do - there are signs in Khmer (at least there were recently) on Alamitos Bay in Sunset Beach warning of toxins in them. Big surf clams ("pismo clams") were important, just based on middens (piles of shells deep in the soil) on the Channel Islands and remote parts of the coastline.

                Thought of a couple others - Mexican/blue elderberry (Sambucus mexicana, tart little blackish fruits in late summer/fall) and various native gooseberries (Ribes spp.), even more tart. And, there's always honey from native wildflowers. Had some good stuff from the Bouquet Canyon area for sale at the Beverly Hills Farmer's Market, which is bona fide L.A. County wildflower honey!

                Reminds me - I saw a great-looking gooseberry pie at Dupar's in the Farmer's Market yesterday. Sort of pale greenish, blueberry-sized fruit, around $11 for a whole one. I opted for slice of sweet potato, which, for the record, was about the best sweet potato pie I've had in L.A. Sort of shortbread crust, didn't have that slimy-canned mouth-feel. Mmm.

                1. re: cant talk...eating

                  speaking of berries, wouldn't boysenberry be an indigenous berry then?

                  1. re: justagthing

                    Good point - boysenberry no (it's a hybrid btwn. raspberry and blackberry), but we have at least one native blackberry found in riverbottom areas and around seeps in the hills. Nettles are also popping up on menus, and we have a couple native ones (careful of stingers though).

                  2. re: cant talk...eating

                    The gooseberry pie at Dupar's is better than nothing, if you're a gooseberry freak (as I am), but I found it much too gluey and much too sweet, as I tend to do with all their pies.

                    Gooseberries can't be grown here, at least not naturally. The shrub will thrive just fine, but it requires a significant amount of winter time at 30º or less to set its fruit, and that's a tad hard to come by in these parts.

                    1. re: Will Owen

                      Just to clarify - the greenish gooseberry of pies, jams, etc. is a European species; we have lots of native gooseberries (Ribes sp.) in our hills; I just mentioned the pie as an approximation of what was probably an important indigenous food.

                  3. re: choctastic

                    We used to do as kids in the 60s. Parents never considered the toxins. Oh well. Still here.

                  4. re: mrpeccator

                    I've always been frustrated in my search for Native American food. Beyond Indian Bread, there seems to be nothing...and I've searched on reservations and at Indian PowWows (Indian Taco? C'mon.).

                2. Some native cultures and their foods in the link below:

                  http://www.ceres.ca.gov/ceres/calweb/...

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: RicRios

                    Abalone
                    Dungeness Crab

                    One of the best TG meals I have ever had!

                  2. Acorns were a major food source for many So Cal native-Americans.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: bulavinaka

                      I fondly and vivdly remember the “acorn lesson” in elementary school. I guess you could just roast them “over an open fire”… ? Oh, wait those are chestnuts! Here are some acorn flour recipes-
                      http://www.prodigalgardens.info/acorn...
                      But where do you find acorn flour for sale in LA/OC? (from what I have read and remember from that lesson a pretty arduous process to meal) . This old link mentions Koreatown
                      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/83303
                      I also found this related link, but you need to wade through it to find applicable to Southern Ca.
                      http://www.chowhound.com/topics/351264
                      I would love to hear what you come up with…

                      1. re: LaLa Eat

                        Oh man, I remember the acorn lesson too! I remember being fascinated by the pounding and then we put the meal in the toilet tank (not bowl) to wash out the bitterness before making acorn meal.

                        I love being an OC gal.

                        1. re: LaLa Eat

                          Acorn flour is available in Korean supermarkets. In Tustin, check out Freshia.

                      2. If you're talking about what the early Chumash Indians, who were the largest group in the area up and down the coast, the diet was mostly acorns, which were leached to take off the bitter flavor. Wild game, wild grains and, of course, food from the ocean, complete the Chumash diet. The Chumash would bake in clay ovens using the flours frm the grains and acrons, but they didn't cultivate the land much, relying mostly on gathering. Later the Spaniards introduced citrus and an abundance of crops in addition to cattle. Of course, the question, to me, is always what snapshot of time is considered "native" as everyone came from somewhere. But one thing to remember about any early Southern California foods is that they would tend to be more focused on seafood and wild game since the land has always been semi-arid.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Fuser

                          Nice reply! That was informative! Thank you.

                        2. Yes, as Fuser said, acorns are indigenous and were a stable food of the aboriginal Californians. I recently posted a how-to for making acorn flour which can be used pretty much as you might use corn meal flour to make bread or pancakes etc.

                          Gathering the acorns is kind of fun - like a scavenger hunt. http://www.ramshacklesolid.com/2008/0...

                          Also we just harvested a crop of pomegranates which are really great on salads or as a table decoration.

                          cheers!

                          1. Turkeys were indigenous to the Southwest. Not like the market ones, so you may be obliged to snipe one off on your own, though. Cactus apples, mesquite beans, some part of the tule plant. Frogs, turtles, steelhead and other trout.

                            1. From the sea, things like mackerel, squid and sardine and even anchovies are indigenous to the waters off of Southern California.

                              1. SoCal ethnobotany! Love it! A couple plants that were staples in the Los Angeles area that haven't been mentioned are Dichelostemma capitatum (aka blue dicks, wild hyacinth) and Salvia columbariae (Chia). The former is basically like a mild garlic with bright blue-violet flowers and which can still be seen in early spring on undisturbed heavy clay soils (Mt. Washington, Highland Park, Whittier Hills). Chia (mint family) was maintained by periodic burning, and its seeds were ground up and formed a staple of the indigenous diet; it's still found on more gravelly soils such as in the Hollywood Hills..

                                Have no idea what might approximate chia seeds in the modern diet. Anyway, the notion that "everything came from somewhere else"/ "what's native anyway?" just ain't valid, sorry.

                                As for stuff you might actually see on menus, turkeys aren't native, but California Quail is. Most fruit we associate w/ Calif. isn't native (citrus, etc.) but we have a native black walnut, and cactus fruit ("tuna", as in Las Tunas) was probably used, and is still actively picked by folks from Mexico around town, though most of these are the cultivated variety from Mexico which grows tall and has big, upright pads (nopales).

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: cant talk...eating

                                  Thanks for the info!

                                  1. re: cant talk...eating

                                    Acorn. Quail. Venison. Abalone. Blackberry. Black Walnuts. Chia.

                                    For Thanksgiving, just off the top of my head, I'm thinking Turtle/Mesquite bean soup, Smoked Venison, and/or Quail with Abalone/Acorn/Black Walnut stuffing and blackberry/pomegranate sauce, and a a big fat artichoke (okay, we hoofed 'em down from Gilroy) boiled with some of that salvia.... Invite me, please!

                                    1. re: jesstifer

                                      What about all the great produce we grow here? Citrus, ARTICHOKES, avocadoes, strawberries, persimmons now in season, apples in apple valley, garlic, grapes, WINE... drive up the 5 through Modesto and Merced then back down the 101--all the farmstands there have all the greatest stuff for sale, any time of year...

                                      1. re: AnnieMar

                                        I am not positive, but I think when the OP asked about "indigenous" ingredients those types of introduced crops wouldn't be what they were interested in hearing about in this case.

                                        1. re: Servorg

                                          Servorg,

                                          You are correct in your assessment of my intentions. I'm not as interested in what is cultivated but what is passively part of the ecosystem. What Chowhound doesn't want to try new things, especially something outside the boiler plate (foodie or traditional) holiday food? There are some fantastically informative responses and I am getting geeked about the possibilities this year. Now I just need to take up hunting, fishing, and gathering.

                                  2. Sea Urchin.

                                    1. OK so far Ive gotten Acorn Squirrel Deer Fox Clams Halibut, barracuda, queenfish, sharks, and white sea bass yellowtail mackeral perch, croakers, and corbina shark sage poppy sunflower acorn the los angeles sunflower is so rare if someone where to cultivate it and farm it they would have an LA original food so start planting it in your backyards and selling at farmers markets I dont know if eucalyptus is native but it should be included because it is so Los Angeles in nature and identity here is a list of edible plants native to cali http://www.laspilitas.com/classes/edi...

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: lloydsk

                                        Eucalyptus is not native...

                                        The Chumash didn't grow/harvest any food. They were hunter/gatherers and fished for their food....abalone, etc. They also traded with other coastal natives.....shells, fish, berries, acorns, etc.
                                        Their main food source, other than fish, was acorn which they used for bread and soup(s).

                                        1. re: lloydsk

                                          "Los Angeles sunflower" (the common name for a wetland plant that once grew in the sag ponds on the Raymond Fault and a couple other areas) is probably extinct, but there are/were several native sunflowers that are still common, including Helianthus annuus, which grows everywhere (flowers late summer), even along freeways. Drive through El Sereno in September and you can't miss it.

                                        2. Sunchokes can be foraged and eaten. Maybe some fungus too for sauce.

                                          1. I particularly love these because they are Native to LA and can actually make a full on greens side dish have fun

                                            Sidalcea neomexicana/ Prairie Mallow /L.A. New Mexico/ cooked greens
                                            Opuntia biglovii

                                            Prickly Pear/South California/Fruit Raw,seeds ground to meal and cooked Pads cut in strips and fried

                                            Acer spp./Maple/Throughout California/A rather poor maple syrup can be boiled from sap

                                            Chama esaracha coronopus/South California to Utah/berries raw or cooked

                                            Descurainia species(except D.pinnata)/Tansy-Mustard/salad greens or seeds roasted and ground

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: lloydsk

                                              Lloydsk - not sure where you got the above list; most of the info is inaccurate or so mis-spelled it's pretty useless.

                                              1. re: cant talk...eating

                                                Perhaps he/she got it here: http://www.laspilitas.com/classes/edi...

                                            2. Not sure what kind of fishmongers you have down there - but Santa Barbara uni and Santa Barbara (sweet) shrimp. Both are great. There is uni somewhere near you but I don't know it personally (Catalina I think).

                                              I think the Santa Barbara uni is the best I've ever had. Some prefer the Japanese, which is great, but S.B. is just richer and more decadent. The shrimp is also the best shrimp I've ever had. Both a bit pricey.

                                              19 Replies
                                              1. re: foodiemahoodie

                                                Seeing as this is a 4+ year old thread, I'm throwing in my 2¢ worth just because I have something to say. I remember as a kid my dad taking the family up to Pismo Beach to dig up pismo clams. There were a few other places (where I don't recall) where you could dig up small mollusks that my dad called "cockles" in southern California. They're probably all hard to find if not virtually fished out. He also used to go surf fishing to catch barred perch. I am pretty sure the native americans ate all this kind of sea food.

                                                1. re: Feed_me

                                                  I just got your reply its such an important thread because California is crying out for an authentic identity besides movies and blondes and Since I replied yesterday I received five replies so I think its incredible that people stopped to look and ask. Thanks for your info I'm going to talk to some local people I know and see what we can do about native LA foods. I think it would really shake los angeles up to have a cuisine that is completely indigenous

                                                  1. re: lloydsk

                                                    "I think it would really shake los angeles up to have a cuisine that is completely indigenous"

                                                    There is only one thing that is completely indigenous to this area area that can really shake up Los Angeles...and it comes from the San Andreas fault...

                                                    1. re: Servorg

                                                      lol everyone hates on LA:) but seriously its a an adventure and a place to discover so many wonderful things hidden and kept from view buried

                                                    2. re: lloydsk

                                                      Indigenous is a loaded word. Corn and beans spread here from central Mexico hundreds of years before the conquistadores. Chiles grow here; are they indigenous?

                                                      You can certainly grow and harvest your own food, which is the epitome of eating locally. I am right now trapping and purging the snails that eat my garden; I feed them carrots from the garden and then I cook them and eat them. You can forage, within reason; black sage, which grows absolutely everywhere, is delicious as a pesto-type sauce, and white sage is fantastic slid between the fat and meat of a bird and roasted.

                                                      There are people out there who teach indigenous foraging—Joel Robinson is one, who runs a company called Naturalist For You—but you will frankly work harder at gathering than the Chumash did if you only want Chumash ingredients, because Los Angeles is a city now and the original balance is gone.

                                                      If you count anything that grows within Los Angeles as foraging, you can certainly make quite the meal out of snared rabbits (attention to the laws about this, the last time I talked about trapping rabbits in my garden I got all kinds of angry words from people), trapped birds (ditto), snails, fish, seafood, and of course public fruit. You'll have trouble with grains, though.

                                                      Also, just a slight complaint about your assumption that Los Angeles is only movies and blondes. That's the image projected out to the world, and if you never leave Hollywood or the Westside you could maybe be excused for that worldview, but Los Angeles isn't principally that; it's a huge melting pot where people eat "foreign" cuisines as easily as they eat their own, where you'll see Korean-speaking Latinos in Korean restaurants and Chinese-speaking Caucasians in Shanghainese places. That's Los Angeles's culinary identity to me.

                                                      1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                        This is a great response, DU. But I'm not sure why everyone's talking Chumash... their territory ended around Calabasas. The Valley and LA Basin were Gabrielino/Tongva.

                                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                          > That's Los Angeles's culinary identity to me.

                                                          Very nicely put.

                                                          1. re: Peripatetic

                                                            I thought that the current Los Angeles' culinary identity means eating a pork pie while wearing a pork pie hat... ;-D>

                                                          2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                            PS, just noticed that the OP seems to be in the OC, which (depending on what part) could also have been Luiseño or Juaneño territory. There's a pretty thorough discussion of Luiseño foods here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/ca/co...

                                                            1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                              DU, the moment I fell in love with LA's happy cross-ethnic food thing was on one visit from Nashville, sometime in the '80s, when Papa-in-law took us to his favorite Little Tokyo sushi place, Frying Fish. Sitting across the sushi-makers' island from us were two youngish Latinas and maybe three kids, all of whom were enthusiastically attacking plate after plate, and doing it more neatly than I could manage. All my ambivalent feelings towards what is now my local culture began realigning themselves right then.

                                                              While it's interesting to think about what foods might have been native to the area at some point, that point will always have to be arbitrary, having to do with the arrival of one culture or another. The first "native" Americans? The first Europeans? The first Midwestern farmers? As for me and my house, we will think in terms of what's growing and/or being harvested here now, because we like to think that no jet fuel was harmed in the making of this meal. I grew up in a small Illinois town that had lots of backyard gardens, including our own, as well as plenty of locally-raised meat and poultry, plenty of fish in the lakes and small game in the woods. Hardly anybody ever bought a tomato from a store there between June and September. LA is not quite like that, but there is an awful lot of stuff that's grown either in the county or a truck-ride away, and most of it is well within my less than generous budget.

                                                              1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                                So, do you also trap and eat squirrel? Opossum?
                                                                I'm curious about the snails in your garden. How long does it take for them to poop orange, on the average? I'm assuming this is why you feed them carrots?

                                                                1. re: latindancer

                                                                  Eating Opossum the Texas way (one eye on the possum and one eye on the highway)...

                                                                  1. re: Servorg

                                                                    LOL. Road kill-to-the-table cuisine/dining. The only thing that crosses the road around these parts is an occasional pet cat or dog off leash....chasing a squirrel.

                                                                  2. re: latindancer

                                                                    I have trapped and eaten squirrel; 'possum, never.

                                                                    It takes 3-5 days for them to poop orange, and yes, it's to purge them.

                                                                    1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                                      Interesting...

                                                                      So the snails in my garden could be rounded up and eaten.
                                                                      Are they as tender as the ones I normally eat, in the shell, as escargot?
                                                                      Thanks for the response, BTW.

                                                                      1. re: latindancer

                                                                        Most of the snails I've eaten in the United States have been boiled into rubbery submission, so I would say yes, they'll be at least as good as that and probably better. :)

                                                                        1. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                                          This is great information.
                                                                          Thanks.

                                                                      2. re: Das Ubergeek

                                                                        Did you know that the LA area's brown fox squirrels aren't native? They were imported from the Southern US by Civil War veterans at the Old Soldier's Home at Sawtelle. The veterans thought the brown squirrels from back home were tastier than the native grey squirrels and ground squirrels.

                                                                        A local research project has traced their spread from that introductory location, gradually displacing the native species. They have chronological maps of the spread:

                                                                        http://instructional1.calstatela.edu/...

                                                                        1. re: GlenBlank

                                                                          Actually, those vets were right about that. The bit they missed, however, was that without the rich forage of the east-central US, deciduous forests and stuff, those squirrels will never get to eatin' size. It's not the species, you see, it's the chow. The Illinois squirrels my dad hunted were every bit as big as his other quarry, the rabbits; two squirrels was more than enough for our family of five. On her first trip to my old home town, Mrs. O saw her first midwestern squirrel in the first half-block from my friend's house and yelped, "What the f*** is THAT?" Luckily it was my buddy Bob walking with us and not his mom … even I'd forgotten how big those things can get; it looked like a big fat fluffy-tailed cat.

                                                            2. The Portola expedition, the first Spanish explorers of the LA area, found that the Tongva natives they encountered frequently offered them "sage gruel" and baskets filled with (otherwise unspecified) "seeds."

                                                              The natives hunted small game - rabbit and antelope especially - with bow & arrow, and periodically burned off the grasslands of the Valley to make travel easier and improve hunting. (Much of the coastal plain was swampy, too wet to burn.)

                                                              Portola's Franciscan diarist, Father Crespi, noted abundant wild roses (Rosa californica), wild grape vines, and what he calls 'cumin' ("comino"). (I thought at first that might be the fennel that covers many hillsides today, but it turns out that's an invasive European import, so Crespi's 'cumin' was... something else).

                                                              Crespi mentions seeing bears, coyotes, herds of antelope, and mule deer. The expedition's soldiers reported sighting something at a distance that they described as an elk . (?)

                                                              The Tongva knew about grinding and leaching acorns, so they were a major food source.

                                                              Hugo Reid was a Scotsman who immigrated to Alta California in 1832 during the Mexican era, married a Tongva woman, and was the original recipient of the Rancho Santa Anita land grant in 1845. Shortly after the American takeover, in 1852, he wrote a series of letters to the Los Angeles Star describing the local native culture and criticizing their treatment at the hands of the Franciscans.

                                                              In one of those letters (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r...), he says:

                                                              --
                                                              The animal food in use among them was deer meat, young coyotes, squirrels, badgers,rats, gophers, snakes, racoons, skunks, wildcats, the small crow, the blackbirds, hawks, groundowls, and snakes, with the exception of the rattle snake. A few eat the bear, but in general it is rejected, on superstitious grounds hereafter to be mentioned.

                                                              The large locust or grasshopper was a favorite morsel, roasted on a stick at the fire.

                                                              Fish, whales, seals, sea-otters, and shellfish, formed the principal subsistence of the immediate coast-range of Lodges and Islands.

                                                              Acorns, after being divested of their shell, were dried, and pounded in stone mortars, put into filters of willow twigs worked into a concave form, and raised on little mounds of sand,which were lined inside with a coating of two inches of sand; water added and mixed up. -- Then filled up again and again with more water, at first hot, then cold, until all the tanning [tannin] and bitter principle was extracted. The residue was then collected and washed free of any sandy particles it might contain. On settling, the water was poured off. After being well boiled, it became a sort of
                                                              mush, and was eaten when cold.

                                                              The next favorite food was the kernel of a species of plum which grows in the mountains and Islands, called by them, Islay (pronounced eeslie). Some Americans call it the Mountain Cherry, although it partakes little either of the plum or cherry. It has a large stone, to which numerous fibres are attached, pervading the pulp, of which there is very little. Its color, when perfectly ripe, inclines to black, and very much like what in Mexico is called the Ciruela. This, cooked, formed a very nutritious, rich, saccharine aliment; and looked much like dryboiled frijoles.

                                                              Chia, which is a small, gray, oblong seed, was procured from a plant apparently of the thistle kind, having a number of seed vessels on a straight stalk, one above the other, like wild sage.This, roasted and ground into meal, was eaten with cold water, being of a glutinous consistency,and very cooling.

                                                              Pepper grass seed was also much used, the tender stalks of wild sage, several kinds of berries and a number of roots.

                                                              All their food was taken either cold or nearly so, which, of course, tended to preserve the teeth. Salt was used very sparingly in their food, from an idea that it had a tendency to turn their hair grey.

                                                              --

                                                              [Para breaks added for legibility.]

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: GlenBlank

                                                                Good info. Those journal accounts are great. The "islay" was almost certainly Prunus ilicifolia, the holly-leaved cherry, which is pretty common in hilly/foothill areas (Santa Clarita, Hollywood Hills), with a related species on the Channel Islands (not that they would have differentiated).

                                                                Re: above comments, as far as term term "native" goes there's sort of a strict ecological definition and then many interpretations from this that are constructs used to interpret the landscape people observe (as people have always done); an example is the familiar "if I see it growing 'wild', then it must be native" approach, which just causes confusion when trying to figure this stuff out.

                                                                As for things like corn, beans, prickly-pear (the "Indian fig" kind that is/was cultivated), they "spread" in the sense that Native Americans traded seeds up and down the Americas, but the distinction between this and, say pinion nuts, which were both traded *and* clearly indigenous to parts of CA is an important one. Of course, exceptions are out there, such as various weedy things like squash relatives which could either have been brought up by people or spread on their own.

                                                              2. Native fish (that you might actually find):

                                                                Yellowtail
                                                                Halibut
                                                                Albacore, Bluefin, Yellowfin, Skipjack and Bonito Tunas, although all but bonito remain several miles offshore)
                                                                Sardine
                                                                Anchovy
                                                                Mackerel (Pacific Chub, NOT king mackerel or sierra/spanish mackerel)
                                                                Jack Mackerel
                                                                Smelt
                                                                Corvina
                                                                White Sea Bass
                                                                Giant Sea Bass (Illegal to harvest in US)
                                                                Chinook and Coho Salmon
                                                                Rockfish
                                                                Kelp/Sand Bass
                                                                Pacific Barracuda (not great barracuda)
                                                                Swordfish (offshore)
                                                                Striped Marlin (offshore)
                                                                Mahi Mahi aka dorado (offshore)
                                                                Mako and Thresher Shark
                                                                Dover, Rex, and Petrale soles, various turbots and sanddab
                                                                "Sculpin"
                                                                Butterfish, aka pompano

                                                                Others, like Sheephead (not sheepShead) ling cod, blue perch and surffish are commonly eaten by fishermen but I've never seen them for sale in a market

                                                                1. Chia seed is readily available in health food stores. Also, I have been told manzanita berries were used by the SoCal natives for producing an alcoholic beverage.