AAA Magazines

My SoCal Life: Discovering the world through food

When I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA, I was excited to further my education at a coveted public university, but even more so to explore the sizable community of Taiwanese Americans in Southern California. That’s because in the nearly 95% white Wisconsin suburb where I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, I was rarely exposed to the customs and cultural cues of my motherland.

My family lived in a suburb named New Berlin (in tribute to the German capital), where many of my classmates’ surnames ended in “ski.” Despite how we looked, our family strived to assimilate. My immigrant mom would cut slices of bratwurst to serve with Taiwanese noodles and winter melon soup. Though there was a Chinese church in the area, our family attended churches with mostly white congregations. And outside of our home, we spoke only English.

In Southern California, I was hungry for cultural experiences in Westwood and beyond, and food proved to be the easiest way in. With no car of my own, I’d often hitch rides with friends to the San Gabriel Valley. There, in Alhambra and Monterey Park, I reveled in the Chinese signs emblazoned on restaurants, and in the fragrant scents wafting from sizzling woks.

I had a front-row seat to the explosion of boba (or pearl, or bubble, depending on who you ask) milk tea, and the first stateside expansion of Taipei’s Din Tai Fung restaurant—famous for its juicy, 18-pleated pork soup dumplings. (That location has since closed, but Din Tai Fung’s American empire has only grown.) Establishments serving regional cooking started opening in the area, too, showcasing the incredible diversity of Chinese cuisine.

I loved immersing myself in these Chinese and Taiwanese neighborhoods, but over time I developed a craving for community with people from all walks of life who appreciate our region’s many cultures and identities. I wanted to be a part of something bigger. Fortunately, Southern California is home to many of the nation’s largest diaspora communities, including Thai, Mexican, and Iranian, to name only a few.

My love for food extended to a desire to spend more time among these people, and to pursue food writing. I wanted to learn more about the experiences, including the hardships, of the chefs and other restaurant workers who bring joy to our taste buds.

These impulses still drive my work today. What of the Mixe taquero from southern Mexico standing behind the spit, shredding al pastor and pineapple into warm tortillas? What about the Afghan chef behind the marinated tilapia at the restaurant serving dishes by refugee chefs? And what about the Taiwanese American shop owners serving tall cups of boba milk tea, and the history of trade and migration that made this possible?

So much of what I find beautiful about Southern California results from ways in which our many stories collide. I love learning about the region’s mosaic of cultures—one tile (or dish) at a time. That’s why, when I write about food, I seek to include stories about the people behind that food. It’s my way of honoring the differences that make us stronger.

Esther Tseng’s writing about food, drinks, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Bon Appétit, and Food & Wine.

You may also like:

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

back to top icon