Lao-Hmong three color dessert (kao la song / nab vam) in Fresno, CA (2013)
Because it’s sandwiched between San Francisco and Los Angeles, you don’t hear that much about Central California. Which is a shame, because it’s an amazing place. I’m not just talking about the coast, though areas of Big Sur are nearly identical to the Island of Capri in Southern Italy and the area around Monterey could stand in for Lazio with its cypress trees and artichokes, then of course you have the Central Coast wine country inland.
Those things are all great, but I’m talking about the small towns many have never heard of, spaced between thousands of square miles of farmland that grow a huge percentage of the food for the whole country. Places like Lemon Cove and Exeter with endless fields of citrus fruit and pomegranates. Earlimart, McFarland and Traver, which are covered by orchards of almond, walnut, pistachio and nectarine trees pollinated in the spring by mobile beehives. The list of towns (and the foods they grow) could go on and on.
One of the least obvious attributes of Central California though has to be the Asian enclaves in places like Marina or the town of Fresno, which has a huge Southeast Asian population from Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – particularly of Hmong descent. There are markets in Fresno that look like something straight out of Vientiane, selling things you don’t find in other Asian markets, and all kinds of Southeast Asian food.
The photo above is a three color dessert that was marked with its Lao name kao la song, but the Hmong call it nab vam. On the bottom are tapioca pearls and the top has bags of sugar syrup and coconut milk to add – but what is in the middle is what catches your eye. These green rice flour noodles, colored and flavored with pandan, are very common in Southeast Asian desserts like cendol or Burmese mont let saung. Their Thai name is lod chong, Vietnamese call them bánh lọt. Some versions are made with alkaline limestone water for texture, others are not, but they are all related somehow… if not in name.