This month, a Fowler museum curator is arranging a new kind of exhibit: specially ordered tasting menus at Southeast Asian island-specific restaurants for museum members eager for insight into a new cuisine.
Thursday, the Center for Jewish Studies kicks off its "Jews and Food" series when Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold comes to campus to share his take on food from a Jewish perspective.
The Fowler's Flavors of the Archipelago food series invites museum goers to dinner where a curator chooses the food.
In November, the Fowler invites its members to an exhibit-themed cooking class. Last May, UCLA's Asia Institute hosted a roundtable of experts to talk about how food brings Asia into the daily life and identity of Los Angeles. The International Institute beat everyone to the table with a food-themed teacher-training class in summer 2009.
The not-so-secret secret is out: It's more fun to learn when there's food involved. "Any food program I've ever done has been popular," said Bonnie Poon, manager of public programs at the Fowler.
Traveling to the food
Fowler curator Roy Hamilton has already hosted one of the three Southeast Asian dinners that comprise the Fowler's Flavors of the Archipelago dinner series.
Another Fowler program, Art Bites, offers a tour of its Korean exhibits plus a chance to learn more about the culture in a Korean cooking class.
"Everyone enjoyed the education about Philippine food, especially the desserts, including macapuno and halo-halo with bright-purple ube ice cream. It is a color rarely seen in food," Hamilton observed.
The idea is to give everyone a chance to try unfamiliar foods they might otherwise never eat, he said. Next up is Indonesian food this Sunday, Oct. 24, and then Malaysian food on Nov. 7. The events are light on talk and heavy on the eating, Hamilton said.
As the Fowler's senior curator of Asian and Pacific collections, Hamilton travels to Southeast Asia – mostly Indonesia – for at least a few weeks every year.
"Thirty years ago, I thought that all these wonderful ingredients I'd been exposed to would never be available in the U.S., and now they're daily items in the grocery store," he said. Foods he used to long for now have restaurants and foodies devoted to them. Ironically, when he travels now, the thing he misses most is Los Angeles' food.
"We have this amazing international restaurant scene in L.A. It's no secret to people here that food is a major part of cultural expression," Hamilton said. "This food series is a way for our members to get together and enjoy food and company as an extension of our exhibits."
At an International Institute teacher-training workshop involving cooking, Valerie Berkovich from the Latin American Institute shows dolmas made by workshop participants.
The series is linked to an exhibit on Southeast Asian island textiles, and diners will get a taste of multiple cultures. Hamilton sang the praises of Javanese sugar made from palm sap; jack fruits that can weigh 100 pounds; and petai, or the "stinking bean." ("Think of garlic. It's that kind of potent, flavorful ingredient," Hamilton said.) Finally – diners, be warned – he rhapsodized about the legendary, love-it-or-gag-on-it durian fruit. "I love it."
Bringing the food critics to UCLA
The Center for Jewish Studies (CJS) is taking a different approach with its Jews and Food series, which invites three prominent food experts to campus to explore varied Jewish culinary traditions as a lens on different Jewish cultures, said Professor David N. Myers, co-director of the center and chair of the history department.
One discussion will feature Poopa Dweck, an award-winning authority on Syrian-Jewish food and customs, and another highlights Mimi Sheraton, a former New York Times food critic. Locals will likely clamor to hear alumnus and Angeleno Jonathan Gold, who speaks this afternoon, even though – as a CJS newsletter notes – he does not keep kosher in his forays across L.A.
"Jonathan Gold is Jewish and an omnivore, and we're interested to get his take on food from a Jewish perspective," said Myers, who will moderate the discussion. "There is so much public attention and focus now on food, from the slow-cooking movement to concerns about obesity. It just seems like a suitable moment to have this convergence of our longstanding interest in Jewish culture and the public's interest in food."
Variations in Jewish food traditions reflect diverse Jewish subcultures, Myers said.
"The Ashkenazi kitchen looks different from the Syrian Jewish kitchen that looks different from the Moroccan Jewish kitchen," he said. "We're interested in seeing the differences."
Scholars around the country are paying renewed attention to Jewish food, from the development of food traditions to the cultural value of sustainable food, he said.
"There's chatter around the country in this direction," he said. "We want to really crystallize this emerging scholarly discussion. We offer 70 classes in Jewish studies, and Jewish food studies would be a wonderful complement."
Cooking on campus
In November, the Fowler offers up Art Bites: Korean Food and Symbols, a tour of the museum's Korean funerary figures exhibit followed by a Korean cooking class. Maite Gomez-Rejon, an independent curator who is also a trained chef, will lead the three-hour Sunday lunch program.
It will hardly be the first time UCLA has reached out to the community by offering a chance to learn through cooking. The International Institute's annual teacher-training workshop in summer '09 used international foods as a springboard to explain culture and geography. For instance, a lesson on making stuffed grape leaves, or dolmas, morphed into a geography lesson on the recipe's ingredients – grape leaves from the Nile Delta, rice from China, cinnamon from India's Malabar Coast and salt from the mines north of Timbuktu in Mali.
"There is something utterly primal about eating and food, connecting to the Earth and to other people," said the instructor, Barbara Petzen, who is education director of the Middle East Policy Council, a scholar in gender and social history, and – of course – a self-described foodie.