A Young Writer Explores Old-World Food Traditions

at a favorite local eatery

My Night at La Marcha

By Kiani Laigo

Kiani Laigo chats with Sergio Emilio Monleón and Emily Sarlatte, co-owners of La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley.

At Edible East Bay, we don’t offer formal internships, but occasionally we get an inquiry that makes us want to create an opportunity for a bright, motivated young person. That happened last fall when we heard from 16-year-old Kiani Laigo, a Richmond resident and student at Nea Community Learning Center in Alameda. Nea is a K–12 school that seeks to “empower youth to take ownership of their educational experience, to celebrate their diverse community, and to actively participate as members of a democratic society.”

Kiani says that when she was younger, she definitely liked eating more than cooking. “But these days,” she adds, “I find myself helping more in the kitchen during the holidays.” Last summer, she binge-watched Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, which sparked her desire to pursue a career in the culinary industry.

Kiani’s interest in food took a turn toward the entrepreneurial at age 12 when she wanted to earn money to help fund a family trip to Disneyland. She launched a cookie business called Mixerdoodle and baked enough snickerdoodles and other treats to make the trip a reality. These days, Kiani sells Mexican wedding cookies to friends and family.

Thanks to a Filipina grandmother on her father’s side and a Surinamese and Indonesian grandmother on her mother’s side, Kiani has grown up knowing foods from many cultures. She recalls her paternal grandma making classic Filipino favorites like pancit, adobo, lumpia, and kare-kare. Her grandma on her mom’s side owned a catering business and prepared food from around the world. Kiani remembers her laksa (spicy noodle soup), Pavlovas, and aram sandwiches.

Kiani must complete a 20-hour internship as part of her school’s graduation requirement, and we’re delighted that she chose to ask Edible East Bay to host that effort. Her first project with us is some writing about a visit to La Marcha Tapas Bar in Berkeley.

On her first visit to La Marcha Tapas Bar, Kiani Laigo ordered (and photographed) the Paella Tres Cerditos (above). “I practically inhaled the food,” she says of the concoction of chorizo, smoked belly, shoulder chop, leeks, apple cider, saffron, and rice.

Originally farmer or worker food, paella is traditionally eaten straight from the pan. Paella is the name of the cooking pan itself and not the dish. A “true” Paella Valenciana has no seafood, and more likely, it’s a mixture of chicken, rabbit, and snails with green and white beans. These days, paella is the name of 200 or so rice dishes (arroces) from the Valencia region in Spain and other parts of the world.

La Marcha Tapas Bar, a small, cozy restaurant owned by Sergio Emilio Monleón and Emily Sarlatte, is located at 2026 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. When I first walked in, I could hear the murmurs of the crowded restaurant, the pots and pans clanging in the kitchen, and the sound of food being fried. The bar had two TVs playing—usually one has a soccer game and the other a telenovela. There were people from all different backgrounds dining. It was hot and cramped inside, but an orange-flavored San Pellegrino felt refreshing and cooled down every hot bite of food I ate.

It was a pleasing experience. I imagined I was transported to the coast of Valencia, eating paella after a long day of work. The paella I ordered was called “Tres Cerditos,” which translates to “three little pigs.” My guess is that the dish has this name because it contains three variations of pork: chorizo, smoked belly, and shoulder chop. Every bite had a spicy rich flavor. Because it was served in the cooking pan, the paella was very hot. It reminded me of fall—the oranges, yellows, and reds combined together in one dish.

The layered textures are part of the experience of eating paella: When you first start, you notice the soft, sticky rice. Then the meat and garbanzo beans provide a more solid tone. As you reach the bottom, you can scrape up crunchy bits of burnt rice, which make the dish memorable.

I was really hungry, so when the waiters brought the paella out, it was as if my eyes lit up the dark room and made a spotlight on that steamy dish. I threw my spoon in and practically inhaled the food. The whole experience was great. The drinks came out fast and so did the tapas. And that paella, even though it took longer to prepare, was worth the wait. I haven’t tasted many paellas in my years on this earth, but this was probably one of the best. ♦

lamarchaberkeley.com

Kiani Laigo, a student at Nea Community Learning Center in Alameda, is completing an internship with Edible East Bay.