The World on a Plate: 40 Cuisines, 100 Recipes, and the Stories Behind Them

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9780143127659: The World on a Plate: 40 Cuisines, 100 Recipes, and the Stories Behind Them

Eat your way around the world without leaving your home in this mouthwatering cultural history of 100 classic dishes.

Best Culinary Travel Book (U.K.), Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Finalist for the Fortnum & Mason Food Book Award


“When we eat, we travel.” So begins this irresistible tour of the cuisines of the world, revealing what people eat and why in forty cultures. What’s the origin of kimchi in Korea? Why do we associate Argentina with steak? Why do people in Marseille eat bouillabaisse? What spices make a dish taste North African versus North Indian? What is the story behind the curries of India? And how do you know whether to drink a wine from Bourdeaux or one from Burgundy?

Bubbling over with anecdotes, trivia, and lore—from the role of a priest in the genesis of Camembert to the Mayan origins of the word chocolateThe World on a Plate serves up a delicious mélange of recipes, history, and culinary wisdom to be savored by food lovers and armchair travelers alike.

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About the Author:

Mina Holland lives in London, where she is the editor of Guardian Cook. Traveling and living (and eating) abroad—including in the United States, where she spent a year of college, at the University of California, Berkeley—inspired her to journey the globe exploring people’s eating habits. And lusting after cookbooks but not wanting to spend all her money on them inspired her to create one book that condenses information about many cuisines. The World on a Plate is the result; it’s her first book.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

It is not just the great works of mankind that make a culture. It is the daily things, like what people eat and how they serve it.

· LAURIE COLWIN, Home Cooking ·

WHEN WE EAT, we travel.

Think back to your last trip. Which are the memories that stand out? If you’re anything like me, meals will be in the forefront of your mind when you reminisce about travels past. Tortilla, golden and oozing, on a lazy Sunday in Madrid; piping hot shakshuka for breakfast in Tel Aviv; oysters shucked and sucked from their shells on Whitstable shingle. My memories of the things I saw in each of those places have acquired a hazy, sepia quality with the passing of time. But those dishes I remember in Technicolor.

As Proust noted on eating a petit madeleine* with his tea, food escorts us back in time and shapes our memory. The distinct flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques that we experience in other spaces and times are also a gateway to the culture in question. What we ate in a certain place is as important, if not more so, than the other things we did there—visits to galleries and museums, walks, tours—because food quite literally gives us a taste of everyday life.

Whenever I go abroad my focus is on finding the food most typical of wherever I am, and the best examples of it. Food typifies everything that is different about another culture and gives the most authentic insight into how people live. Everyone has to eat, and food is a common language.

The late, great American novelist and home cook Laurie Colwin put everyday food alongside “the great works of mankind” in making a culture. I have to agree. A baguette, the beloved French bread stick, is the canvas for infinite combinations of quintessential Gallic flavors (from cheese to charcuterie and more). It is steeped in history* and can arguably tell you more about French culture than Monet’s lilies. Moroccan food expert Paula Wolfert, a beatnik of the 1960s who flitted from Paris to Tangier with the likes of Paul Bowles and Jack Kerouac, also relates to Colwin’s words. “Food is a way of seeing people,” she once said to me—such a simple statement, but so true. Unlike guidebooks and bus tours, food provides a grassroots view of populations as they live and breathe. When we eat from the plate of another culture, we grow to understand—mouthful by mouthful—what it is about.

Eating from different cultures is not just a way of seeing people: it can train a different lens on the food itself, too. I started eating meat again a few years ago after twelve years of being a (fish-eating) vegetarian. But while I was happy to try all sorts of cuts and organs, lamb still troubled me. I’ve loathed the fatty, cloying scent of roasting lamb since I was a child, an aversion that had become almost pathological. When I met Lebanese cook Anissa Helou for the first time, I casually slipped my antipathy for lamb into the conversation. Her jaw dropped. She told me this was impossible, that I couldn’t write a book about the world’s food without a taste for lamb. A few months later I was at her Shoreditch apartment eating raw lamb kibbeh (see page 170) and devouring it. Her delicately balanced homemade sabe’ bharat (seven spice mix) didn’t so much mask as complement the strong flavor of raw meat, which we ate with white tabbouleh. I might not like British roast lamb, the smell of which wafted around my grandparents’ kitchen on many a Sunday, but it turns out I love raw lamb prepared in a Levantine kitchen. Persian ghormeh sabzi (lamb stew with herbs and kidney beans, see page 187) was also a revelation. Ingredients take on different guises in other cuisines, and this can transform our perception of them.

In recent years food has assumed a status analogous to film, literature and music in popular culture, expressing the tastes of society in the moment. Food manifests the zeitgeist. There are now global trends in food. In cosmopolitan cities from London to New York, Tokyo to Melbourne, crowds flock to no-reservations restaurants that serve sharing plates against a backdrop of distressed décor, or to street-food hawkers selling gourmet junk food and twee baked goods. Today’s most famous food professionals—from the multi-Michelin-starred René Redzepi to neo-Middle Eastern pastry chef Yotam Ottolenghi and TV cook Nigella Lawson—are another facet to celebrity culture. They prize creativity in the kitchen, drawing on many different culinary and cultural influences to make dishes that are unique to them, for which society’s food lovers have a serious appetite.

Amidst this enthusiasm for food and the growing fascination with culinary trends (which seem to change as frequently as the biannual fashion calendar), there are gaps in our knowledge about “pedigree” cuisines. Self-proclaimed “foodies” may know who David Chang* is, proudly order offal dishes in restaurants or champion raw milk over pasteurized alternatives, but can they pinpoint what actually makes a national or regional cuisine? How do you define the food of, say, Lebanon or Iran? What distinguishes these cuisines from one another? What are the principle tastes, techniques of cooking and signature dishes from each? In short, what and why do people eat as they do in different parts of the world?

Taking you on a journey around forty world cuisines, my aim is to demystify their essential features and enable you to bring dishes from each of them to life. Remember: when we eat, we travel. Treat this book as your passport to visit any of these places and sample their delicacies—all from your very own kitchen.

· WHAT IS A CUISINE? ·

AMERICAN ACADEMIC-CUM-FARMER Wendell Berry once said that “eating is an agricultural act,” drawing attention to the fact that what we eat in a given place reflects the terrain and climate where local produce lives and grows. But this is an oversimplification, taking only geography into consideration.

In fact, a cuisine is the edible lovechild of both geography and history. Invasions, imperialism and immigration solder the influence of people’s movement onto the landscape, creating cuisines that are unique to the place but, by definition, hybrid—like that of Sicily, where the Greeks, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Spanish, French and, most recently, Italians have all had their moment of governance. Today, Sicilian dishes express both the peoples that have inhabited the island and the rich Mediterranean produce available there.

I have learned that no cuisine is “pedigree”; they are all mongrels, as hybrid as your average hound in the pound. Even those with the most distinctive national and regional character are the result of different human traditions being fused with physical geography and its produce.* Some cuisines are much younger than others—those of the New World, for example—but our knowledge of the more recent history in which they were formed proves a fascinating lesson in how a cuisine develops.

For example, we’re going to travel to California (see page 297) not only because I have what might fairly be described as an overtly sentimental attachment to the place, but also because I believe that it has changed the way we look at food. Much of the food revolution that has taken place in recent years can be traced back to the Golden State and its distinctive approach to fusing its various inherited cooking traditions. They are the building blocks of something wholly new—derivative yet authentic.

I like to think of cuisines as stews—they often have the same or similar components as one another, but produce wildly different results. Consider how different Indian and Moroccan foods are, despite many fundamental similarities: clay-pot cooking, stewing and, most significantly, the specific spices they have in common: cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and infinite blends of these and others. As you’ll see on the Spice Route map on pages 154–55, the interplay between terrain and people—geography and history—gives each cuisine I explore in this book a unique chemistry and individual magic.

· HOW THIS BOOK WORKS ·

ESTABLISHING AN EXHAUSTIVE DNA of forty world cuisines would be no mean feat. This book is intended to be an entry point only, a go-to guide for anyone with a fledgling curiosity about the building blocks that make up some of the world’s key cuisines. It covers flavors and ingredients—which spices are used, whether oil or butter (or no fat at all) is favored—as well as how things are cooked and served. I’ve highlighted key features of each cuisine in the Pantry Lists, your essential shopping list for each cuisine we visit on our journey. I’ve also given you a few really typical recipes from each place. If you’re keen to know more, turn to the Further Reading section on page 349 for suggested books on individual cuisines, by experts.

The Pantry Lists are not intended to be definitive catalogues, more an indication of the kinds of things you might want to have in stock (in addition to the Kitchen Essentials—see page 7) when you cook from a particular tradition. They include ingredients that struck me as unique or localized to certain places—such as Sichuan peppers from the Sichuan province of China, dried limes in Iran or pimentón in Spain—and, I hope, will inspire you to read the chapter in question before embarking on your culinary voyage. Assume that, most of the time, the Pantry Lists won’t include the ingredients I’ve put on the Kitchen Essentials list unless I want to stress the prevalence of one in a certain place—chickpeas in the Mediterranean, for example, or tahini paste in the Levant and Israel. No matter how important they are to a cuisine, the likes of extra virgin olive oil and garlic don’t feature on Pantry Lists: they are staples to be found in every well-stocked kitchen, no matter which cuisine you are tackling.

I’ve always taken a pretty relaxed approach to following recipes. They can be enormously useful in helping us to bring a dish to life, but too many of us are shackled by the idea that a recipe is a set of rules, which is a recipe for disaster. My advice would be to do what feels right. Put in more salt or avoid the fresh coriander if that’s what appeals to your tastes, sear the steak or fry the omelette for a couple of minutes more or less if you’re so inclined. No one knows your palate and cooking equipment like you do, so exercise some creative license.

Following the same logic, if you really want to make one of these recipes but can’t find a certain ingredient or don’t have a piece of equipment, don’t let that put you off. Just try substituting the closest possible thing. Not everyone has access to a metropolitan array of ethnic shops selling niche ingredients or owns a tagine pot, and I firmly believe that you can embody authentic flavors without following a recipe to the letter.

You’ll find a list of my Kitchen Essentials on page 7—these are the equipment and ingredients I prefer never to be without in my own kitchen. A list like this will obviously differ from one person to another and you may find that mine doesn’t reflect how you like to eat, but in my experience the things I have included enable me to whip up something tasty from a number of different culinary canons without too much difficulty.

Though in part a reference book, The World on a Plate is also deeply personal, showcasing my own culinary interests and experiences. It reflects where I’ve been, the people I have spoken to, and what I like to eat. I’ve chosen just forty of countless world cuisines so there are of course gaps, but I’ve included those I consider particularly formative in our contemporary eating habits. (One particular revelation was the extent to which Persian cuisine—the ancient cooking traditions of the country known today as Iran—has influenced so many of the major cuisines we know and love: Indian, Turkish, Levantine, Mediterranean. You’ll see that Persian influences keep cropping up over the course of this book.) For three European countries (France, Spain and Italy), China, India and the United States, I have included more than one region. They seemed to me too established and too regionally nuanced to justify grouping their various culinary enclaves together.

I want this book to be as comfortable by your bedside as it is by your stovetop—as much a book to be read as to cook from. My job as a food journalist affords me the opportunity to meet some incredibly talented chefs, food experts and writers, from whom I’ve taken inspiration and practical tips in equal measure. In each chapter, you’ll encounter an authority about the cuisine in question. They are too numerous to name here, but all have been generous with their time, knowledge and cooking. (I have been well fed while writing this book.)

I hope you enjoy reading and cooking from The World on a Plate and that, with its help, you feel inspired to set off on some international journeys from your kitchen, reminisce about places already visited or enthuse about travels to come.

Bon voyage and bon appétit!

KITCHEN ESSENTIALS

· EQUIPMENT ·

WHEN I SAY “essentials,” I really mean it. I’ve read plenty of cookbooks that assume you have a mandolin, a Kitchenaid, even a sous vide, all of which have their place—but I wouldn’t class any of them as essential. You won’t need anything too specialist for most of the recipes featured in these pages. Remember, this is home-cooked food of the world and should require only the most rudimentary accoutrements of a working home kitchen.

I’m of the opinion that too much cooking apparatus confuses things, and personally I avoid using anything that endangers my fingers with an electronic blade or leads to a lot of tedious washing up. That said, a blender, for example, is definitely a useful piece of equipment if you want to make dips, sauces, soups and so on, and therefore makes it onto my list.

My favorite list of essential kitchen equipment is “The Low-Tech Person’s Batterie de Cuisine” in Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. (If you like reading about food as much as you like cooking it, and if you like your food writing wry, dry and sometimes a little cutting, then you need to acquire this book.) I’d echo most of Colwin’s recommendations, although in many instances she suggests having two of things (spatulas, even soup pots), which aren’t always entirely essential in my view, particularly if you have a partner/roommate/parent/other minion who is willing to wash up as you cook.

So here is a short list of what I consider to be necessary to make any of the recipes I’ve featured in this book, and indeed for you to freestyle from any of the cuisines I have covered. The corkscrew and radio are obviously optional, but if you’re anything like me . . .

LARGE NONSTICK FRYING PAN · It doesn’t need to be expensive. I bought my favorite for less than twenty dollars in the supermarket.

SAUCEPANS · A heavy-bottomed Le Creuset-style one that can also go in the oven and a light, medium-sized one (again, of the affordable supermarket kind). It does help here to have two on hand.

WOK · An essential accessory in the student kitchen circa 1998, but still very useful for blasting stir-fry ingredients quickly and effectively so that they cook without losing their crunch and goodness.

DEEP BAKING DISH/RO...

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