Articles in Soapbox
We live in the most wonderful era in history to love wine. Right now, Americans have access to a greater diversity of wines than ever before, wines made in more styles from more grapes and from more places, expressing more points of view.
You can see thirst-inducing evidence of this diversity on the shelves of any good wine shop and on the wine lists at restaurants everywhere Regions once scorned are now prized in the 21st century and have become a familiar litany to aficionados: Sicily and the Jura, Ribeira Sacra and Santorini, Austria and Germany (now for reds as well as whites), the Aube region of Champagne, Campania and Basilicata, Trentino and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Alto Adige and the Valle d’Aosta, Muscadet and Irouléguy, Slovenia, Madeira and Sherry.
Add one name, front and center, to that list: California. It is one of the most exciting regions of the world.
California? That whipping boy of the wine vanguard, who could not abide its powerful, monochromatic fruit bombs and smug self-congratulatory attitude.
New generation invigorates the old
In truth, California has never been as homogeneous as it has been portrayed. The stylistic diversity has always been there, though for a decade or more, from the mid-1990s to around 2005, departures from the dominant style were largely ignored or critically panned. But a new generation of energetic California winemakers, whose views have been shaped by the diversity of wines now available, has not only pushed stylistic but helped bring new attention and respect to some of the old-guard producers whose reputations had been languishing.
Consider some of the wonderful wines coming from Napa Valley today. Of course, Napa is Cabernet country. But Cabernet is not the only wine worth making there, not when you have whites from producers like Massican and Matthiasson, made with Napa grapes like Ribolla Gialla and Tocai Friulano. Obviously, they, like Abe Schoener of Scholium Project, were highly influenced by the distinctive, unusual whites of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northeastern Italy.
Outside Napa, you have producers like Arnot-Roberts and Copain, who fell in love with Jura wines and are now making gorgeous trousseaus from grapes grown in Lake County and Sonoma. Martian Ranch is making superb Albariños from Santa Barbara County. Scholium Project, whose wines sometimes border on the bizarre, has produced some excellent orange wines from grapes that include Pinot Grigio and Verdelho.
But the excitement is not simply in the use of obscure grapes. More important is the stylistic diversity now available. Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap and Copain have led the way toward a new impression of California Syrah, wines highly influenced by classic Côte-Rôties, St.-Josephs and Cornas yet distinctively Californian as well. And their success has renewed the focus the likes of Qupé, Ojai and Edmunds St. John, even Bonny Doon, who have been making Syrahs of restraint and place for years.
Similarly, the great success of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers such as Anthill Farms and Copain in Sonoma and Mendocino; Failla, Peay, Ceritas, Ross Cobb and Hirsch on the Sonoma Coast; and Sandhi and Gavin Chanin in Santa Barbara County, has brought renewed attention to producers like Au Bon Climat, Littorai and Arcadian who have long demonstrated restraint in their wines.
Many of these young winemakers, Natural Process Alliance, La Clarine Farm and Donkey & Goat among them, operate outside the realm of traditional critics. They are not dependent on the 100-point scoring system and tasting note approach used by the primary consumer magazines, and so represent a decentralized American wine culture in which sales come from word of mouth in shops, restaurants and blogs rather than shelf talkers.
These unconventional winemakers will never themselves make up a new mainstream. Their numbers are too small, and the mass-market styles too entrenched. But that’s irrelevant. They exist in their own bold and thriving reality and do not require seals of official approval. Yet it is heartening to see the collateral effects of their achievements in the renewed appreciation of longtime mavericks like Edmunds St. John, Corison and Mayacamas.
In the coming decade I expect to see many more new producers and wines that are not bound by what had seemed a California orthodoxy. Already, I sense a new excitement among some winemakers who had felt constrained in the last 20 years or so from making wines that they themselves would have liked to consume. No, I haven’t seen a revolution. Simply an understanding of what has been happening in the rest of the wine-producing world, and a desire to be part of the excitement.
Top photo composite:
Eric Asimov and “How to Love Wine.” Credit: Liz Do and Phil Aupperle
I unwrapped the fruitcake today. I had found it at the back of Mom’s refrigerator as my sisters and I cleaned out her house for the new owners. Mom’s experience had been swift and surreal: Diagnosis end of January; passing mid-June. Now an equally surreal discovery: Here was one of her annual holiday fruitcakes — probably made last December — wrapped in foil and sealed in a plastic bag, tucked away like the hidden treasure it all of a sudden had become.
I was so startled to find it that I all I could do was put it into the bag with the other stuff I was taking to my house: A jar of Kretschmer Wheat Germ, Laasco creamed pickled herring, another jar of horseradish, a few other things. All of this so very Mom. All of it more reminders that she was gone.
That was last August. The fruitcake has been in the back of my refrigerator until this afternoon. Maybe it was the rain, maybe it’s because it’s December now, or maybe I just knew that I had procrastinated long enough. If I was going to serve it to the family on Christmas night — as I had planned — then I needed to see exactly what was there.
Unwrapping the last fruitcake
I unzipped the plastic bag and pulled out the foil-wrapped loaf. It was heavy. The foil wrapping was slightly crinkled, as if the fruitcake had already been unwrapped and then rewrapped. One sniff told me that it had: There was the distinct aroma of brandy. That also was so very Mom. She was probably the only one in the family who was enthusiastic about fruitcake, and she knew how to get the most from it — with diligence and care. Not unlike the way she raised the three of us.
So I unwrapped the foil, some of which stuck to the dried cherries on top that were sticky and not as moist as the cake itself. The cake was in very good shape; it’s full of dried fruit and nuts, and very moist and tender to the touch. I really didn’t need to, but I went ahead and used a toothpick to prick more holes in the top. I brushed it gently with a little Cognac, then wrapped it in plastic and a big new piece of foil. Back into “her” plastic bag it went. And back into the recesses of my refrigerator for another few weeks.
I’ve spent most of my life as a food journalist and editor. All of us in this business write frequently about the connection between food, family, tradition and memory, particularly during the holidays. But nothing I’ve written about has affected me as much as the discovery of The Last Fruitcake. And on December 25, if I can bring myself to cut into it, I know that I will savor every bite.
Mom would have wanted me to.
Top photo: Mom, Ina Lieb, celebrating her 90th birthday. Credit: Barbara Fairchild
Japanese meals are beautifully balanced and presented, and tend to be light on the stomach. You will never feel that you are stuffed with too much fat, sugar or protein by the end of a traditionally prepared Japanese meal. The balance we strive for not only satisfies hunger, but also entertains and nourishes each of the five senses — taste, smell, texture, color and sound.
Interestingly, non-Japanese cooks seem to think that cooking such a well-balanced meal in a home kitchen is not possible. But it is! In my New York City kitchen, I regularly achieve this goal with American ingredients because, like my fellow Japanese, I have learned to follow the simple “rules” governing Japanese meal creation. These rules, which originated in China, take into account the relationship of the five ancient key elements of the universe: earth, wood, fire, water and metal. I teach this cooking philosophy to my students during a week-long Japanese cooking course, Essentials of Japanese Cuisine, held twice a year at the International Culinary Center in New York City. They are fascinated to learn that they can apply the philosophy and rules of Japanese cuisine in their day-to-day cooking.
It’s elemental for Japanese meals
The Five Elements Philosophy holds that each element must be in proper relation to every other element in order for the universe to maintain a healthy balance and for human beings to maintain their optimal mental and physical health. Each element is tied to a color, taste and cooking technique: Wood is associated with green, sour and simmering; fire with red, bitter and grilling; earth with sweet, orange and raw; metal with white, hot and deep-frying; and water with black, salty and steaming.
When Japanese professional chefs and home cooks plan a meal, we naturally incorporate the Five Elements Philosophy. Both the simplest Japanese home-style meal and the most complex, structured, multi-course formal kaiseki consist of dishes prepared by complementary cooking techniques, flavors and colors. The following is an example of simple home-style dinner: a bowl of steamed rice (water), a bowl of miso soup (water), a grilled fish dish (fire), a sashimi dish (earth) and a simmered vegetable dish (wood) Another dish, such as deep-fried tempura (metal) can be also included in the menu.
Balance and moderation
Each of these dishes is served in modest-sized portion to ensure dining satisfaction. For example, a grilled fish dish, the protein, is typically about 4 ounces per person. At home these prepared dishes are served simultaneously, arrayed in front of the diner. At a formal kaiseki meal, the dishes are served in a prescribed sequence. In preparing the dishes we try to bring in five colors, not only to entertain the diner’s eye, but also to add to the health of the meal. Variously colored vegetables offer different vitamins and nutritional components.
And, finally, the Japanese meal balances the five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. Today in America when people talk about balancing flavors, they tend to single out four taste sensations — sweet, sour, hot and salty — and the result often is that the relative strength of these elements is escalated in an unbalanced fashion, over-emphasizing one over the other. Everything tastes too salty, too sweet, too hot and/or too sour.
The dominance of one flavor destroys the ability to detect and enjoy the natural flavor and aroma of each individual ingredient in the dishes — an important attribute of cooking Japanese style. In the Japanese meal, not only do we balance all five flavors, including the bitter flavor, which contains healthy chemicals such as polyphenols, but we also use these flavors in a way to enhance, not mask, the natural flavor of each ingredient in a preparation.
As I show in my new book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” no matter what style cuisine you are preparing, if you balance cooking techniques, balance food colors and balance the five tastes, you can prepare nutritionally balanced, delicious and healthy meals. The ancient philosophy at the foundation of Japanese cuisine has endured for centuries without losing its relevance. Since I no longer live in Japan, I now use readily available fresh American produce, meat and seafood. By cooking these local ingredients in the Japanese way, I have produced many delicious dishes best described as “East-West hybrids” (Please don’t call it “fusion!”) as Nancy Matsumoto writes in her review of my book. I strongly believe that ascribing to the Five Elements Philosophy will introduce you to new and healthful way of cooking that will lead to a more balanced life.
Top photo: Hiroko Shimbo. Credit: Courtesy of www.hirokoskitchen.com
For me, there is nothing tastier than a bit of fine chocolate during a morning coffee break. Chocolate in the morning? Try it some time. But before you scarf down that tasty morsel, let me tell you something about where it came from and how precious and endangered it is.
Chocolate and its flavor begins with the work of farmers, not factories. All chocolate is made from cocoa beans — seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree, a species that flourishes only in areas 20 degrees north or south of the equator. Ninety-percent of cacao trees in this 20-20 zone in the developing world are grown on small family farms. Less than 5% of that crop is considered “fine flavor” by the industry — cacao destined for artisanal chocolatiers and fine chocolate manufacturers — and it’s sourced in such countries as Peru, Venezuela, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Madagascar, among others.
Think about chocolate as you would about wine. Like grapes, the flavor of cacao is determined by genetics and terroir. How the cacao is dried after picking, how it is fermented on the farm and processed by the manufacturer all contribute to its flavor profile. A fine flavor cacao bean, like a Cabernet Sauvignon grape, will produce different flavor depending on the year it is grown and harvested.
At the turn of the 20th century, the vast majority of the world’s cacao trees were what we consider today to be fine flavor. Our assumption is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, only the trees with the best-tasting cacao, native to Mesoamerica, were propagated in colonies all around the equator. But over time, the demand for cheaper beans and mass-produced chocolate increased, prompting a search for trees with higher yields and better disease resistance — flavor quality was sidelined in the interests of quantity. Traditional fine flavor cacao orchards and farms were rapidly replaced.
By Pam Williams and Jim Eber
Wilmor Publishing, 2012, 288 pages
Even those beans destined for bulk or ordinary flavor chocolate are difficult to farm. Cacao trees are extremely labor intensive and difficult to raise. Compared to soy or bananas, crops that flourish in the 20-20 zone, cacao trees are significantly less prolific or profitable. The farmer must go through seven processes, each one of them time- and labor-consuming, to get the beans to market. When the cacao pod ripens, they must be individually harvested by hand. The pods are cracked open and their beans are then carefully removed. The beans then ferment in a box or pile for anywhere from two to eight days, after which they’re dried to a specific humidity level, sorted and bagged.
Few crops require even half the number of steps to get from field to market. Bananas, for example, which are handled in bunches rather than individually, need only be bagged (to deter pests), harvested and washed. It can be extremely tough to make money growing cacao trees, even with the increasing demand for cheaper chocolate.
Indulge your sweet tooth
Cheap chocolate should be an oxymoron — consumers don’t recognize the labor and expense behind it. That must change. Chocolate is in essence a luxury purchase; we don’t need it. For now, when we crave a piece of it, we can choose between a bonbon made by a passionate artisan and a candy bar from the corner store. While eating chocolate is an indulgence for us as consumers, for the cacao farmer our appetite for chocolate is a matter of survival. Given the present price structure, fine-flavor cacao producers may not be able to survive.
Ironically, as the demand for great-tasting chocolate increases across the globe, fine flavor cacao is in danger. Most farmers aren’t paid a premium for better beans, and the return on their investment may not, in the future, be enough. Traditional farms are already being replaced by high-yield hybrids with one-note flavor. For farmers in the 20-20 zone, it makes less and less sense to struggle with the more delicate fine-flavor cacao trees.
So if you want to continue to have the option to purchase fine chocolate, to enjoy the complex and subtle notes that are a result of painstaking farming and processing, vote with your wallet. By paying a little more for artisanal and other high-end chocolates, you’ll be helping to sustain the fine flavor cacao industry.
Top photo composite:
Author Pam Williams. Credit: Robert Ouimet
“Raising the Bar” book cover. Credit: Courtesy of Wilmor Publishing
There are not very many new vegetables coming to market, but there are still plenty of new ingredients for the kitchen coming from the Kingdom of Fungi. Chefs and adventurous home cooks are learning to appreciate the whole range of flavors and textures from cultivated specialty mushrooms. Up until recently, mushroom choice was limited to white button mushrooms and seasonably available wild-foraged mushrooms. Even shiitake mushrooms, now becoming ubiquitous, were unknown as a fresh mushroom up until the 1980s. If shiitake now seem ho-hum, then it’s time to expand your specialty mushroom repertoire. Nothing encourages creativity like new ingredients, and mushrooms’ natural flexibility provides plenty of inspiration.
In the past few years, mushroom growers in the U.S. have learned new cultivation techniques from Asia. Shiitake were traditionally grown on logs outdoors, but new methods, relying on sawdust, have made the process more efficient and have opened the potential for growing more varieties. The sawdust substrate provides a medium and food for the mushroom mycelium. Some species, like chanterelles and porcini, are symbiotic with living plants and cannot be farmed. Others, like shiitake, hen-of-the-woods, and nameko are easily adapted to sawdust culture. Wood is the natural food for these varieties. Some species that are now becoming available include enoki, honshimeji (beech or clamshell mushroom), Nebrodini, pioppini (black poplar mushroom) and lion’s mane (pom-pom).
Mushrooms behave like meat
So why do chefs love mushrooms? They are beautiful to the eye, and easily adapt to a wide range of cuisines, but, most important, mushrooms behave in the kitchen much the same way that meats do: They change their character in response to different cooking techniques and they express different qualities depending on the ingredients with which they are paired. There is sound science behind these effects.
Mushrooms are not vegetables. They are fungi and their biochemical structure has more in common with animals in some ways than with vegetables. Mushrooms have a broad range of amino acids, as animal proteins do, and this provides them with savory flavor. They are high in glutamic acid, an amino acid that is naturally occurring in glutamates and acts as a flavor enhancer. (The “unnatural” form is known as MSG, monosodium glutamate.)
Mushrooms are also rich in nucleotides, compounds that are synergistic with glutamates. Together, these characteristics make up umami, the savory flavor component that is now widely accepted as the fifth flavor along with the old standbys of salt, bitter, sweet, and acid. These attributes make mushrooms perfect pairing partners in a wide variety of culinary settings. Savory flavor plus a satisfying “meaty” texture make them excellent in vegetarian meals. Mushrooms give you something to chew on.
Fungi are influenced by their company
As an example of their culinary adaptability, a fairly mild mushroom like the king oyster has a mildly sweet flavor when lightly sautéed in butter with lemon and tarragon, and pairs well with chicken and fish. Prepared this way it is best complemented by white wines. The same mushroom tossed with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, then grilled over hot coals, has a deeply satisfying, hearty character that would stand up to grilled beef and bold red varietals from Cabernet to Zinfandel. One can image a similar contrast with varying preparations of chicken breast. A gently sautéed chicken breast has a different flavor than the same chicken breast grilled, but comparable shifts of flavor do not occur so readily with vegetables. And while some vegetable flavors are hard to pair with wines, mushrooms easily complement them.
With the possible exception of the onion family, mushrooms occur in more recipes around the world than any other single ingredient. Doubtless this is because they grow wild on every continent. In Asia, they are found in soups, noodle dishes and stir-fries. In Northern Europe, they are used in stews and pickled. In Southern Europe, they add depth to ragouts, garnish grilled meats and are tossed in pastas. The culinary names Chasseur, Cacciatore and Jaeger schnitzel all share a common root in the word “hunter” — and all feature mushrooms. When you hunt, you spend a lot of time waiting quietly in the woods, time well spent scanning the ground for mushrooms. The hunter who returned from the forest with game and mushrooms, of course cooked them together.
The cultivation of specialty mushrooms broadens our culinary palette. Take some time to learn about each variety. You’ll find inspiration in their fresh range of colors, flavors and textures. Mushrooms are exciting and elegant enough to stand on their own as center-of-the-plate items, and they will accent, complement and highlight a wide range of pairings. While a brown crimini mushroom is only slightly different from a white button mushroom, a pioppini mushroom is very different from honshimeji, as honshimeji is from maitake. When explorers find a new country they are always ask, “what’s to eat?” Potatoes, corn, cocoa and chilies moved quickly from the Western Hemisphere back to Europe. The Kingdom of Fungi remains in part unexplored territory and chefs can look forward to even more new varieties as expanding acceptance leads to increased demand and farmers investigate new mushrooms and how best to cultivate them.
Photo: Bob Engel. Credit: Gourmet Mushrooms, Inc.
In the small town of El Paso, Texas, my siblings and I grew up at a unique intersection of Mexican and American culture. As kids, we traveled in and out of two worlds daily. The moment we left our casitato go to school, we entered an American world where English dominated and we loved burgers and fries (when we could get them); but at home we spoke Spanish too, and waited eagerly for our Grandma’sfresh-made salsa with warm tortillas and tamales. As the years went by and we became adults, some aspects of our Mexican heritage were unfortunately watered down or lost in translation. But thankfully our favorite family foods were not! Family recipes, particularly Grandma’s, have been an enduring link between the generations of our family.
Now, as a mother, it’s important to me to keep Mexican traditions and foods alive for my children. And at this time of year that means embracing Halloween on Oct. 31 and Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on Nov. 2. I’ve been surprised to find how many people confuse the two and even think of Día de Los Muertos as just “Mexican Halloween.” The holidays have very different origins and traditions, and I think that is all the more reason to celebrate both. The rituals, customs and even the foods behind Día de Los Muertos offer us a comforting, positive way to cope with death and reaffirm life. And with the growing numbers of Mexican-Americans — immigrants as well as second and third generation — isn’t it time we made it an American holiday?
Aztec and Celtic holidays
Día de los Muertos originated more than 3,000 years ago with the Aztecs, who believed the souls of loved ones journeyed back from the spiritual realm to pay the living a visit. The Aztecs welcomed the departed for this annual celebration and offered comforting foods to the visitors to help sustain them on their journey back to their world. Halloween, on the other hand, began with the ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain, a celebration of the end of the harvest season. The Celts believed that on Oct. 31, the deceased would come back to life to seek vengeance, cause sickness or damage crops. Bonfires and wearing frightening disguises to ward off the restless spirits became part of the tradition. Historians indicate that the Celts tried to placate the dead with offerings of food — the origin of modern “trick or treating.” Clearly the ancient Aztecs and Celts had very different ideas about why the dead had come back to visit!
Food is central to Día de los Muertos celebrations throughout Mexico, and one food you’ll always find is pan de muerto (bread of the dead). These small loaves are flavored with anise and orange zest or orange blossom. Bakeries often prepare pan de muerto days in advance in anticipation of families buying many loaves for their festivities. The traditional round loaf has strips of dough attached to the top in the shape of a skull and bones. Everyone enjoys pan de muerto at their table, but it is also left on grave sites and altars.
Families often create altars at home with pictures of the departed, candles, sugar skulls, papel picado (paper cuttings) and the favorite foods and drinks of the deceased. The food served on Día de los Muertos varies from family to family. Our altar is dedicated to my Grandma, and every year I look forward to filling it with the foods she loved and in turn taught me to love. I remember having champurrado, a thick Mexican hot chocolate enhanced with corn flour, on cold winter mornings in my grandma’s cozy cocina. She made the champurrado to help me warm up in the morning. I can still picture her pouring it back and forth between two cups until it was cool enough to drink. It filled my belly and sometimes it was all I needed for breakfast.
Foods to honor the departed on Día de los Muertos
Grandma also made red pork tamales with such love and care that I think it’s only fitting to serve them on this special occasion. When I make them now, I’m reminded of how many days went into tamale preparation when I was a kid. The first day, Grandma would make the savory pork filling, and the next day it was the smoky red chile sauce. I always knew the final day was close when I saw corn husks soaking in the sink and silk threads all over the counters. My job was to remove the silk threads from the soaked husks, and it made me feel important to have a part in this cooking ritual. Grandma kneaded all the masa dough by hand. Carefully, she’d spread a thin layer of masa on each corn husk and fill it with just the right amount of pork and red chile sauce. This is one of my favorite memories of her.
We’ll enjoy Halloween this year as we always do with costumes, candy and parties, but my family also looks forward to celebrating Día de los Muertos on Nov. 2. Our table will be set with pan de muerto, champurrado, and of course tamales. The beauty of Día de los Muertos is that it gives us one day each year to recover something precious which we’ve lost. When we come together as a family and community to honor our departed, it can be an emotionally gratifying experience for everyone, particularly our children, whose sole connection to the departed may be through the holiday.
Día de los Muertos is not just for Mexico anymore. With the growing Mexican-American population as well as other Hispanic descendants who celebrate the holiday, this is the perfect time for America to adopt the Aztec tradition. This year, after the light in the jack o’ lantern has faded, consider dedicating Nov. 2 to loved ones who have passed on. You can honor them with a feast of their favorite foods, listen to the music they enjoyed, and take time to share your memories and stories with other family members. Join us in the celebration of Día de los Muertos.
Photo: Veronica Gonzalez-Smith. Credit: Jeanine Thurston
People travel for all kinds of reasons, and they bring all kinds of expectations. But what is this thing called travel? I think of it as something very basic and accessible. You can go somewhere far away, but you can also travel in your own town or city.
For me the essence of travel is putting myself in another place — somewhere not-home or not-known — and figuring out how to be there, what goes on, how things work. Trying to gain some kind of understanding of people and the place and culture they inhabit is the most endlessly interesting pursuit I can imagine.
Researching my newly published book, “Burma: Rivers of Flavor,” I spent the last three and a half years making trips into Burma, traveling and eating in many different parts of the country. Food on the street, prepared as I watched, was always an education. Sometimes I had the good luck to be invited into someone’s kitchen to observe and learn — and there was always something to learn, from the way to mix and blend a salad or noodle dish to the technique for slicing shallots.
Food is a traveler’s foot in the door
I’ve been on a book tour the last few weeks and been asked to describe what I do and why. My shorthand answer is that I am interested in food as an entry point into an understanding of culture. But when I take that answer and pull it apart, it leads me to some fresh insights into what travel and food and culture can mean.
I’ve spent more than 25 years poking around in various parts of the world, from Central Asia to Senegal, from Japan to Brazil to Southeast Asia, trying to learn about basic everyday foods and home cooking. It’s been a privilege to indulge my curiosity and be a beginner in so many different cultures and situations.
As I think about that process of taking food as an entry point to gain insights into people and their culture, I realize that, consciously or not, we all do it, and we start at a very young age.
Foreign kitchen down the block
Do you remember when, as a kid, you were first invited to a friend’s house for lunch, or maybe for supper and a sleepover? That was serious travel, at least it was for me (though of course I didn’t think of it that way at the time). There was a little nervous anticipation beforehand and on arrival, just as there is with faraway travel.And once there I was in a different world. Apart from the setting (not-home but someone else’s house or apartment), the otherness was clearest in the food. Now that I reflect on it years later, in some ways that “local travel” held more of the unexpected and took more adjustment than any travel I’ve done as an adult.
I remember at age 7 or 8 eating lunch up the street at a new friend’s house. The sandwiches were made with soft white store-bought sliced bread. There was a tall glass of cold milk by my plate (a horrifying sight to me; milk has never been my thing). There were paper napkins. My friend’s mother came by to refill our glasses once the milk level went down (I hurried to cover the glass with my hand, “No thank-you” tumbling out of my mouth). It was all very foreign and new to me.
And the same must have been true for friends who came to my house, where the bread was homemade in juice tins, so the slices were round, and was brown and very good; there was no milk and there were no paper napkins; and we helped ourselves, made our own sandwiches and found our own drinks — water or diluted juice — rather than being waited on by my mother.
That insight about my childhood food travels to friends’ homes and kitchens takes the idea of “exotic travel” and turns it on its head in a way.
We don’t need to be on the other side of the world watching someone cook dal over a wood fire to be learning and understanding others through their food; whenever we’re in someone else’s kitchen, we’re getting a glimpse or more of their food culture. And when we have visitors to our kitchen, they’re getting to know us in the same way, consciously or subconsciously gaining a deeper understanding of how we think about food and what our cooking practices and tools are.
Benefits when you travel in your own kitchen
I find it exciting and energizing, this idea that being in the kitchen of a friend or a stranger, however close to home, is a form of culinary and cultural travel. And I love the fact that our personal culinary culture, while anchored in our past and present practices, is also potentially very dynamic. It can evolve as we take on new ideas (trying to support local agriculture, for example). And it also grows as we take the “risk” of traveling in our kitchens.
What do I mean by that? In the same way that we travel in our imaginations when we read about other places or see photographs of people far away, we also travel when we prepare food that is unfamiliar to us. We hope and trust (just as we do when we get on a plane to go to a new place), that we’ll like the result. For we’re on a culinary voyage as we prepare a dish that is new to us from Burma or Bangladesh or Mexico. When we then sit down with others to eat the meal we’ve made, we’ve taken ourselves to another place. And if the new dish or technique enters our weekly or monthly repertoire, it enriches and extends our personal culinary culture.
This idea is hugely rewarding to me and I imagine to anyone who writes cookbooks. When I write about the food of another country and give recipe instructions, I’m trying to transmit my understanding of what I’ve learned at the hearths of others And so, as with each book I’ve written, my main hope with my new Burma book is that it helps people travel in their kitchen and in their imagination, and that they find their travels enriching.
Top photo composite:
Author Naomi Duguid. Credit: Laura Berman
Cover of “Burma: Rivers of Flavor.” Credit: courtesy of publisher
While it is often easy to oversimplify the unknown, or at least the unfamiliar — a place, a cuisine, not to mention a culture — the real pleasure in travel or eating comes from discovering the unexpected and exploring the complexities and contradictions that we unfailingly encounter. When we scratch beneath the obvious and accessible, those polished but rarely three-dimensional surfaces found in glossy magazines or mid-century travel books, we find the essential elements that profoundly inform on the place. We need to sift a bit through the layers to find its truer essence.
Like any number of countries and their magnificent kitchens — Turkey, Mexico and even Spain spring to mind — Morocco frequently suffers a simplified fate, considered by many to consist of a largely homogeneous landscape and handful of familiar (though generally misunderstood) dishes.
Moroccan cuisine reflects landscape
As elsewhere, the food of Morocco begins with the landscape, and the country’s geography is far richer and more diverse than most people imagine. The image of this North African country as a parched place with fortified earthen villages and oases of date palms is not wrong, just incomplete.
In a way, Morocco is an island, surrounded largely by water (the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean) and scrub (the pre-Sahara and Sahara). But within those ample confines, a wide variety of climates and features exists: four mountain ranges, river gorges, mesas, forests with cedars and cork oak, scrubby plains, olive groves (Morocco is the world’s second largest exporter of table olives) and vineyards. It has valleys with fruit orchards, meadows with wild flowers, farms producing excellent fresh goat cheeses, and, off its southern coastline, some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.
I have been traveling to Morocco for 15 years, but work on my recently-published cookbook, “Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes,” took me to its many nooks and rural souqs. Although one can talk about a unified “Moroccan cuisine” with a common range of flavors and dishes found across the country, I was trying to get a sense of the regional differences. The more I traveled around Morocco in that search, the more impressed I became by the sheer diversity of the physical landscape and what it produces.
Surprise delicacies in the Middle Atlas
Driving through the Middle Atlas one day among fields of ripening barley with red-petaled flowers rising exuberantly among the silvery-green stalks, the pavement gave way to a gradually-worsening dirt track crossed with streams and strewn with boulders, the kind of chassis-thumping route best navigated in a 4×4 — or at least a rental car. Many roads appear grander on Michelin’s map #742 of Morocco than they are in reality, and this one was no exception. But I was rewarded by entering a valley splendid with cherry trees. A couple of white vans were parked here and there in the shade and extended families were quietly harvesting fruit from their own trees.
I backtracked to the Berber town of Azrou, where I managed to arrive in time for a late lunch at the Hôtel Panoramic, a stout Protectorate-era place opened in 1928. Trout farmed in a nearby river were a specialty and prepared in a handful of manners, including the way that I eventually included in my book: Stuffed with grated carrots, fresh bay leaves, and a generous grating of black pepper, the trout—netted that morning—were quickly pan fried. In the empty dining room, cool and dim under the high ceiling, the floors polished, the massive fireplace in the lobby not yet lit, the earthy flavors of the countryside—precisely this countryside, from the hills rising around the hotel—were fine rewards for my effort.
For all the lamb tagines, grilled chicken skewers, and vegetable-laden couscous I ate on my journeys, some of my most memorable moments working on the book were discovering such unexpected fare as these stuffed mountain trout.
Getting a new view of mushrooms
Another revelation was mushrooms. The High Atlas mountains, stretching some 450 miles northeast from coastal Agadir toward Algeria and rising to nearly 14,000 feet, are dramatic and foreboding, though quite barren; the Anti-Atlas range, to their south, are largely barren and rock strewn. But the Rif Mountains in the far north are damp, fecund, and home to dozens of varieties of edible wild mushrooms. In the hills not far from the isolated, blue-hued town of Chefchouen on a drizzly day, one of the last of the year, my wife, two girls, and I hunted for chanterelles and cèpes. (There were truffles, too, one of our local guides said, pointing to a nearby hill. “But those are for export.”) We returned to a rural auberge and had the spoils of our morning hunt prepared in the most divine and herb-laden omelets I have ever tasted.
Even more unexpected were oysters. South, down the Atlantic from Casablanca, the coastline becomes largely inaccessible, wild, and windswept, and the road meanders past rocky cliffs, great sweeps of undeveloped beach misty from the crashing surf, and a few fortified fishing villages where seagulls wheel above ancient ramparts and brightly painted sardine boats. One stop along here is the village of Oualidia, whose specialty is oysters. Just as I had not expected to feast on local trout in the Middle Atlas or wild mushrooms in the Rif, devouring a dozen Japanese oysters on the half-shell while looking out over the lagoon where they had just been harvested came as another stunning treat.
History of Morocco
Morocco’s rich, complex history — from the ancient Berbers to the Phoenicians and Romans, the Arabs, Muslim and Jewish exiles from Andalucía, trans-Saharan caravans, French and Spanish colonial rulers — has offered cooks plenty of inspiration. After driving thousands of backroad miles over the course of more than a year’s worth of near-monthly trips to Morocco, it was clear that, just as importantly, the country’s vast and varied landscape gave them the raw materials they needed to develop one of the world’s richest cuisines.
For the traveler to Morocco — or Turkey, Mexico, or Spain — pleasure lies in the unknown and the unexpected, in those tasty surprises that may be just around the next corner. The key is to get off the main road and keep pushing ahead to find them. Satisfaction, of course, goes beyond a delicious meal. It helps in understanding the land as well as the people. I found that learning about Morocco’s food was to learn about its culture—and it was this idea that spurred me on, corner after corner.
Top photo composite:
Author Jeff Koehler. Credit: Kirk Giloth
Inside title page from his book “Morocco: A Culinary Journey With Recipes From the Spice-Scented Markets of Marrakech to the Date-Filled Oasis of Zagora.” Credit: Jeff Koehler