Edible Q&A: Mina Holland Takes Us Around the World in 40 Cuisines
Author Mina Holland had a dream assignment while writing her new book, The World on a Plate: To eat her way around the world and find the foods most typical of whereever she was. From Peruvian ceviche to Middle Eastern baba ghanoush, the result is an irresistible travelogue and cookbook that highlights 40 cuisines in 100 recipes and shares the stories behind each. It's fitting that Holland dedicates the book to her grandmothers since it is our grandmothers who've taught us about the flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques behind the foods we love and associate with our own culture's cuisine. We caught up with Holland to ask her about her travels, her favorite cooking regions here in the U.S. and what she believes is the most underrated cuisine.
Q: Your book is part reference/cookbook and part personal essay. What do you hope readers will take away from the experiences, reflections and recipes you share in the book?
A: An appetite. For trying new things, for experimenting in their own kitchens and, I hope, for experiencing cultures through food when they travel. Beyond that, I hope to leave my readers with an even greater desire to consume not just food, but food writing. Books about food are so led by sumptuous photography these days, perhaps neglecting all the wonderful, insightful, investigative and witty food writing out there, published in books without pictures. Writing that makes your mouth water and stomach rumble quite simply with delicious prose, like Elizabeth David and Laurie Colwin both did, not to mention Mark Bittman and Jeffrey Steingarten, amongst others.
Q: While researching the book, you unearthed some fascinating facts and stories behind the 40 cuisines you featured. Is there a particular story or fact that stands out most for you?
A: I like the Reblochon cheese story best, I think. In the Rhone-Alpes region of France, farmers were taxed on their milk yields in the middle ages. To get around this, they partially milked their cows and announced this first milk volume to the authorities, sneakily leaving a portion of milk within their herd's udders! They then did a second milking, the yield from which they used to make the Reblochon cheese we know and love today. The vern “reblocher” means “to milk again”.
Q: How are cuisines around the world similar or different when it comes to cooking with the seasons?
A: Cooking with the seasons is an approach, an approach that respects the rhythms of nature around you. It is naturally different, in varying degrees, from place to place because climate, terrain and geography vary so dramatically across the globe. What's seasonal right now in early summer is obviously going to be wildly different between Denmark and Lebanon.
The biggest difference in how people approach seasonality is whether it's by necessity – ie. places that, for the most part, have always had to cook with what's readily available nearby, without expensive imports – and those like the UK, where we are self-consciously (and fashionably) trying to return to our seasonal roots. The march of globalization has taken us away from the practice of eating seasonally, and our return to it is, at the moment, the reserve of the liberal middle class.
Q: Middle Eastern cuisine continues to be wildly popular, with more and more cookbooks on the subject being released. Your book takes us on a tour of Turkey, The Levant, Israel and Iran. What were your favorite recipes from the Middle East?
A: Baba ghanoush remains one of my favorite foods of all time. I love how this Levantine dip showcases the rich earthiness of smoked eggplant with such a delicate balance of flavors – the nutty tahini, the refreshing yoghurt, the acid kick of lemon, the tiny spike of garlic and plenteous good olive oil. Muhammara, a roasted red pepper, walnut and pomegranate molasses dip, has a similarly brilliant balance of flavors, albeit very different ones. And the Persian chicken, orange and yoghurt stew will prove a revelation. Try it.
Q: Closer to home in the U.S., you visited California and Louisiana. What stood out for you about cuisine in those states?
A: With California, it was the emphasis on seasonality – as mentioned above – combined with the palette of culinary influences from all its immigrant communities. It’s so inspiring to see a cuisine in its youth (relatively speaking) negotiate all of these factors in such a novel and conscious way. I'd lived in California too (back when I was a student I did a year abroad at Berkeley) so there was a really sentimental dimension to writing about this cuisine for me. Honestly, I really credit California as a key reason I now work in food; it triggered a lasting interest in what grows locally, and the importance of having an awareness of it, as well as restaurant culture, and unfurling a new place via the edible. It's a very special place for a cook, and anyone who loves to eat.
On the flipside, I'd never been to Louisiana, but had grown up in a home that was somewhat obsessed with the place. My dad is a blues fanatic – BB King, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters – they were all the soundtrack to my childhood, and they inevitably captured my imagination. Food is such a cue for me: I almost can't tell anything about a person or a place or a thing unless I know about the food and drink with which it goes hand-in-hand. Researching and writing about Louisiana was an exercise in this, but the way in which history and cultures have intermingled to edible effect there is a magical thing too.
Q: Which cuisine do you feel is the most underrated or undiscovered?
A: Persian cuisine is under-represented in UK restaurants. This isn't just because we have a modest Iranian population here, but also because when Iranians go out to eat, it's usually for kebab and rice. The spectrum of, quite frankly, much more amazing food available from Persian cuisine is mainly enjoyed behind closed doors. It wasn't until I had the dinner at which I first enjoyed the chicken, yogurt and orange stew that I realized quite what I'd been missing. With its emphasis on sour dairy, meats combined with fruit, saffron and sweet spice, Persian cuisine has influenced so many modern cuisines with which I'm more familiar, from India to the Levant, Turkey, Morocco and Mediterranean Europe.