Thursday, 2 April 2015

The Edible Atlas by Mina Holland: Opinion

The Edible Atlas: Around the World in Thirty-Nine Cuisines
Mina Holland is an acting editor of Guardian Cook and the author of this incredible book which can only be described as deliciously appetising.  I am hopeless in the kitchen and I have never read a book on cooking, but as its name suggests a good amount of travelling is involved in this novel.So bear in mind that this is the review of  a lay person, more interested in travelling and eating than in cooking.

" When we eat, we travel " is the first sentence of the introduction and that is something that cannot be denied. We may travel as far as a  distant country or we may just travel to another region of our own one, but it is thanks to food that we get to know a great deal about the culture of a country and its people.

The cuisines of 39 regions are described in this atlas with great accuracy in my opinion. At the end of each chapter two recipes appear which will enable any amateur cook to recreate foreign delicacies at home.

In the chapter about France , the Loire seems to the author" ....a landscape of storybooks and fairy tales , with knight on colourfully decorated steeds, damsels with plaited hair and courtship in the mazes of the immaculate chateaux gardens..."

Gardens from the Château de Chenonceau

In the chapter about Catalonia , the author mentions a very simple and typical dish:..." pa amb tomaquet (literally bread with tomato) lightly toasted crusty bread onto which  a little garlic is rubbed,oil drizzled and a whole tomato squeezed and emptied from its skin into a kind of light red mush.."

Clumsy attempt to make Pa amb Tomaquet, I should have squeezed the tomato harder.

Continuing with Spain , we learn the difference between two famous types of ham:"jamón serrano (younger,lighter,pinker ham which is cured at high altitudes) and jamón ibérico ( made from the meat of acorn-fed black hoofed pigs , which makes it darker and richer)." She also talks about buñuelos de bacalao (salt cod deep-fried in a crisp batter) which Mina had in Málaga.

The chapter about Italy was one of my favourite ones, since I love Italian food. According to the writer the best way to make tomato sauce is : " to empty a tin of tomatoes into a saucepan with two halves of an onion face down and a generous chunk of butter, all of which must be covered and left to simmer on the smallest flicker of flames for 45 minutes". 

One of the many things that I didn't know is that the cheese Grana Padano comes from the town of Piacenza and it is used as a cheaper alternative to Parmesan cheese; but I happen to prefer the first one because of its original flavour.Blood oranges, however , are said to have originated in Sicily because of the changes in temperature caused by  Mount Etna.

Gnocchi with cheese in a restaurant in Piacenza

The description of Vietnamese cuisine could not have been complete without including my favourite soup : pho" a light brothy and highly restorative noodle soup", there is even a recipe for beef pho which will certainly appeal to food lovers.

Beef Pho eaten at the Vietnamese restaurant in Suria KLCC

Argentinians eat beef in a very different way, since asados (grilled meat) are a traditional dish in that country. "Big asados are things of horrific beauty, mosaics of flesh , from hunks of tenderloin or slow-cooked ribeye stead to twists of sausage (morcilla blood sausage or chorizo, often alongside a wedge of melted cheese known as provoleta),mollejas (sweetbreads) and a whole host of offal." Vegetarians should abstain from even looking at it , but carnivores will enjoy themselves thoroughly.

 Most of the desserts in Argentina include Dulce de Leche, made with condensed milk,which readers can make following the recipe that appears in the chapter and those who lack the ability can buy in a shop that sells foreign products . It is difficult to find and pricey but worth the trouble. A   teaspoonful  after a long day is heaven in your mouth.

The chapters about China are preceded by this  Cantonese proverb: Anything that walks, swims, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is edible.Although this saying could apply to many cultures , if you have been to China , you know that it is especially true there.After reading it I craved for dim sum from Hong Kong and those delightful glutinous rice balls (tang yuan) from Chengdu.

Dim Sum breakfast in Hong Kong

Glutinous Rice Balls in a street stall in Ghengdu

Street food : everyghing is edible (for some people).

Japanese people are considered to be the ones who discovered umami,the fifth of the five basic tastes and their cuisine balances incredibly well colours and flavours. Miso soup and Ramen appear as well in this section.
Another one of my favourite dishes , sushi, appears in the chapter about Japan. " sushi is an absolute departure from western cooking, a novelty. ". I am a very bad itamae (sushi chef) but I have tried making it and the result, although not outstanding , was at least edible.

My first sushi

The first time I ate raw fish was not while enjoying sashimi though, but when I had ceviche, which is basically uncooked fish  marinated with chillies, raw onions and citrus. This dish is originally from Peru and if I ever visit that country that is all I am eating because I loved it.You will find a recipe of this signature dish in the chapter about Peru.
The section about Mexico includes a tasty recipe of guacamole and a very clear explanation of the different and popular tacos,tortillas,burritos, enchiladas,fajitas and quesadillas which abound in other countries . One of my best Mexican meals ever was in a restaurant called Kafe in Ubud (Bali) , amazing!

Totopos with guacamole

Homemade taco

Quesadillas with pico de gallo and sour cream

A recipe for hummus is included in the chapter about Israel. Even people who don't like chickpeas should try this, because  the flavour is really surprising. Yogurt from Turkey is also mentioned and the popular chicken tikka from India. She talks about how basic rice is in Thai culture, which incidentally is very well known to the author , who visited the country several times as a child.Korean kimchi is defined in the pages about the country as one of their national dishes.

There are also chapters on Portugal, Eastern Europe, Germany, Scandinavia,The Levant,India, Ethiopia, West Africa, Morocco,California,Louisiana, Jamaica and Brazil but it would have been endless to write about everything I learnt from each one.

I recommend this book both to travellers and tourists, to amateur cooks and to chefs in the making, to people who don't like cooking but enjoy tasting different flavours, most of all I recommend it to curious people. This book will make you hungry for the things you have already tasted and it will make you crave some foods  you have never tried.

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