I've always resented the annoying cable TV chefs that introduce an elaborate
dish or a 3-page recipe by saying: "I just go to the market and let the
ingredients speak to me." Yeah, I've tried that. I listened, but usually
what I hear is the sound of garbage trucks whizzing past on the freeway and
children clamoring for Kettle corn. Not quite the perfect ingredients for
the dinner party I had in mind.
When I'm really lucky at the farmers market, the ingredients speak to me in
a language I don't even understand yet. You know how it is: The fog of sleep
has barely lifted when you're greeted by the sight of some vegetable that
seems newly arrived from Mars. The lumpy item is a weirdly luminous shade of
green, smells vaguely of ginger, and hey, is that fur?
No, it's not an alien: it's a local crop of some vegetable that may already
be wildly popular in some other part of the world, and we're only just now
catching on. Cleaned and prepared a certain way, this vegetable may be a
staple of some diet half a world away, just as rice, potatoes or wheat are
in California. It could be the magic secret ingredient for an entire
cuisine, like tomatoes brought from the New World are for us Italians. But
how do we learn to speak its language?
At first I decided total immersion was the way to go. I boned up on cuisines
as far flung as Ethiopian, Cantonese and, obviously, Italian -- and soon
learned that I had to keep an incredibly expensive stocked pantry of elusive
ingredients to make many recipes work. I would use a teaspoon of tamarind
from a jar the size of a Slurpie and let the rest sit for a while. Then
awhile would turn into a year, and my industrial quantity of tamarind would
go into the trash. That was terribly wasteful and unsatisfying. It was like
learning Esperanto: I expended a lot of effort covering the basics of many
cuisines without ever really becoming fluent in any one.
Then I tried learning cuisines the way I learned English: by repeated trial
and (ahem) occasional error. As long as I was constantly changing recipes in
the search of a better one from a worldwide repertoire, I wasn't really
taking the proper time to work up a recipe I could make my own. But before I
could present it to the oohs and aahs of my dining companions, I needed to
give myself time to experiment and make mistakes.
The good news is that it doesn't take as long as you'd think to get your
basics down. All you need to have guests over are three solid dishes. A
great place to start is from what you like, be it sushi, Thai noodles or
French soups. Buy a book, ask kitchen-savvy friends, and go from there.
To build culinary fluency even faster, build from what you already know.
Even in my immigrant eagerness to embrace my newfound home country, I hadn't
completely forgotten the simple guiding principle of my native Italian
cuisine: In the right proportions, a few basic ingredients can transform
into truly complex flavors. So I started mastering some traditional Roman
recipes -- bucatini all'amatriciana, rustic pagnotta, risotto, pizza
margherita -- and noticed how the flavors worked together in different
combinations. Soon I started having many recipes to offer to my guests I
could feel proud of, because I knew they were far more personal and
distinctive than you'd find in restaurants churning out meals to please the
Like knowing the Latin roots of English words, those basic flavor
combinations gave me a basis to learn from. Once I felt comfortable with the
Roman basics, I started adding ingredients that were completely new to me. I
hit the books to learn about Asian and Latin American ingredients, and
started buying and incorporating them one at a time in the dishes. One of my
recent favorites is a Pacific Rim dish: bok choy and champagne risotto with
lime-poached scallops. Last week I made calzones with sauteed organic mizuna
(Japanese mustard greens) and California-made mozzarella cheese. Not a
common dish in Trastevere, but let me tell you: They're missing out.
So these days when I encounter some utterly unknown ingredient at the
farmer's market, I instinctively begin to salivate -- my tastebuds know
they're in for a journey. Mind you, there will still be some missed
connections and lost luggage along the way, but there's no better way to
initiate a meaningful appreciation of our human differences than through
something as primal as food. The letter of cuisine no longer interests me:
it's the spirit that matters.