The Vintage Cookie

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cookbook Review: Ethnic Cuisine by Elizabeth Rozin

This cookbook changed the way I understand cooking. The recipes are good, but the book is much more than simply a collection of good recipes. Ethnic Cuisine develops an intellectual framework for thinking about cuisine. I will be using this intellectual framework for my exploration of historical recipes here on The Vintage Cookie.

In Ethnic Cuisine Rozin identifies three features which determine a "cuisine," 1) basic foods, 2) cooking techniques and 3) the "flavor principle." Of these, the flavor principle is the most important for learning to cook a cuisine.  According to the flavor principle, different cuisines can be identified by "the pervasive use of certain combinations of seasoning ingredients" (p. xiv, emphasis in original). The book is organized to showcase 36 distinct flavor principles, from Soy sauce - rice wine - gingerroot (China) through Sour orange - garlic -achiote (Yucatan).

The recipes are excellent. Among the recipes which have entered my general repertoire are Egyptian Vegetable Soup (p. 83), Chicken in Garlic Vinegar Sauce (p. 157, Northern Italy), and the Chopped Liver (p. 124, Jewish). In general, Rozin's recipes in this book, as in her other books, are absolutely reliable. She is one of the few authors whose recipes I am willing to make for the first time for guests.

But the book is much more than the sum of the recipes. I have read "Ethnic Cuisine" through, cover to cover, several times. Rozin is an excellent writer, and her lively and informative introductions to each "Principle" are as valuable as the recipes. With the flavor principle, I plan better menus - and not just one-cuisine menus. The principles are almost like colors, it is possible with just a little testing to learn which ones go together. I also find I am much better at creating my own recipes. I still remember one of the first recipes I ever created on purpose (that is, not just by messing with ingredients I had on hand). I had made the Greek Chicken (p. 92), flavored with tomatoes, cinnamon and lemon. The flavor profile seemed to beg for a new interpretation - as a dairy-free, meat-free onion and eggplant pizza.

For this current project, the concept of the "flavor principle" will largely guide my study of historical cuisine. I will not ignore the other two elements - basic ingredients and technique, but to the extent that these differ from current practice, adopting them is often prohibitive. I do not have a cooking fireplace in my kitchen, nor do I have a brick oven for baking. Ingredients which are hard to get, like mutton and unpasteurized milk, are also unlikely to become a regular part of my cooking. But I can adopt some of the "flavor principles" which can be gleaned from period cookbooks. I will in general try to replicate recipes as closely as possible on the first pass, and learn from that attempt. Then I will explore what modifications, if any, might be made to introduce the dish into a modern repertoire, with understanding of, and preservation of, the dish's flavor principle as the guiding framework. I hope that together we can come to better understand the palate of our ancestors, to taste the world more as they tasted it, even if we cannot quite see with their eyes what they saw.

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