The world in your kitchen

Categories: Expert guidance

Sybil Kapoor on the pleasures and perils of integrating into your repertoire ideas gleaned from travels to far flung corners of the globe

Illustration of Sybil KapoorThe British are addicted to travel—according to the National Office for Statistics, we took just over 32 million holiday trips abroad last year. In my case, the anticipation and the memories of a holiday are almost as important as the vacation itself. When work is tough or the weather is bad, I cheer up with the thought of my forthcoming trip, just as on my return I find endless pleasure in thinking about what I’ve experienced. 

It may sound strange, but my favourite holiday moment is the first morning after my return. There is the bliss of waking to my home comforts, while still feeling removed from reality. This is when I try to choose which elements of my trip I should integrate into my daily life.

The mere thought of recent al fresco breakfasts in Majorca, for example, makes me want to recreate them at home. It might not be possible during the working week, but it’s easy at the weekend. All I need is a plate of beautiful summer fruit such as peaches, nectarines and melon, with a scattering of raspberries or blackberries. Add good coffee, freshly squeezed fruit juice and a sourdough baguette with unsalted butter and happiness will be mine.

Freshly cut coconut
I cannot snorkel over coral reefs every day or gaze up at the Milky Way in light-polluted London, but I can create more time around eating and drinking. Perhaps that is why so many of us romanticise the food we’ve eaten while travelling; somehow, licking a pistachio gelato in a bustling Italian square or sipping from a freshly cut coconut on a Goan beach feels like the height of decadence, something you can only do when you’ve time on your hands.

The question is, can you replicate the taste, let alone the sensation, when you try to make a dish such as pistachio gelato at home?

In my experience, you can only capture elements of the original experience. A few years ago, on my return from the Ligurian coast in Italy, I romanticised eating linguine alle vongole—linguine tossed with clams, garlic, chilli, olive oil and white wine. I’d eaten it everywhere: from tiny family restaurants hidden in the narrow streets of Santa Margherita, to under the stars in quayside restaurants in Portofino. It captured the flavour of my holiday—tasting of sea, sun-baked cliffs and pine trees—especially when accompanied by fragrant local white wine.  

Elusive fragrance
Once home, I couldn’t replicate the dish’s elusive fragrance. It was only after eating chef Andy Needham’s linguine alle vongole that I discovered that what I needed was lots of Ligurian olive oil, made from sweet taggiasca olives, along with a hint of fresh thyme and orange zest. The resulting aroma evoked my holiday, conjuring up our lazy meals by a sparkling Mediterranean sea.

Some holiday foods, such as the very addictive Japanese mitarashi dango, are hard to make at home. These soft, chewy rice flour dumplings are sold from small stalls by Japanese temples and tourist sites. They’re an irresistible snack—three or five small dumplings threaded on to a bamboo skewer and coated in a gorgeous warm, sticky soy sauce syrup. They have the sweet salty appeal of salted caramel and are somehow an integral part of wandering through tourist sites such as the Yakuo-in, a Buddhist temple, or Takao-san, a mountain close to Tokyo. 

Other dishes require some research, but then become an indulgent treat, such as fragrant Caribbean-inspired cinnamon rolls or aromatic Moroccan tagines. The moment I bite into a sugary, buttery cinnamon roll I’m transported back to breakfast on a verandah in the Grenadines, watching humming birds flit past the frangipani flowers; just as the spicy scent of a chicken, green olive and lemon tagine takes me back to dinner in a candlelit riad in Marrakesh. 

A warm wet evening  
Some recipes become part of my seasonal repertoire. Every summer, for example, when it turns sultry, I serve chilled ramen noodles tossed in sesame, soy and yuzu dressing and finished with avocado and prawns. I first ate this refreshing dish on a warm wet evening in late May in Kyoto. It still reminds me of the pretty, ancient streets, sparkling in the night rain with the last of the cherry blossom falling by the wayside. 

Nor can I resist making salty lime pickles and sweet-sour tamarind raisin and banana relishes to accompany Indian food, after visiting my husband’s family in New Delhi. Their intense flavour immediately conveys a sense of happy family gatherings around a laden table.

Our national romance with foreign dishes has shaped British cooking. In late 17th and 18th century cookbooks, global dishes such as curry or cabbage leaves stuffed like Turkish dolma reflect the fact that many Britons had international links. These could vary from colonial or naval connections, to the rich travelling across Europe on the Grand Tour. Many recipes were assimilated into the national culinary repertoire, such as ketchup, pilaw and macaroni cheese.

Exotic ingredients
However, it was the advent of cheap travel that revolutionised our approach to ‘foreign’ foods. After large numbers of Britons started travelling to France, Spain and Greece, they came back wanting to cook many of the dishes they’d eaten, such as ratatouille, gazpacho and moussaka. In response, supermarkets began to sell what were then considered exotic ingredients such as olive oil, aubergines and courgettes.

Package holidays to Spain and Italy, for example, led to sangria and lasagna becoming popular in Britain in the early eighties. At that time, sangria was regarded as the quintessential suburban summer drink, while lasagna was a classic dinner party dish. Sangria has since fallen from favour, perhaps because we can now buy a superb range of wines from around the world.

Gradually, as the world has opened up, so too has our culinary taste. Young travellers popularised fragrant Thai curries in the nineties, in much the same way as Vietnamese and Korean cooking is becoming fashionable now. It doesn’t matter whether you want to recapture an intensely-flavoured Spanish paella or a fabulous Indonesian rendang beef, it’s worth the time and effort of researching recipes and sourcing the ingredients.

You may even change the national diet.