Japanese-style turnip and persimmon pickle

Japanese-style turnip and persimmon pickle

Growing up in Mumbai I always thought Indians were unique in their obsession with pickles. Every meal features at least one type, and not infrequently 3 or 4 different kinds. Certainly, the regional varieties are astounding, so much so that there is an entire hit TV show dedicated to them. But it turns out that plenty of other cuisines take their pickles just as seriously. And no wonder. Pickling has long been one of the ways in which food is preserved. This is especially true in Japan where fermented and pickled foods take center stage. The latter are collectively known as tsukemono (漬け物), literally “pickled things”. Tsukemono can involve everything from daikon to ginger, and carrots to squid. As for the pickling itself, rice vinegar and sugar play key roles, but rice bran (for a type of tsukemono known as nukazuke), miso (misozuke) and sake lees (kasuzuke) are also commonly used.

Sea bass, spinach and eggplant ravioli

Sea bass, spinach and eggplant ravioli

If I had it my way I’d probably spend all day in my kitchen and never go to work. Sadly, though, my employer would no doubt frown upon my giving lectures via Skype from the comfort of my home! There is, however, a silver lining: the proverbial water-cooler conversations with my colleague Martino. But instead of trading football scores we discuss food as Martino is just as infatuated with cooking as I am. Not surprising since he’s Italian and has a mom who cooks professionally back in Italy. That makes him exceptionally knowledgeable about Italian cuisine and I’ve learnt loads from him. And so it was the last time we bumped into each other, when he mentioned a fish ravioli he’d made the previous night. Fish in ravioli? I was intrigued and knew then and there what I was going to make that weekend!

Momofuku Ando’s legacy …

Cup poha and upma

If there was any doubt of Momofuk Ando’s place in culinary history, these instant Indian breakfast-in-a-cup that I spotted on a trip to Mumbai settles it. The inventor of cup noodles would never have imagined this latest development in the cup-ification of food, but he would have surely approved of packaging misal (moth beans topped with crunchy farsan), poha (flattened and dried rice with onions, peas and potatoes) and upma (semolina with onions and vegetables), some of the most popular and traditional breakfasts in India, in cups to which you just add hot water. I’ve not tried these instant versions but having grown up on these dishes, which are common in western and southern India, I find the idea absolutely brilliant. (Apologies to readers for whom this is old news!)

Walnut, brown rice and buckwheat crackers

Walnut, brown rice and buckwheat crackers

In Europe, the UK is usually the first to adopt (or bear the brunt of depending on your point of view) emerging American trends. And so it has been with gluten-free food. I was therefore hardly surprised that my local Tesco supermarket recently opened a new section devoted to “free from” products. Much more surprising was a report in the New York Times about how even Paris–a city whose very metaphorical foundations are made of this protein!–had succumbed as well. But I almost fell off my chair when I read in the same newspaper that one could now find gluten-free tempura in Tokyo. Now, admittedly, this being at the Mandarin Oriental, it is probably more for the benefit of gaijin tourists rather than the locals, as I’ve yet to meet a Japanese person suffering from celiac disease, real or otherwise. But trends, allergies and nutrition aside, there’s an excellent reason to incorporate non-wheat flours into your diet: they’re tremendously flavorful.

Muhammara: Roasted red pepper and walnut dip

Muhammara: roasted red pepper and walnut dip

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food are the mezzes, small dishes that range from dips to crudites and salads to meatballs. The word mezze (or meze) comes from Persian via Turkish and alternatively means ‘taste’, ‘flavor’ or ‘snack’. But it is the derived Hindi word ‘maza‘, meaning ‘fun’ or ‘enjoyment’, that I think truly describes the appeal of mezzes – something the restaurant world has picked up on with its current ‘small plate format’ mania. The recipe today, adapted from a cute little book by Ghillie Basan titled Mezze, is for a classic red pepper dip called muhammara popular in Turkey and the Middle East. If you’re not familiar with muhammara, think of it as the Middle Eastern version of that famous Spanish red pepper dip, salsa romesco, but with almonds (or hazelnuts) and sherry vinegar replaced by walnuts and pomegranate molasses, respectively. And just as much maza!