Eating Between the Lines

Summer Reading, Culinarily Speaking

Eating Between the Lines

Ethnic Cuisine: How to Create the Authentic Flavors of 30 International Cuisines

by Elisabeth Rozin

Penguin, 288 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Ethnic Cuisine is a paperback reprint of an earlier edition published in 1983, and it is a valuable asset to anyone with an interest in international ethnic cuisine. Not only does it take an unusual but highly effective approach in classifying the elements that give an international cuisine its essence, but the author has included 259 of the most common and popular ethnic recipes from 30 international food regions around the world.

Elisabeth Rozin's name will probably be familiar to anyone who has ever researched food history or international cuisines. She is a food historian and consultant who has published six cookbooks and written numerous food magazine articles. And she is perhaps best known for her "flavor principle" approach to ethnic cuisines.

In a nutshell, her flavor principle approach examines the most crucial element in ethnic cuisine -- the flavorings, spices, and herbs used to make that cuisine distinctive. As Rozin puts it, "Every culture has its own set of rules or traditions about how to cook, and these individual systems of food preparation we call cuisines. Look at any cuisine and you'll find certain definitive combinations of flavorings that produce distinctive tastes which are unique and characteristic."

Rozin studies ethnic cuisines as an intellectual as well as a gastronomic adventure by first looking at the critical components in the structure of any culinary system. She researches the basic foods produced within that region, and the cooking techniques used to prepare those foods. She analyzes the processes that alter the physical size, shape, and mass of the food produced. For example, in the Orient, one is much more likely to see smaller pieces of food than we are accustomed to, so that the food will cook quickly in tropical climates or areas where cooking fuel is at a premium.

She examines the different ways that regions alter the water content of foods to preserve or prepare them and she scrutinizes the varieties of heating: wet or dry, direct vs. indirect, or whether fat or oil cooking is utilized. Take all of the above variables in method and technique, factor in the differences in religion, history, geography, and sociology, and you have the basis for each and every global cuisine.

Rozin breaks down Mexican cuisine, which most Texans are fairly familiar with, to three main flavor principles: lime + chile, tomato + chile, and for the Yucatan, sour orange + garlic + achiote. We cooked representative recipes for each principle to test her mettle with recipe construction and flavoring. For lime + chile we tried her sopa de lima (chicken and lime soup) and found the taste to be exquisitely genuine. For tomato + chile we prepared Rozin's pork loin in red adobo (a sauce of ancho chiles with sesame and pumpkin seeds and tomato). The recipe was easily followed and constructed, and the flavor superb. For the Yucatecan principle, we made her pollo motuleño (chicken with sour orange, achiote, and fried plantains), and it was a breath of the Mayan beach and jungle -- authentic in every way.

Rozin's Ethnic Cuisine is a giant in the category of international cooking, both as an intellectual and academic study of the roots of global cooking, and as a solid source of tightly written recipes of world favorites. Read this book, and the foods of the different cultures of the world pull into sharp focus, but don't forget to use it in the kitchen.

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