Author Mina Holland Experiences the World's Cultures Through Food

By Mina Holland | June 28, 2015
Mina Holland author of The World on a Plate
Photo by Mireia Rodriguez

Editor's note: Every day this week, Mina Holland, author of The World on a Plate, is sharing a new recipe inspired by her travels. Read about the journey that led her to choose 100 recipes (and the stories behind them) from 40 cuisines all over the world below.

When I’m in a new place, my stomach guides me. It seeks out the dishes and ingredients, cafes and restaurants, markets and farms that will help me experience the best possible examples of local eating. My senses become attuned to the edible – to the scents that waft from kitchens, to the sounds of pans sizzling and knives slicing, to the feel of freshly-baked bread in my hands, to eating every foodstuff I see with my eyes, and, of course, to a spectrum of novel tastes.

It was this, above all else, that inspired The World on a Plate. I’d always found food to be such a natural and obvious window into other cultures, over and above sight-seeing or the arts, and this was something I wanted to share with my readers. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that you don’t physically have to travel in order to experience a different culture through its food, to taste from a cuisine’s palette. We inevitably travel whenever we eat, sampling from other culinary traditions and experimenting with produce, flavors and techniques that are borrowed, or which originated elsewhere.

As a cultural medium, food has two things in its favor. First, it is universal. The fact that we all have to eat, and that those of us who are lucky and healthy enough do so three times a day, means that we all travel as we eat, regardless of our budget and whereabouts. The second is that food, unlike a movie or a painting or a book, is alive. By that I mean that dishes and recipes – and therefore cuisines – are never fixed, but rather adapted. No two dishes are ever exactly the same. There’s a glorious variance in food, it’s always got some new to offer, so the adventure never ends and the stomach never sated – well, mine isn’t, anyway.

The World on a Plate
Courtesy of Penguin Books

When I came up with the idea for this book, I’d just left my first career. It wasn’t a job I loved, and I found myself counting down to the few delicious hours of each day when I could devour a book on my commute and then, once home, cook myself supper: two outlets for a frustrated creative, which I eventually combined into a blog and supper club idea. Each night, I would cook a different recipe inspired by the novel I was reading. I found myself travelling around a world of flavors – some new, others familiar – moving from Catalan food lifted from Carmen Laforet’s Nada one week, to southern Indian dishes mentioned in The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy the next, or even a hearty British take on French classic boeuf en daube like that featured in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

Once this seedling of an idea was planted, I can remember staring up at my bookshelves and remarking to myself that there was no single go-to book about a range of world cuisines. There were books written by chefs to plug their restaurant, or them as personalities, and there were books dedicated to individual places – like Ottolenghi’s brilliant Jerusalem. But there was no one book that covered food from lots of different cuisines (with a bit of literature thrown in for good measure); there was no book that multi-tasked.

So I set out to write The World on a Plate (or, as it’s known in the UK, The Edible Atlas), to take a whistlestop tour around the world of forty home cuisines. I wanted to write in that old-fashioned style – photograph-free food writing with recipes woven in – that’s reminiscent of Elizabeth David or Laurie Colwin: a book which, hopefully, is as comfortable by your bedside as it is your stovetop, to be both read and cooked from, and, hopefully, to act as something of a culinary travel guide.

Every day this week, will share a recipe from a differet region of the world. The five recipes have been chosen because they are of disparate provenance and because they’re bloody good.

Today's recipe is a simle 3-ingredient pasta sauce from Marcella Hazan, and it's magic comes from simmering, extremely slowly, three sources of different and delicate sweetness: tinned tomatoes, a white onion and (rather a lot of) butter. The Ultimate Three-Ingredient Pasta Sauce.