Several food experts interviewed point out the best chefs in the world visit their local markets in the morning. The vegetables, meats and fruits available that day determine the evening's menu. They feel it provides patrons the freshest, finest ingredients available.
However, in America and in Britain, to name two examples, chefs often will first set the menu and then find items in frozen or jarred forms to supplement what is fresh, says Chef Gino d'Acampo, development manager/chef for Donatantonio, Borehamwood, U.K., an upscale frozen food manufacturer. Although currently living in London, D'Acampo is Italian. "Italian supermarkets sell ingredients when they are in season to make sure the consumers get the best flavor possible. In England, consumers demand ingredients all year around, without worrying about the different seasons for different ingredients."
Typical Southern Italian ingredients include cured meats, such as pancetta, which often are paired with sweet vegetables such as peas. "In the catering school that I often visit, everybody is working with these types of ingredients. One reason is that their color and taste work very well together." In Northern Italy, popular dishes include meat casserole, roast game and cheese appetizers. In Rome, there are a lot of vegetable-and meat-based dishes, such as Gnocchi Alla Romana or Asparagus in Parma Ham. In the South, menus rely heavily on seafood, fish, tomatoes and mozzarella. A dessert found in nearly all trendy Italian restaurants is Rum Baba with Limoncello Liqueur (a cake made of leavened dough, mixed with raisins and steeped in rum and limoncello after cooking). D'Acampo reports there is heightened interest in Italian and Thai cuisine in England. He also notes that presentations of food in both Italy and England vary, depending on the region of the country.
In Sweden, nostalgia for foods of the past has resulted in a trend that parallels one taking place in America: "retro" foods, observes Chef Fredrik Goldhahn, executive chef of the restaurant RIVA, Linköping, Sweden, are growing. For example, a classic herring sandwich—with potato, boiled chopped eggs and sour cream with chives "may end up as a terrine. The techniques we adapted throughout the years, along with our own 'home cooking' tradition create new dishes." The country also is appreciative of other cultures and South African cuisine is very "hot" at the moment; Asian, French and Italian foods are popular. Also, he says, functional, healthy foods are gaining much interest.
Vegetables are finding unusual uses in desserts, such as tomatoes and dill. Granité is being served as a starter. "There is an openness and the urge to experience new and fresh things," he says. Traditional desserts, such as crème brûlée, parfait, panna cotta, cakes and ice cream are still popular, but may be served with a new twist.
French TwistThe French, as usual, can be counted on to keep things attractive and traditional. Wendy Whitehurst, known as The Gourmet Concierge, creates high-end, exclusive gourmet trips to France for upscale clients. Whitehurst lives in Paris and observes that French cuisine is about bringing out the true flavor of food. For example, she says, pork chops, green beans and mashed potatoes all are served on one plate in the U.S. In France, each would be served on separate plates and garnished beautifully—each is worthy of being tasted alone.
She has seen much use of beans and grains, especially lentils, where they are layered with yellow corn or a white bean for a beautiful presentation. Roasted meats are in demand because the fat drains at the bottom, and roasting and grilling also are popular cooking techniques. The use of Provencal-style herbs, such as garlic, tomatoes, olives and olive oils, complemented by thyme, rosemary, fennel and tarragon, is in fashion. Fruits also are being used imaginatively. For example, sautéed foie gras is being presented with raspberries.
The use of spices, generally, also has increased. And, Tahitian vanilla beans—featured in creative dishes such as a Brittany lobster with vanilla—are being used more extensively. "French people expect their food to be fresh. No matter what meal is served, it is going to be balanced, composed, garnished and fresh," states Whitehurst.
The influence of French cooking is worldwide, but is particularly integral to Canadian cuisine. Fish is a large part of the diet, and red meat is once again gaining popularity. However, other meats also are used creatively. "We love to combine flavors. A good example would be Apricot-glazed Pork Medallions, or Raspberry Chicken with Orange Sauce . . .along with items such as Sweet and Spicy Chicken, which is a chicken breast coated in taco-type seasoning, cooked and then topped with a sweet salsa," says Chef Terry Henderson, owner of a personal chef cooking business, Chef By Night, Toronto, Canada, and a founder of the Canadian Personal Chef Alliance. He observes Canadian chefs are using European influences, combining flavors such as meat and fruit, to complement each other's distinct tastes and textures.
Mexican MovesOur neighbors in the South have a myriad of regional cooking styles and flavors to offer the world, but our contact, Chef Susana Trilling, cookbook author and cooking teacher at the Rancho Aurora in Oaxaca, Mexico, explains that Oaxacan fare is very traditional and still very popular when families eat out. Oaxacan family-style buffets continue to flourish, where Oaxacan fare is not offered on steam tables, but grilled fresh on the premises or taken right off the grill or komal (a flat disk used to make tortillas). Also, frying continues to be a popular cooking technique.
In salads, heavier, creamier dressings are showing up, and the traditional lettuce, orejona (similar to romaine lettuce), is being joined by iceberg lettuce. Olive oil also is being used more than the traditional lime juice in salads and, surprisingly, basil is being added. (In Mexico, basil traditionally has been used to decorate church altars.) Trilling reports there are several thriving pizzerias and sushi bars, but that traditional foods are very important. "People are always going to eat mole, tamales and salsa."
Another Mexican food authority, Marilyn Tausend, who has led culinary trips to Mexico for 17 years and is the author of three Mexican cookbooks (most recently, Savoring Mexico), agrees. "In the last 30 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in Mexican food, both in the regional dishes and contemporary Mexican food. The middle class Mexican family is now much more apt to use convenience foods, as many can no longer afford a cook and, often, the wife is also working outside the home." Convenience foods that are being utilized regularly include frozen vegetables, canned soups, chicken soup granules, pre-made pies, pre-cooked barbecue ribs, calamari and other foods.
She also notes that the upper class, which traditionally preferred French cuisine, is now moving toward "stylized Mexican nouvelle cuisine." An example is using the acidic beverage jamaica (hibiscus sepals) as the base for a salad dressing. As in the U.S., balsamic and raspberry vinegars are being enjoyed "by those who can afford it."
Cairo ConnectionEating out also is a luxury in the Middle East, where traditional fare still accounts for a large portion of the diet. Items such as flatbreads accompany meals and are used to scoop appetizers such as hummus, tahini and other foods taken from common bowls set in the middle of the table. Beans in many presentations, such as cooked, mashed and served with various seasonings, eggs or other products, also are popular, observes Rick Stier, Consulting Food Scientists, Sonoma, Calif., a food scientist who recently returned to the U.S. after living in Egypt for a few years.
A favorite meat dish is kofta, ground-up lamb seasoned with salt and skewered. Grilled pigeon is a popular dish in Cairo, as it is believed to possess aphrodisiac qualities. Dishes called Hamam Mahshi bi Burghul (stuffed pigeons with bulgur, raisins, and pine nuts) and Mahshy (Stuffed Eggplant with Rice) also are eaten frequently. Favorite vegetables include okra and molokhia, a leafy vegetable that is similar to spinach and used in soups.
Typically, Egyptian families eat at home, unless there is a special occasion, Dahlia Al-Ghorab, a translator residing in Cairo, Egypt, informs us. The Egyptian attitude toward food helps to explain why: "Generally speaking, well-educated people believe that we eat so that we can be able to work, think and live our lives in a healthy way. Most people here think that 'living to eat' is a bad way of thinking, for this will, for sure, lead to clumsiness." In this part of the world, those who have money spend much of it on food to show how rich they are. She gives examples of some typical Egyptian desserts: Baklawa (sometimes honey is used in the syrup, but typical Egyptian recipes do not), Omm 'Ali (Egyptian bread and butter pudding), and Roz bi laban (rice pudding).
No matter where people live, they love food that provides pleasure to the senses. The search for a tasty meal is a common thread among us, and by learning to appreciate foods that are different than ours, we learn we have more in common with other cultures than we might think.
Sidebar: No More Five-Course Meals?Americans are well-known for their excesses. Lately, their concern over winning the battle of the bulge and developing healthier lifestyles has resulted in the growth of "healthy" and vegetarian foods. Is this also true in other parts of the world? We asked our experts.
In Sweden, Chef Fredrik Goldhahn says vegetarianism is alive and well, popular among younger people. The bigger Swedish cities have restaurants completely devoted to vegetarians. He wonders if anyone takes the time anymore to experience three- or five-course meals; after all, diners can burn off their extra calories in the gym!
The French paradox is that they eat very well, drink wine and still manage to stay trim and healthy. Wendy Whitehurst reports the French do not snack, walk a lot and are constantly eating fresh foods—all those factors go a long way. Smaller portions also help.
Showing a concern about health has evolved over the past 10 years or so, says Canadian Chef Henderson. "We look for the 'heart healthy' labels next to our foods, and now some of the fast food chains are offering healthier alternatives." He comments that the food labels in Canada are not as informative as they are in the U.S. and the U.K. "In countries like England, even candy has a nutritional breakdown, whereas in Canada" only specialized foods feature the labels.
In Mexico, Chef Trilling says, "I don't really know anyone who cares about the calories. I've never seen anybody worry about weight." While there are many venues for vegetarians, they are located mostly in Mexico City and attract younger, more modern people.
Weight is not an issue in Egypt, where those who are wealthy spend a significant amount of money on food and want others to know it. (See the October 2002 Issue of Prepared Foods.)
Sidebar: Fine ChinaChef Kurt Aebi, a Swiss-trained, CRC-certified executive chef whose work takes him to 14 different countries, reports that the West is influencing the everyday cuisine of China. “As a chef at McCormick, I traveled frequently to China: it was glaringly apparent that the biggest trend is Western food. “However, as popular as the QSR restaurants are, Chef Aebi observes, "traditional methods of preparing Chinese food remain the same, i.e., stir frying, boiling, steaming and frying. The techniques of these chefs are fantastic. They know exactly how hot to get the wok, cook the food and the exact second they should add the liquid.
It is not unusual to see live ducks, chickens, turtles, snakes or other animals in cages at the entrance of a traditional Chinese restaurant. Patrons choose what they would like to eat, and it is cooked to order. "If you are the guest of honor at a restaurant dinner, you will be served the head of whatever animal you've chosen. It's a little unsettling for the typical Western tourist."
Sidebar: A Mexican HolidayMexican food authority Susana Trilling believes that country's cuisine will remain traditional and untouched by foreign influences, as the native cuisine is so much a part of the culture. "People will eat out once in a while to try new foods, but eating out still is a luxury," she explains.
Certain foods in Mexico are tied to particular holidays. For example, on Christmas Eve, people eat fish, and everyone eats mole negro (black mole) on November 2, the "Day of the Dead." On January 6—the date which officially ends the Christmas season in Latin America—everyone eats rosca de reyes, rings of bread. One of the breads has a plastic baby Jesus baked inside, and the person who gets the baby must then make tamales for the festivities on February 2, Candelaria.
On the fifth Friday during Lent, Mexicans traditionally make their own water. The custom of making fresh water from jamaica, watermelon, chile coyote (a type of squash water), and other fruits and vegetables is long-standing. After being prepared, the waters are presented in little decorated wells and are offered to visitors by all the locals. During the course of the day, one will drink water made by the bread maker, the teachers at school, the baker, and any other people one encounters while doing errands.
A special “thank you” to Robyn Webb, who went out of her way to give us several leads for this story. Information on her personalized cooking tours is available at www.robynwebb.com.